Monday, December 15, 2014

From the Bench

The Year that Was Not for Predicting College Football Games

Robert Shields

The Arkansas Razorbacks 6-6 finish was probably not a huge surprise as many had them picked to finish with that record including this scribe. The surprise for me came in how they got to 6-6.

I did not see this team reaching the six-win bowl eligibility plateau through the route of beating LSU and Ole Miss. The victory over LSU was one of the finer Razorback wins of this decade to snap that 17-game SEC losing streak. The fans stormed the field for only the third time in history at Fayetteville.

I expected the 6-6 record to have some very ugly losses in the mix. Although one could argue the Auburn and Georgia games might fit that category, I do not. In both games, the Razorbacks were up for the challenge and fought hard. After spotting Georgia 38 points, the Hogs rallied, and that simply would not have occurred in the previous two seasons. There was not a 52-0 beat down this year.

At the beginning of the season, I made light about Bo Mattingly on his radio show mentioning Martrell Spaight doing yoga as though it was going to help his play. Spaight finished the season as the SEC’s leading tackler. He was a monster on the field, so if it was due to yoga, others on the team need to consider it.

Also at the beginning of the season, I posed the question as many did as to which area of the team would see the most improvement -- quarterback play or the defense. I guessed it would be the defense since it was wretched the last two seasons. But I have to admit that I never anticipated the defense improving as much as it did. The defense was the reason the team won six games.

I guaranteed a victory over LSU in my column the week before the game, but it was one of the few games that I had a feeling for this season.

If imitation is a the highest form of flattery, this is where my column takes a page out of the script of Razorback legendary writer Harry King, who writes a column once a year before the season starts about the college pick ‘em pool that we play in.

The name of it is called Poolsville and roughly 150 participate in the game each year with people ranging from sports writers, previous Heisman voters, a seminarian, successful lawyers, my wife, and even someone undeserving as me.

The winner is awarded the prestigious Ramon Escobar Trophy and many would tell you they would easily trade the large monetary reward that comes with winning if they could just get the trophy. The award is named after a bruising running back who played for Holy Souls in the brutal Central Arkansas Parochial League.

Poolsville quirkily has crowned its own college football national championship named “Slabby” for more than a decade. It’s a 75-pound stone tablet that is offered to the winning school, which can keep Slabby for one year if it completes what is referred to as the Frank Broyles Feat of Strength.

The athletic director of the winning school has to carry Slabby 10 feet to its resting spot. Though no AD to this date as accepted the challenge, I have no doubt Frank Broyles even to this day would easily complete the task.

Three times I was on the wrong side of the national championship game that kept me from winning it all. In the 2005 season, I had USC over Texas. I think my screaming “NO!” still reverberates around the universe when Vince Young danced into the end zone to beat the Trojans.

In the 2012, I had Notre Dame. I was spared the close game as Alabama destroyed the Irish. Last season, I picked Auburn like everyone in the pool. But had I picked Florida State, I would have carried home my own trophy. It’s the reason many refer to the game as “Cruelsville.”

This year I had one of my best starts ever in the game, but unfortunately the game is not a sprint – it’s definitely a marathon. Slowly, the season slipped away from me as close game after close game I was on the wrong side of the outcome.

I watched Georgia lose to South Carolina by a chain link. Many learned from that game that the football does not have to touch the stick, but just clear the last link. The Bulldogs did not. I watched Clemson fumble its game away against Florida State and send the game into overtime (bonus points, ouch!).

I witnessed a ref call a pick foul on Notre Dame against Florida State and have never seen that foul called again the rest of the season. I witnessed a replay official wipe out a game-winning touchdown by Laquon Treadwell of Ole Miss against Auburn and decide it was a fumble.

A couple of weeks later, I watched a replay official reverse an Alabama fumble at the goal line against Mississippi State and make it a touchdown that ended up being the difference in the game. And I don’t even need to mention the replay official reversals in the Razorback game against Missouri.

In every case and many other close games, I was on the wrong side. I finished the regular season with a dismal record.

Alas, year after year, I am reminded of my failure in Poolsville as a Ramon Escobar Trophy wearing a pink tulle skirt is prominently displayed on my mantle. And that trophy does not belong to me. It belongs to my wife, a past champion of Poolsville, who will never let me forget it.

Help me in the pool by sending your bowl pick suggestions to

Monday, December 08, 2014

From the Bench

Texas Bowl is Must Win for Bielema and Fans

Robert Shields

The Razorbacks officially found out that they were going to a bowl on Sunday for the first time since Petrino ran the motorbike off the road. The 6-6 record was enough to earn them a trip to the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 29 against the Texas Longhorns. It’s a fitting game.

This provides Bret Bielema and the team another chance to redeem themselves after the bitter loss to the Missouri Tigers, who were sent back down to earth against Alabama in the SEC Championship game.

For two years, Missouri has backed into the SEC Championship game playing in the weakened SEC East. In reality, Missouri is probably the sixth best team in the SEC and some might consider that generous.

They had the luck of the draw this year getting the two worst SEC West teams on their schedule. I back up my claim that Missouri is soft by the fact that over the last two years they have only beaten one SEC team that had a winning conference record.

Many Razorback fans were disappointed in the loss at Columbia and how it all went down. For a week, the radio call-in shows rehashed the fact that Brandon Allen was hurt. In hindsight, it was easy to see after losing that Austin Allen should have been given a chance because what was there to lose?

That final loss of the regular season left a bad after taste, but the team has a chance to erase it in the bowl game. Ending on a winning note would wipe out the memory of that final loss, but a bowl loss will in some way negate some of the gains the team made this year.

With a win, the Razorbacks are 7-6 and on the winning side of .500. If they lose, the opposite happens with the fact that they would be 6-7 and will finish a third season with a losing record.

Bielema needs the bowl win as bowl wins make Razorback fans happy as the Razorbacks have not always been stellar in bowl games. Also, the win helps Bielema as his own bowl record is not robust at 2-4.

Lastly, one has to hope that Bielema understands the importance of this bowl game. The rivalry against the Longhorns is legendary and it still resonates with a large portion of the fan base today. The teams played in the game of the century in 1969 that was dubbed the Big Shootout.

In some ways it seems all the more appropriate to play this game with the passing of James Street a little more than a year ago. The 15-14 loss in 1969 is still burned into the memory of the fan base, and a win against Texas will erase a lot of the losses this year.

When you beat your rival, it makes the season, especially in a bowl game. Like it or not, Texas is Arkansas’ main rival even if that is not reciprocated.

It goes without saying, but a loss to the Longhorns would be unacceptable.


Long’s Playoff Committee Gets it Wrong

And now my thoughts on the college football playoff. The Jeff Long led selection committee looked silly in the end mostly because of the weekly rankings, which were meaningless. They had to backtrack after moving TCU up to No. 3 the previous week, but on selection day they dropped them all the way to sixth, down three spots even after TCU easily won its game.

It’s schizophrenic to say the least. They would have been better off not releasing polls for most of the year and only released the six teams at the end. That way nobody would have known where Baylor, TCU, and Ohio State were placed throughout the year in the selection committee’s mind.

But without that charade, ESPN would not have gotten to hold the idiotic and meaningless rankings show each week as though it was something important when it was the exact opposite.

Instead, it looks like they rewarded Ohio State for one game blowing out an unprepared Wisconsin team that was also beaten by the fifth-best team in the SEC West in LSU when the Tigers did not have a quarterback.

The Big Ten looked terrible all year. The conference lost all its key matchups. Michigan got drilled by a bad Notre Dame team. TCU beat Minnesota. LSU beat Wisconsin. Oregon killed Michigan State. And most importantly, Ohio State lost to a terrible Virginia Tech team.

In the end, TCU got rewarded with a game against Ole Miss in their bowl game, which is a game TCU may very well lose as Ole Miss is very good and was the lone team to beat the two best teams in the SEC in Alabama and Mississippi State.

Also, what does it mean if TCU beat Ole Miss (the one team that Alabama did not beat) in its bowl game, and Alabama wins the playoff? It’s easy to assume Alabama would crush TCU, but TCU uses close to the same crazy offense that Oklahoma used last year to crush Alabama.

The AP had Baylor No. 4, not Ohio State, at the end of the season. But ESPN got the matchups that it would want to televise. An Ohio State and Alabama matchup brings more viewers than a game with TCU or Baylor. In the end, isn’t it always about the money and thus the big name money teams? If it was the Texas Longhorns instead of TCU, do you think they fall to sixth?

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Monday, December 01, 2014

From the Bench

Conservative Play Calling Led to Demise More Than Sticking With Quarterback

Robert Shields

After back-to-back weeks of excellent play at home, the Arkansas Razorbacks took the show on the road to Columbia, Missouri, and endured a bitter loss to finish 6-6 for the season – right where many fans had them back in August.

The team’s struggles followed the same path as did their injured quarterback, Brandon Allen. As he got tighter and tighter trying to fight through the pain, the team played the same.

The path of losing to Missouri started in the second quarter just as the Razorbacks were on the verge of putting a beat down on them with a 14-3 lead. The Razorbacks started a drive that ended in a Jonathan Williams fumble. But the defense came right out and answered forcing Missouri into an interception by a Razorback defender, D.J. Dean.

The Razorbacks started the drive with penalties, but continued to the Missouri 42. With a fourth and 5, the Razorbacks took an intentional delay of game and punted the ball to the Missouri 7. Missouri was bailed out on a review that turned a fumble into an incomplete pass. With Missouri keeping the possession, they began a long drive that ended in a field goal leaving them down just one score at the half.

This was a sign of things to come as Missouri proved it could have long drives on the Razorback defense. On the day, Missouri finished with 80 offensive plays, which were 14 more than the Razorbacks.

In the end, the trajectory of the game was the same as the games against Texas A&M, Alabama, and Mississippi State. Fans were hoping for something different but got the continued growth of the team as a consolation.

The day after the game, Gary Pinkel was on ESPN and was asked about making the SEC Championship Game two years in a row. He said it’s a tough league that has a lot of fourth-quarter wins and that games are seldom blowouts.

In the previous two weeks, the Razorbacks have pretty much won in blowout fashion, but Bret Bielema has struggled in fourth-quarter wins. In his sixth attempt with a lead going into the fourth quarter, he lost. I blame it on the conservative play calling that looks like you are playing not to lose but, guess what, you lose.

The first touchdown for the Razorbacks came on a dump-down pass to Williams, who then went the distance. This play was never really seen again the rest of the game. It’s the type of play that stops a constant run-blitzing defense that Missouri threw at the Razorbacks all day.

The Razorbacks had two chances to take back control of the game at the end of the third quarter with the Hogs still winning 14-6. The Razorbacks reached the Missouri 31-yard line, and after a third and three and an incomplete pass, the offensive staff thought the best way to get the first down was a direct snap to Kody Walker, which went nowhere.

This speaks volumes when you think that your best chance of picking up the first down was pulling your quarterback and snapping it to a little-used running back.

The next occasion to regain control of the game was the next series when the Razorbacks reached the Missouri 34 and with a fourth and 6 the coaches decided to punt. The conservative decision of playing field position with the idea the defense would hold on was a losing bet.

Instead, Missouri took the ball at their own 2 and then drove 98 yards for the tying touchdown. Missouri was driving all day, and it was only a matter of time for them to break through as the defense was on the field so long.

As Pinkel pointed out, in the SEC games are won in the fourth quarter. Seldom are you allowed to go in to turtle mode hoping the rain and thunder will pass you by. When your record stands at 6-5, you roll the dice and go for it at your opponent’s 34.

The conservative play calling will keep games close, but it’s going to make it difficult to win at the end.

The controversy coming out of the game was if Bielema should have pulled Brandon Allen and replaced him with brother Austin Allen. After the struggles at the end of the second quarter, there was an opportunity to test the waters. By the time the Razorbacks got to the last drive, it was too late.

It was Brandon Allen’s game to win or lose, and he was actually moving the team into position for a possible game-tying touchdown. The Alex Collins fumble brought the debate to an end.

I would be remiss to not mention the replay review calls that went against the Razorbacks. I have railed against replay for years. I hate it. It’s destroying the game. Were the replay calls right or wrong? This is exactly my point. Some things are just so close and are judgment calls no matter what.

With replay, we have just replaced the judgment of guys on the field who are the closest to the action with guys who are way upstairs in a both looking at weird angles that can have depth-perception problems and slow motion that distorts what might have really happened.

So today we sit around and debate if the replay official got it right. I say put it back down on the field with the officials who typically have the best view and are closest to it. It will never be clear cut and you’re now having guys trying to make such a determination while removed from the field.

The standard is supposed to be that the evidence is indisputable, but who’s the judge of that?

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Monday, November 24, 2014

From the Bench

Tough Learning Curve Now Reaping Success for Razorback Coach and Team

Robert Shields

The question I asked last week was: Will the beating of LSU become a cornerstone upon which another brick could be laid?

The answer Saturday was yes.

The Razorbacks not only placed the brick, they ran the rebar right through Ole Miss.

In doing so, the team became bowl eligible only needing one more win to prove me wrong with my preseason prediction of 6-6. (Look it up, Internet.)

This Razorback team is not the same one that started the season, and credit can go to Coach Bret Bielema. The team has gotten better throughout the season, and that is coaching.

The team has grown, but not only the team, so has the coach. Bielema said several times during the losing streak that the team “would win when they earn it.” We will never know, but maybe in some small part, he was also talking about himself as a coach.

He has earned the last two SEC victories in smashing fashion.

In the post-game press conference, Bielema said, “Maybe I have also grown as a coach.” He pointed out that when they won the toss this time they deferred it to the second half, which is a practice done by most SEC coaches and a good sign that maybe Bielema is not completely obstinate and set in his ways.

Bielema was determined early in the game when the score was 10-0 and the team was at the goal line that they were going to go for it on fourth down. A field goal would have been defeating. After a penalty gave the Razorbacks new life and another chance on fourth down, the team went at it again and scored to make it 17-0. The game was over at that point.

In other games, Bielema has been more conservative and might have taken the field goal. There were fourth-down chances in the Texas A&M, Alabama, and Mississippi State games that if the Razorbacks would have gone for them and made it, the outcome of those games might have been very different.

And if the Razorbacks would have won those games, they would have been leading the SEC West only needing to beat Missouri to get into the SEC Championship game. The Razorbacks would be 6-2 in the SEC West with the tiebreaker over Alabama and Mississippi State.

Amazingly, the Razorbacks could have or should have beaten two of the teams that will be in the four-team college football playoff.

Regardless, this team’s turnaround has been through the defense. After accomplishing what had never been done before with an unranked team shutting out a ranked team on back-to-back weekends, this defense is making it easy for the offense to play within itself.

The credit for the defense also largely goes to Bielema. After an absolute sickening defensive effort over the last two years, Bielema changed out his defensive coaching staff almost completely save for Randy Shannon. Give Shannon some credits also as the linebackers have come light years and may be the best group of Razorback linebackers to take the field since David Bazzel played.

Coordinator Robb Smith has taken over the defense and has turned them into a pack of “piranhas” to use Bret Bielema’s word. Others will certainly come after him now, and the Razorbacks need to tie him down.

Also, some credit goes to Steve Loney who has been working in the shadows. Bielema took a page from Nick Saban, as he said in a recent press conference, and hired him as a consultant. Bielema’s old friend has broken down film on Razorbacks opponents two weeks out. This has been money well spent.

The defense now understands what other teams are doing and adjusts accordingly. Give Smith credit for being able to implement what the consultant is effectively seeing on film. Some guys are just good at seeing what other teams are doing and even more importantly, why they are doing it.

The work of the consultant breaking down film is also paying dividends on the offensive side. It’s no small coincidence the Razorback offense is killing people in the first quarter. This is due to good research by the consultant and enables Bielema and his staff to implement a better game plan. It usually takes other team’s defenses a half to catch up to what Arkansas is doing.

Gone are the days of Bielema talking about hurry-up offenses or coming here to beat Alabama. All he talks about now is doing things the right way.

This goes back to his speech given at the Little Rock Touchdown Club about his own personal story of building a fence. His dad instructed him and his brother how to do it properly. They started cutting corners on how many and how to put the nails into the posts. The fence failed. He said this taught him to do it the right way.

Bielema is learning how to do it the right way in the SEC, and now he’s adapted with great success. This is a sign of a great coach.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Bielema is still learning. He’s only 44, still a very young coach. He has only been a head coach for eight years. And, he’s only in his second year in the SEC, one of the most competitive leagues in the world in any sport.

Every team in the SEC West is bowl eligible, and every team the Hogs have faced in the SEC have been ranked No. 17 or higher. That is a tough learning curve for any new coach. But if the current trend holds, Bielema seems to be getting up to speed fast.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

From the Bench

Cornerstone Laid With LSU Win, Now on to the Next Brick

Robert Shields

The Internet exploded Saturday night with imagery of the Arkansas Razorbacks’ victory over LSU as fans and players were exalted. Maybe it was all a little melodramatic, but who can blame the fans and players for being excited about ending a 17-game SEC losing streak and celebrating my guarantee from last week that Arkansas would beat LSU.

The Razorbacks played with a certain urgency as though their lives depended on it, and LSU could not answer with the same tenacity. For the first time this season, the Razorbacks could see the fear in their enemy’s eyes and not the other way around. It was exhilarating and carried players and fans onto the field in celebration at the end.

The question was raised, should the fans have stormed and celebrated in such fashion. The answer is a resounding yes. The Program was in a place that it had never been before. The football team was in uncharted territory, and two years ago to even think that the team could end up in the midst of a 17-game losing streak would have been implausible.

This was the wrong kind of history to make, but if you were present then you were part of it and can say, “I was there when the 17 game conference losing streak ended.”

Over the last two years, Razorback fans have endured humiliating losses and absolute heartbreak in losses that should not occur at home in Fayetteville. The supernova explosion of emotion that erupted on the field as the clock ticked down was warranted. It was historic.

The players, enduring heartbreaking losses during the streak, did not give up. It would have been so easy after losing to No. 1 Mississippi State to say just forget it and mail the rest of the season in. Instead, they went back to work.

This has been a team that has been belittled by many -- even its own fans -- as the players were often denigrated or abandoned. Steve Spurrier said the Razorbacks would have to recruit their way out of this mess after putting a 52-7 beat down on the Hogs last season. Even the media delved out its share of piling on the players as they often referred to the players left by Bobby Petrino as being untalented.

In the end, fans will miss Petrino guys like Trey Flower, Darius Philon, Jonathan Williams, and others who did nothing but pour their guts out week after week with constantly changing coaching staffs.

Give Bret Bielema credit, he never gave up on them when other coaches would have, and the team repaid the favor to him by never giving up on him. When talking about some of those guys, Bielema has gotten emotional. He knows what they have had to put up with. Bielema gets paid millions win or lose, but those players only got misery.

The players surely had to feel that they hoped nobody would forget the price they paid over the last couple of years sticking with the program. They received a resounding answer to that question on Saturday night.

On a very cold night, in the middle of deer season, with a team that is struggling and stands 4-5 overall, and 0-5 in the conference, the Razorback fans arrived with an announced crowd of about 70,000. I’m not sure that would happen anywhere else.

The fans wanted this win for this team and showed their support in grand fashion. Maybe if for no other reason, they knew this group of players deserved it, win or lose, as they have never quit this season.

If you want to feel happy for one person, let that be Brandon Allen. The kid has suffered through the vast majority of those losses. He has been the piƱata for fans who have been disgruntled during this losing streak. Now he has the monkey off his back as does his coach, and maybe now they can play to win instead of feeling the pressure of ending this streak.

The football Program that has been mired in muck trying to build its foundation has maybe finally laid its cornerstone with this victory over LSU. Just as a losing streak starts with its first loss, so does a winning streak with its first win. This week we get to find out if the cornerstone that was placed Saturday night sinks back into the mud or if the next brick is laid.

A few weeks back, I wrote that the fan base was becoming divided with those who saw the close losses an improvement by fire that would turn this team into gold and others who just saw the losses. Winning cures all ills with football, and as of Saturday night, all was right with the world as thirsty Razorbacks got to once again drink from the fountain of victory and it tasted oh so sweet.

It’s not every day that you get to win with 265 yards of offense. Yet, that was the viciousness the Razorback defense countered with making it easy on the offense. The question this week will be if they can do it again.

Otherwise, the win seems hollower where a cornerstone is more of substance.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

From the Bench

Guaranteed Win Against LSU Could Launch Three-Game Winning Streak

Robert Shields

Since I started writing this column more than 17 years ago, I have made four guarantees. And if you are keeping count, my record is 3-1 on those guarantees.

It’s been years since I have made a guarantee in this space, but I am going out on a limb with another one this week -- I guarantee an Arkansas Razorback win over LSU this Saturday in Fayetteville.

Do I believe it? No. But some things have to be based on faith, and I have faith that the 17-game SEC losing streak is coming to an end and it happens this weekend.

In the past, I usually give reasoning as to why I guarantee a Razorback win. Not this time -- it’s just based on pure Razorback faith. The losing streak has to end at some point, and being a one-time statistician I believe in the law of averages, which I remind everyone is not a theory of averages but a law.

I also believe in a benevolent creator. I have to believe at some point Brandon Allen is showed mercy and given a victory in the SEC. Do I believe that God above cares about football? Again, no. But do I think he hears the agony of those below? Yes.

Allen has had his truck torched, his property egged, and has probably received enough hate mail to get the FBI to open a terroristic threatening file. He has been criticized to no end. When you are the quarterback, the wins and losses can weigh heavily and he has been losing.

Even one of Allen’s biggest supporters in Bo Mattingly from “Sports Talk with Bo” has started to show some doubt this past week after the Mississippi State loss. This was the same Bo Mattingly who last year predicted that Allen would be as good as Connor Shaw by the time he leaves the UofA. South Carolina fans and Steve Spurrier are probably thinking Shaw was pretty good right now and would like to have him back.

Much like Hagar at the well whose cries were heard, I have to believe the creator above knows Allen’s pain. Allen will be vindicated this weekend.

And after the win over LSU, the Razorbacks may launch themselves into a three-game winning streak to finish the season 7-5. This is not a guarantee, but you can feel the Razorbacks just need that one win to get the ball rolling.

If by some way the Razorbacks win their next three games, they will end up with a 3-5 SEC record playing in the most difficult conference division in the country. And many will point out that the Razorbacks were just a few plays away from actually being 6-2 in the SEC as they could have and maybe should have beaten Texas A&M, Alabama, and Mississippi State.

So for this feel-good ending to happen, the Razorbacks have to win this weekend against LSU. So, it will happen. I guarantee it.

Send your hallelujahs to

Monday, November 03, 2014

From the Bench

17-Game SEC Losing Streak Starting to Fissure Fan Base

Robert Shields

Amadeus, when will the madness stop?

The Razorback football team stretched its SEC losing record to 17, and if you’re keeping track that is 13 in a row for Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who is running out of time this season to get his first SEC win.

When history repeats itself, it’s known as tradition, and the Razorbacks are establishing the wrong kind of tradition.

In the game against No. 1 Mississippi State on Saturday, Arkansas took a 10-7 advantage into halftime, but unfortunately the Razorbacks and their beleaguered coach failed to take advantage of three Bulldog turnovers in the first half, which was similar to not taking advantage of the turnovers offered by Alabama that were instead squandered.

At some point, you have to try to win a game by not playing it close to get it into the fourth quarter – a Houston Nutt philosophy if there ever was one.

When the best in the SEC decide not to play their best against you – you have to make them pay for not showing up. This is not the case when you play the Razorbacks. You can play your worst and still walk out with the win.

On their second possession of the game after Dak Prescott threw an interception, the Razorbacks mounted a drive to the Bulldog 32-yard line where they landed with a fourth and one. Bielema decided not to go for it, but instead punted it.

When you’re playing the No. 1 team on the road, you have to play to win and not play conservatively always worried something bad will happen. Because in the SEC, something bad will happen -- as it did when Prescott hit the wide-open receiver for the go-ahead touchdown to win 17-10. When you are the underdog against the No. 1 team, the Bielema book instead says play field position.

You have to take advantage of your opportunities in the SEC, and I believe more than any other reason this is why the Razorbacks have failed time and again in the conference with this ultra-conservative decision making from a coach who seems incapable of being adaptive and is stubborn in his philosophy to the point of being self-defeating.

In the coach’s defense, at key times this year when the Razorbacks have been faced with fourth down and need a conversion late in games, they have failed. You can blame this on player execution or the play call. Or is it a play call the players cannot execute in that situation? You can decide.

It’s an odd philosophy because fourth and short should be right into the wheelhouse of the power-formation running team that is the strength of the Hogs.

This, though, is symptomatic of Arkansas’ problems. A dead giveaway power run in the SEC will go nowhere a lot of the time in a completely defensive-dominated league. Even the Razorback defense has played well on fourth and short this season as they stopped Dak Prescott, and they did the same thing to the Alabama quarterback.

The SEC just has great big powerful defense people playing. It’s not like going up against Illinois.

It is frustrating to be a Razorback fan right now as the odds of going to a bowl game have gotten longer and more out of reach each week. The Razorbacks need to win two out of their last three games. They have two home games coming up so maybe they can find wins in those opportunities.

With each loss, a division in the fan base continues to develop. The perception of the two sides is a stark contrast with each reality being completely different. I don’t think it’s one of those cases where the truth lies somewhere in between the two. In the end, one side will be correct and the other wrong.

One group is squarely in Bielema’s corner. He is their general leading their Hogs in the SEC, and there is nothing else they want. They see improvement in their team. They see the team almost getting there and say that given enough time they will.

They believe in the philosophy that the Razorbacks will be able to recruit superior athletes compared to other SEC teams and will be able to out power other SEC teams at the point of attack.

They see a team that was blown out last year turn around and almost beat top 10 teams this year and say that shows marked improvement. This coach is just a step away from getting this done. They say the fire this team is going through will turn them into pure gold.

The other group sees something totally different. They see the 0-17 in the SEC and Bielema going 0-13.

But for this group it’s more than just the losing SEC streak -- it’s the fact that in six games that came down to the wire during the last two years, Bielema has lost every single time.

They believe improvement is measured in wins and losses. They don’t believe Bielema can accomplish what he is trying to do in the SEC.

They believe that he won’t get the players needed to be more powerful than his opposition. That the offensive philosophy is so rigid and so conservative that the team has to play perfect to win and that won’t happen in the SEC.

They see penalties destroying drives and an offense that can’t operate out of its comfort zone. They see more of the same occurring and while the team may eventually win some SEC games, it won’t be enough to ever be a great team.

One side is right.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

From the Bench

Bielema Not Feeling Pressure From 16-Game SEC Losing Streak

Robert Shields

The Arkansas Razorback football team bested its record of last year by beating UAB to go to 4-4 on the season, just two wins shy of making it to the field of 76 schools that will play in a bowl game at the end of this season.

Meanwhile, the Razorback basketball team, which was picked to finish third in the SEC coming out of the SEC basketball media days, is hard at work to make the field of only 68 basketball teams to make the big dance.

There are lots of expectations on the basketball team to make the 68-team NCAA basketball tournament, while there seems to be no pressure on football coach Bret Bielema to be one of the 76 teams playing in a bowl game, end the longest conference losing streak in the nation, or really do much of anything.

Razorback fans were satisfied Saturday with the trick play of an offensive lineman passing to another offensive lineman. I guess the purpose of the play was to showcase Bielema’s play-creating ability and willingness to take chances against a much lesser opponent.

One can guess that you never try to run that play in the SEC as it probably goes south quickly.

On the upside, the Razorbacks may have found a kicker as the extra points were certain and a long field goal was made to boot. But the question remains, as with everything else that went well against UAB, can he do it in the SEC?

That question looms large for the rest of the season as all the cupcakes are now eaten and Arkansas has beaten all four of its non-conference opponents. Only SEC teams remain, and none of them will be easy.

Maybe Missouri in Columbia is the best opportunity, but the Razorbacks will need two more wins to go bowling. Thus meaning the Hogs have to win two out of the next four, and the other three teams are some of the best in the country.

Up next on deck is the No. 1 team in the nation in Mississippi State. The Bulldogs to date have proven to be the most well-rounded team in the SEC. The play great defense and denied Auburn the end zone three times when the Tigers got inside the 10-yard line. State has an explosive offense led by Dak Prescott, who very well may win the Heisman.

The Razorbacks have to play the Bulldogs in Starkville, which has been a place that has been difficult for the Razorbacks to win even when the Hogs had good teams. The 1998 game comes to mind when the Razorbacks were clearly the better team but still found a way to lose it.

The path stays tough after the trip to Starkville. The Hogs get a bye week, then face a much-improved LSU team, which seemed vulnerable early in the year but has grown up and now has an excellent running back and a quarterback. The timing of the Tigers’ maturation is unfortunate for the Razorbacks.

Then Arkansas draws Ole Miss in Fayetteville following the LSU game. Ole Miss by far has the best defense in the SEC. The Razorback defense maybe could find a way to stop Bo Wallace and company and turn it into a defensive game. Fans can hope with the new kicker that maybe he hits a game winner and sends the Rebels home with a loss.

With the Mississippi State game being an unlikely win, the Razorbacks have to find a way to win one of the two home games against LSU and Ole Miss and break the current SEC losing streak that might stretch to 0-17 after the Mississippi State game.

Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the SEC West is a remarkable 33-1 against teams outside the SEC West. The lone loss, of course, was from the Razorbacks last week against Georgia.

The losing streak has to come to an end and sooner rather than later. Bielema does not need to go another season without an SEC win and run the losing streak past 20 games on his watch. Because what kind of coach does that?

One that gets fired.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

From the Bench

UA Doesn’t Deliver Product Worth $100 Ticket at War Memorial Stadium

Robert Shields

The Arkansas Razorback football team took a huge step back this week in Little Rock against the Georgia Bulldogs. Before the game, there were very few Razorbacks fans who would have expected an absolute beat down in the first half to essentially end the game – but that’s what they got.

There are two things that became clearer this weekend that sheds light on where exactly the Razorback football program is at this moment. First, Texas A&M is a really bad team, and just a few weeks back the Razorbacks let an inferior team get away with a victory they never should have had.

Secondly, the Razorbacks had a chance against an Alabama team that for whatever reason took last week off from football, yet the Razorbacks could not take advantage of a rare opportunity being virtually handed to them.

How will the SEC losing streak ever end if they can’t pull off just one of those two wins?

Overall, Saturday’s edition of Razorback football looked exactly like the teams that got shellacked last year. The defense was exposed like Swiss cheese right out of the gate.

It was also disappointing that the running game was stymied by the Georgia defense at times forcing the Razorbacks to go to the air, which this offense was never designed to do. You can skip watching Razorback games and look at the box score, and if you see Brandon Allen had to throw more than 40 times, the Razorbacks lost.

The overall disappointment was compounded by the fact that the same mistakes over the last three games continued to be repeated. The missed extra point after the Razorbacks’ first score against Georgia was deflating to the fans especially in the face of what was the exact difference in the Razorbacks’ loss to Alabama the previous week. If you had hoped before the Georgia game that such mistakes had been rectified, the answer is no.

Even further disappointment is that mistakes such as turnovers keep haunting this team. The lack of ball security is disconcerting. The Razorbacks had three turnovers against Alabama, and they were up to the task this week against Georgia to better that mark.

Without the turnovers, maybe the game against Georgia would have been competitive. Apparently all the experts liked the Razorback chances, as at least four on CBS Sportsline had the Hogs winning as did analysts on ESPN and the SEC Network.

Instead, the streak of losses against SEC teams went to 16 in a row and the last 12 belong to Bret Bielema. Even more shocking, the Razorbacks have lost their last three SEC games in Little Rock and four out of their last five in the Old Gray Lady. The once impenetrable confines seem no different than any other place the Hogs have been slaughtered during this most dire time for Razorback fans.

Bielema heads into a dangerous game this weekend and maybe a crossroad for him as the fan base will get nasty if the Razorbacks lose to the UAB Blazers because the program is supposed to have advanced way past the point of losing to non-SEC teams on its regular season schedule.

In spite of the product on the field, Ole Miss fans would be proud of the Razorback fans as they won the party, though.

The tailgating around War Memorial Stadium and in particular on the golf course was gargantuan. It was certainly one of the largest attended tailgate events ever at the stadium and easily exceeded 80,000 people. Many said it was the largest ever. It was epic to say in a word.

The tailgaters hit it hard and arrived early at the golf course. Traffic was a mess and snarled as people vied to find their space to party. A first for the golf course, a man was seen with two large snakes wrapped around him. Having a little port-a-potty camping tent thing they make now is also coming into vogue on the golf course. I cannot blame people as the port-a-potties provided by the city are limited and overwhelmed by such a large crowd that is out to celebrate like it’s the Burning Man Festival.

The Razorback mascot arrived around 11 a.m. on Markham Street getting his police escort. A Georgia fan nearby was actually excited to see the Razorback mascot pass. It was kind of like a celebrity star sighting for him. He was probably more excited than the Razorback fans and was surprised by its size.

The team arrived 30 minutes early than has been the customary practice in the past of arriving two hours before the game. The players arrived around 12:30 p.m. catching many fans unaware. Their arrival was also fast blitzing down the street at a high rate of speed. I witnessed no fans going out into the street as all stayed on the sidewalk to avoid getting run over by the speeding buses.

The fast approach gave fans little to no time to greet the team out on Markham for their approach, and it was a light turnout to greet them. If the plan is to kill the tradition of fans going out onto the street and beating on the buses and yelling at the team like they are rock stars, it could not be executed any better.

The fans arrived in the stadium expecting a victory, yet once again were disappointed. The first drive brought the fans alive, but that was to be it.

Some fans had to pay an extortion fee of $100 to witness this debacle. The fans got to watch another serving of losing football with the always looming threat that all games will be pulled out of Central Arkansas.

If they are going to lose, they can do that just as easily in Fayetteville and make more money.

It’s a shame the UA football program could not match the same level of excitement as seen on the golf course by the fans. Like a bad breakup where one is saying to the other, “it’s not you, it’s me,” maybe it’s time for Little Rock to tell the UA to stop coming instead of the other way around.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

From the Bench

Razorbacks Will Continue to Lose Playing it by the Book

Robert Shields

In 1985, the musical performer Falco recorded the smash hit, “Rock Me Amadeus.” Regardless if you are familiar with the ‘80s hit or not, the chorus of the song is repeated a million times being “AMADEUS AMADEUS, AMADEUS!”

Much like Falco, the chorus for Razorback football also remains the same as the team for the fifth time under Bret Bielema took a lead into the fourth quarter and found a way to lose instead of a way to win.

The Razorbacks have become the character “Caretaker” in the 1974 movie, “The Longest Yard.” It’s the person everyone loves but gets killed in the end. I think at this point everyone is anxious for the Razorbacks to get over the hump and finally win an SEC game as the streak has now grown to 15 in a row.

If you want a positive, the Razorbacks have come light years since last season. An Oscar Wilde quote goes, “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong –– but that's the way to bet.”

Before the game, probably many outside of Arkansas had it bet that way. They lost if they went with the Vegas line. In the end, the Razorbacks were the better team everywhere but on the scoreboard, which was eerily similar to the Texas A&M loss.

The Razorbacks ended up with almost 10 minutes more in time of possession, eight more first downs, 26 more plays, and more than 100 yards of offense, yet they found a way to lose again in the toughest league in America. The kicking game again bit the Hogs on both a field goal and on an extra point.

Before the season began, a question posed by many was, would the Razorbacks improve more at quarterback or on defense this season? Although play at quarterback is more solid, the surprise has been the defense. On 13 tries by Alabama on third down, the defense only allowed them to pick up a first down on four of them.

The defense has come light years and the tackling on the perimeter and in the passing game have been sound to say in a word. Also, the fourth-down attempt by Alabama in the fourth quarter when they only needed inches and were pushed back by the Razorback defense was impressive.

Time and again the defense rose up to the occasion to stop Alabama, which had an offense averaging significantly more yards per game than the Razorback defense allowed. If the defense continues to improve, the Hogs will beat some other teams in the SEC, just probably on the east side of the conference.

Early in the game, Alabama gave the Razorbacks a gift, and when the Crimson Tide gives you must take. The fumbled punt set the Razorbacks up deep in Crimson Tide territory and moved the ball quickly into scoring position before fumbling the ball back out of the end zone for a touchback. Of all the plays in the game, it was the most significant.

With the way the Razorback offense is predicated, it needs to have good leads going into the fourth quarter, and as has been witnessed, that is still not enough. It’s just not an offense that will come back easily late in a game. It’s also not an offense that can survive costly mistakes like fumbling at the goal line.

At Texas Tech, The Razorbacks played flawlessly and beat the Red Raiders easily. At home, the Razorbacks matched Alabama mistake for mistake. If the Razorbacks score on that possession instead of fumbling it out of the end zone, they are winning 13-7 at the half and 20-7 in the fourth quarter –– and probably win.

When you lose such close games, second-guessing is easy. If there is one thing surely many fans are second-guessing was why didn’t the Razorbacks go for two on their second touchdown to potentially go up 14-7?

Sure, the Hogs could have failed and only led the game 12-7 with the possibility of Alabama hitting two field goals to win the game 13-12. That scenario seemed remote with it being such a defensive game and Alabama having little faith in their kicker who had already missed a field goal. Going for the two pointer at that point in the game to go up by a touchdown just seemed to make sense and may have potentially sent the game into overtime at 14-14.

The Razorbacks have improved by 51 points over last year’s beat down against Alabama. Although in the end, they did have the chance to improve by 52, they just opted to settle for something less. This goes to the ultra-conservative, by-the-book game management of Bret Bielema.

Once in the first quarter, the Razorbacks got to the 38 of Alabama and punted on fourth down. Later in the third quarter, the Razorbacks go to the Alabama 35 and on fourth down punted and in both cases gained minimal field position on the exchange.

At some point when you’re trying to pull out your first SEC win in two years, you have to take some chances. In all five of Bielema’s close losses where he was winning in the fourth quarter, the conservative play was the losing path.

The Razorbacks, though, get another chance this weekend against Georgia. The question after the heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M was would the team respond and get back up? The answer was yes.

Will they answer the bell this coming week after finding another disappointing loss after outplaying Alabama? My hunch is yes. This team has not quit.

Many probably had the Razorbacks at 3-3 at this point, and I was no different. But I did have the Razorbacks beating Georgia in my preseason predictions. Georgia from the SEC East provides the Razorbacks an opportunity to get on the winning side in the SEC.

We will see if the coaches are presented with an opportunity to roll the dice for the win or play it by the book when they lay their bet as Oscar Wilde recommends.

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Monday, October 06, 2014

From the Bench

Razorback Football Exceeding Expectations at 3-2 and Pursue Bowl Bid

Robert Shields

The Arkansas Razorbacks are approaching the midpoint of the season but still have the lion’s share of the SEC in front of them. Many fans probably had the Razorbacks at 3-2 at this point. Maybe some had them losing to Texas Tech and were expecting 2-3 but are pleasantly surprised.

Bret Bielema has been able to infuse hope into this Razorback Program. To this point, Razorback fans must feel like their expectations have been exceeded. After starting the season with a loss to Auburn, some expected the Razorbacks to be mostly embarrassed the remainder of the way.

Against Nicholls State, the Razorbacks could have named the score. The team could not have played better with basically anyone with a jersey getting on the field. Texas Tech came next on the schedule, and to the surprise for many around the nation, the Red Raider offense did not shred the Razorback defense and the Razorback offensive line pushed around its opponents at will.

The Northern Illinois Huskies that were only a couple years removed from playing in a BCS bowl were supposed to provide the Razorbacks a challenge. It was not to be in Fayetteville as the Razorbacks had their way with them.

Then last week playing what many thought was one of the most complex offenses in the nation in Texas A&M, the Razorback defense was up to the challenge for more than 50 minutes. In regulation, they held the Aggies’ offense to 28 points. The Razorback should have won the game and found many ways to lose it, which in the end in overtime they did.

So even at an expected 3-2, many fans feel the team is exceeding expectations.

Up next is Alabama, and unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the Crimson Tide had its first loss of the season against Ole Miss. Alabama looks vulnerable, but one has to wonder if the Tide is willing to give up two in a row in conference, which under Nick Saban has just not occurred.

After the last two seasons with the Razorbacks being outscored by Alabama 104-0 with a 52-0 beat down in each game, the Hogs have a low bar to clear. The Razorbacks just need to keep it close, and it would probably exceed most fans’ expectations. It’s an easy mark for Bielema to hit.

Unfortunately, Texas A&M looks very beatable now after Mississippi State destroyed them this past weekend scoring 49 points on the Aggies. In reality, the Razorback should have had as many points last week in Dallas.

In my preseason prediction, I predicted the Razorbacks would lose to A&M and it would be the most disappointing loss of the season. Now that the game is over, I hope that prediction remains true.

With Ole Miss and Mississippi State both now being ranked in the top 5, the remaining schedule now looks even more daunting as LSU is also now starting to scramble for victories on its schedule.

The Razorback still need to find three wins to go to a bowl. Like everybody, the Razorbacks are expected to beat UAB leaving only two more victories to find. Mississippi State in Starkville looks like a tough chore right now.

In my preseason prediction, I had one victory coming against Georgia in Little Rock. Right now, that might be a needed pickup for the team and a real possibility. A Razorback victory over Georgia could be the Razorbacks’ first SEC victory in two years and may put Mark Richt into a tailspin with his fans that he might not recover from.

Unfortunately, the Razorbacks did not draw Tennessee, Florida, or Vanderbilt this season. Those are probably the three easier teams in the weaker eastern side of the SEC. The Razorbacks did get Missouri, which after the home loss to Indiana seems a like another possible win for the Razorbacks. Otherwise, the Hogs are looking for a much unexpected victory against an SEC West opponent.

Regardless, after the 3-2 start the expectation now that fans have is for the Razorbacks to go to a bowl and be 6-6. Here is to Bielema meeting that goal.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

From the Bench

Strength of Team Did Not Get a Chance to Win the Game Against A&M

Robert Shields

The Razorbacks have not melted down that badly since the Rutgers game last year.

The Texas A&M loss added to the scar tissue this program has developed over the last three years. The day count has run to more than 700 days since the Razorbacks’ last victory over an SEC opponent. A victory against A&M would have made the Alabama game in two weeks very intriguing, but it was not to be.

After the long run to the goal line by Jonathon Williams that was called back because of a tripping penalty by Dan Skipper, one could feel the balloon being popped. Instead of the Razorbacks being up by 21 points and about to put a major beat down on the Aggies, the momentum switched and it seemed like every time A&M threw the ball it was a touchdown from that point going forward. It was like the team and coaches were waiting for the bad thing to happen and it did.

If you have any sympathy in you, then you have to feel for Bret Bielema. He has been in four close games at Arkansas and has lost all four of them –– to Rutgers, Mississippi State, LSU, and now Texas A&M.

Interestingly, Bielema is also now 0-2 in overtime games for the Razorbacks, and the Hogs have lost their last three in a row. There was a time when the Razorbacks seemed invincible in overtime games. They now lose them pretty much in one play.

Skipper had a tough day. We all have them, but unfortunately for him about 4-million people were watching it. My only advice to him is to forget it, learn from it, and never repeat it. More than likely, he will never forget that game.

Early in the game, the referee pulled the Arkansas offensive line and the A&M defense together for a conference. I have no idea what was said, but if I were a betting man it was something to the effect to “cut the crap out.”

Twice, away from the play, the Arkansas player drove a guy into the ground, and on another the A&M defender was tripped. They were “crap” calls that had nothing to do with the play, but I can’t help but believe the players were warned. Bielema tells the players to “play through the whistle.” Maybe that needs to be revised to play cleanly through the whistle.

Those penalties probably cost the Razorbacks 14 points and an easy beat down for their old SWC foe. The meltdown was complete across the whole team and can’t be laid on just those two penalties –– the defense, kicking game, play calling that faltered down the stretch.

The defense at the end of the game was shaky. A defender falling gave up an easy long touchdown pass. The Razorback secondary became porous at that point, and in an instant the weak spot on the defense became all that apparent again. This is a shame because they played hard all day giving their offense time to put the game away, which they did not. The defense even came up with an interception to stem the tide of momentum, but the offense came right out and faltered on three plays and had to give the ball back to A&M.

The kicking game failed on the field goal at the end, which would have won the game.

Then the play calling in overtime was questionable. It was sad that what I dubbed as the rock stars of the team last week in the offensive line failed on a fourth down in the overtime with a run to the right side. I assume they went that way because it was the short side of the field, yet it seemed like all day most of the success came running on the left side.

Oddly, the two long plays that were called back because of penalties were misdirection plays to the left side that were then brought back to the right side. But plays only get second guessed when they fail.

If you want something positive, Brandon Allen has come light years on his fakes. He sold the play every time to A&M as a run and they bought it every time.

Allen’s two fumbles from center were costly also. On the first fumble that ended in a turnover, the Razorbacks were driving and seemed destined to score again. The last fumbled exchange probably cost the Razorbacks a first down that would have put the game away. The Razorback offense needs three plays to operate to get first downs, not two. The wasted play left the Hogs just a long yard short of the first down.

In the four losses in close games during Bielema’s time in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks were leading in all of them holding on for a victory. Also in three of those games, the Razorbacks faced a fourth and short. At Rutgers, the team opted to punt then, Rutgers took possession and immediately marched down field for the win.

At LSU, the Razorbacks also opted to punt and LSU took the ball and went 99 yards with its backup quarterback to win the game. I’m not sure what the coaches see in their defense that makes them think they are game stoppers, but it’s obviously what they believe.

Then playing against Texas A&M after Allen fumbled the snap, the Hogs with just two plays got the ball to fourth and short. Instead of going for it, the coaches decide to kick a long field goal with a pretty much an unknown and untested field-goal kicker. I never understand leaving your team’s fate, a team that has been struggling for a win, in the hands of the one guy who has probably never had to block or tackle.

The kicker on most teams is the one guy who’s a nervous wreck and basket case mostly because coaches keep putting the entire game on their unpredictable leg. The kick was wide left. I don’t blame the kicker. When he lined up and the camera angle showed the long goal posts in the distance, who really thought he had a chance except his coach? Just a couple of plays later, A&M scored a touchdown to send the game into overtime.

In all three of those close losses, if the Razorbacks go for it and get the first down, they win the game. You see coaches in the SEC do this all the time to leave the fate of their team in their own hands. It’s not a bizarre concept to want to control your own destiny.

The offense is the strength of the team, so why leave it to any other facet to win it for you? Give the strength of your team a chance to win it. After the fumbled snap, the offense needed that third play, but I would like to believe they would have picked up the first down.

In the last two seasons after the Louisiana-Monroe overtime loss in 2012 and the Rutgers loss in 2013, the team was done for the rest of the season. Often the measure of yourself is how you get back up. I would like to believe that after being knocked to the mat, this team comes back up screaming that it will be different this season than the last two.

The Razorbacks have two weeks to digest this loss, and the coaches can decide if it’s fourth and short to win the game against Alabama, do they have faith in their offense and go for it or do they leave it to something else to decide their fate?

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Monday, September 22, 2014

From the Bench

Victory Against A&M in Dallas Changes Outlook of Season

Robert Shields

The Arkansas Razorbacks took care of business on Saturday night in Fayetteville by dispatching the Northern Illinois Huskies from the opening kickoff. The Razorbacks attacked the Huskies in just about every way imaginable -- even the defense scored -- and are now halfway to bowl eligibility. For this game, the play-action pass was even working to allow the offense to be balanced, which will be needed starting next week.

Many fans had the Razorbacks with three victories and one loss at this point in their preseason predictions. The record has not come as a surprise, but what is surprising is how the team has been doing it as they are averaging around 50 points and only allowing around 20. Except for Auburn in the second half of that game, the Hogs have been able to pork chop their way through the schedule.

Even pessimistic me had the team at 3-1 right now. Most have the Razorbacks winning the UAB game meaning the team only has to find two wins in the SEC to go bowling. I have them beating Georgia in Little Rock and Missouri in Columbia. After the Missouri Tigers dropped a game at home against a terrible Big Ten team, the Missouri pick does not look that bad. LSU also looks suddenly very winnable.

Before the season started, some fans, had the Razorback maybe upsetting Texas A&M in Dallas to pick up one of the two needed SEC victories to spend your day in possibly Shreveport. This coming weekend, your team gets that chance as the Razorbacks enter the meat of the SEC schedule.

The Aggies of A&M, though, have surprised many this season as they will enter the game ranked as the No. 6 team in the nation and a 10-point favorite. Understandably, many thought the Aggies offense would struggle without Johnny Manziel, and Kevin Sumlin seems about as concerned with defense as Bobby Petrino. As it has turned out, Kenny Hill at quarterback has made the Aggie offense maybe even more versatile and expanded it in some ways. Plus, their defense is definitely improved. The Aggies complete throttling of the Gamecocks in South Carolina was eye opening.

Starting with A&M, the schedule now gets significantly more difficult for the Razorbacks. Technically, the Razorbacks can be the 18th best team in the country and still be the worst team in the SEC West as all the other six SEC West teams are ranked in the top 17. It’s a brutal schedule. One has to assume the game plan will be significantly similar to the one that destroyed Texas Tech in that the name of the game will be to keep the Aggie offense off the field.

The Razorbacks cannot afford to go three and out very often in the game as the Aggie offense will find ways to score on the Razorback defense, which has been soft on the corners and A&M will exploit it with its receivers blocking for each other out on the perimeter. The Hog defense will have to have its tackling be as sure as it was in the Texas Tech game.

The Aggies will be more talented than the Hogs, so the Razorbacks will have to limit turnovers and penalties as they successfully did against Texas Tech. Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, Texas A&M being let into the SEC has been a bad deal for the Pigs. A&M’s recruiting has improved and they have shot past the Texas Longhorns as the premiere team in Texas. The Razorback calling card of going into Texas and selling the opportunity of playing in the SEC is now gone as A&M can sell that point better.
But let’s be positive for a second, and let’s think of a Razorback victory in Dallas over the Aggies. It changes the outlook of the season. Arkansas enters the discussion of who might win the SEC West, and the following game against Alabama takes on new intrigue, nationally. The UofA already sent out a message last week to buy your tickets to the remaining games to help the team win to improve its bowl seeding.

In the end, this game will be about the new rock stars of the Razorback team, the offensive line. Fans are moving away from throw the ball to punch them in the face. One can tell there is some joy in watching the Razorbacks punch the other team in the face, and they can do nothing about it but just take it. There was a time in the Northern Illinois game when it was third and short, the Razorbacks threw the ball, and you could tell there was disappointment in that it was a not a running play.

Probably now more than ever, many Razorback fans can tell you the starting offensive line where in the past it was just part of a nameless band on the team. The Razorbacks have shown a propensity to run to the short side of the field like a traditional power running team. Instead of using speed to get to the corner of the wide side of the field, Arkansas is just going to try to outnumber the opponent at the point of attack and see who is more powerful. For the last three games, the Razorbacks have been able to do it, but will it continue this weekend?

Send your preferred opponent in the SEC championship game to

Monday, September 15, 2014

From the Bench

Razorbacks Now Poised to Make Bowl Run

Robert Shields

The first signature win of the Bret Bielema era occurred in a big way down in Lubbock, Texas, against Texas Tech. It was impressive in the fact it was on the road in front of a hostile crowd. Tech is not a great team, but they will more than likely end up in a bowl game at the end of the season. With the win, the Razorbacks’ chances of going bowling increased significantly.

The game was brutal to watch if you were a Texas Tech fan as the Razorbacks literally bludgeoned the Red Raiders into a point of being just unable to put up a fight. As they continued to get punched in the gut, Tech brought more people in for support to stop the run, but Arkansas just countered by bringing in more people to block. Eventually, the Razorbacks had no receivers split out wide, but it did not matter. Tech knew the Razorbacks were not going to pass, so why hold the illusion of it?

The Razorback then just pounded it between the tackles. At times, it even looked like the running backs for the Razorbacks were running into the Tech defenders on purpose to punish them. If it would have been a boxing match, the ring official would have stopped the fight. The final blow was when Alex Collins literally ran over a Tech defender on a long run for a touchdown.

The performance was as one of the best for a Razorback team rushing over its opponent since Quinn Grovey did it to the Houston Cougars in Little Rock. When you start running between the tackles as the Razorbacks did Saturday, the game gets really simple. The stronger team is going to win at the point of attack. It doesn’t matter how fast you are as it only helps you get quicker to the train wreck, but you still have to be strong enough to stop the wrecks advance.

I always liked it when John Madden would talk about how he would know how his team was going to be in the offseason depending on how the line pushed the seven-man sled that he called Rosebud. I promise the Razorback seven would push Rosebud to the point of making Madden proud.

Last week, I said stats sometimes don’t tell the story of the game, but in this game they did as the Razorbacks had the ball for 24 of the 30 minutes of the second half and only one possession in the third quarter. No matter how space age your offense may be, if it’s only on the field for just six minutes its own defense is being mauled in the meat grinder.

In the end, the Razorbacks’ Paleolithic offense smashed the trendy Tech offense like a dinosaur would an Xbox game system. You can be using a Montblanc, but a pencil can do the same thing and it’s really all about the person using it.

Besides the offensive line, which was deserving of the game ball, the lack of penalties for the Razorbacks was impressive. If they play that way all season without committing unforced errors and limiting their penalties, they will win a game they are not supposed to. Brandon Allen always got them out of the huddle with plenty of time to spare. They did not have to burn timeouts on stupid things like not being ready or having the wrong personnel on the field. It was crisp to say in a word.

Being even more positive on Allen, twice on third and long he made the play. This moves him beyond just a caretaker on offense to the title of playmaker, which was not the case in the offseason. The time he pump faked the defenders out of position and flashed into the end zone for a touchdown had to be pleasing for Razorback fans.

The defense even looked sharp at times in the secondary where they were seldom caught out of place and made several plays to break up passes. It was a great effort by the defense to hold the high-powered Tech offense to 28 points even though they got a huge assist from their offense by keeping the Tech offense off the field.

Now the bad. The Razorbacks will not be able to lock up hip to hip and run over other teams in the SEC. If nothing else, it will end in a stalemate because the Razorbacks will not significantly outweigh other SEC teams. The Razorbacks will have to find an effective passing game to get other SEC defensive secondaries from crowding the box.

On a few occasions in the Tech game, Allen had guys open who beat the defense and then missed them by overthrowing them. He will have to connect on these to make the Razorback offense more effective in league play. On the upside, maybe sometimes it is better to overthrow than underthrow.

Regardless, after working over the defense between the tackles, you have to make them pay for moving people up to stop the run. It’s the money play in the Razorbacks’ play-action offense.

I’m sure they will work on it this week, but the botch at the beginning of the game with the punt that was fumbled by the ball bounding into a stray Razorback player was deplorable. It was reminiscent of something that you saw with Houston Nutt special teams. Later in the game, you had a similar situation with the ball bounding wildly with Razorback players wandering around unaware of where the live grenade was. The fumbled punt made the game closer in the beginning than it should have been.

Even with Alex Collins hitting the big run late in the game, the Razorbacks are still missing a big play threat. I keep waiting for Korliss Marshall to make a game-breaking run early in a game. Alex Collins and Johnathon Williams have not displayed the ability to leave people behind. They can run over people and shake tacklers, but they don’t blow by a defense.

Last, even though the defense was well-schemed catching Tech by surprise and sometimes even dropping nine men into coverage, the front four seldom if ever got pressure on the quarterback. This is going to have to improve from the Auburn and Tech games where the opposing quarterback has all day to make a decision.

As a closing thought, the telecast of the game was atrocious. The eight-hour interview of Jeff Long while the Razorbacks are on a touchdown scoring drive was terrible. The game coverage was something that Raycom would have been proud of, but not a production from a major network.

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