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.

Send your goal and dreams to

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?

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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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Monday, September 08, 2014

From the Bench

Texas Tech is a Potential Watershed Game for the Bielema Era

Robert Shields

As Paul Finebaum on ESPN’s “College GameDay” said, it was cupcake Saturday in the SEC. Arkansas was up for the challenge and devoured its snack like it was a mini-cupcake. St. Nicklaus State, as they should be called after being so giving, should be thankful to the Hogs that they took it easy on them.

Good thing the UA athletic department was not shooting fireworks after every score at this game because it would have had to take out a small loan from the Razorback Foundation to pay for it since the Hogs scored almost every time they touched the ball. If you ever wonder if stats tell a story, they did not on Saturday because Nicholls State ran significantly more plays than did the Razorbacks.

Quarterback Brandon Allen was amazing as every completion he made was a touchdown, and every time Jonathon Williams touched the ball he essentially ran out of turf to pad his stats even more.

As was seen across the SEC on this cupcake Saturday, fans were not interested in spending their day watching complete beat downs, and in Fayetteville it was no different. The empty seats for the home opener were very visible at kickoff.

It also explains the specially priced ticket packages the UofA was hawking weeks before the game. If you’re a price shopper, tickets for the Nicholls State game could have been found on StubHub for as low as $9.

Putting the football team behind the pigpen gate was unique prior to running through the A, and instead of who let the dogs out, it looked like who let the pigs out. At least for this game, they were not slaughtered.

What Bret Bielema and company did not need to happen on Saturday was for Arkansas State to beat Tennessee as thousands of Arkansas State fans probably were ready to post #ourcoachhasmoreSECwins across social media.

If you want improvement, you saw it on Saturday. One year ago when the Razorbacks played Samford, it was a donnybrook. One year later, the Razorbacks again play a lesser school and decimate them.

But now for the first real test of how much the team has improved for Bielema 2.0 -- it’s this week against Texas Tech on the road. It’s this year’s version of Rutgers from last season. It’s a potential watershed game for the Bielema era at Fayetteville.

This game has been circled for months as a make or break game for the season. It’s hard to find a path to a winning season without a win in Lubbock.

There could not be a bigger contrast of styles between these two teams. Adding to the interest is Bielema wading into the pace of play issue in the offseason as Texas Tech with its coach is one of the vanguards of playing as quickly as possible. If given the chance, Kliff Kingsbury will try to run up the score on the Razorbacks just like the Hogs did to Nicholls State.

Texas Tech has struggled against lesser competition the last two weeks, and its defense has not looked spectacular. This is coupled with the Razorback offensive line having an extreme advantage in sure weight and ability.

Most fans expect a close game. Bielema needs to find a way to win. If he wins, the hopes of going to a bowl game grow exponentially and his naysayers will be silenced.

If he loses, many more will join the ranks of those who already doubt him. A loss pushes the Program closer to its third losing season in a row, which will make fans grow even more impatient.

The contrast of play in this game will be significant. With a loss, the Razorbacks will be seen trying to run an offense of decades ago while Tech operates a new offense of the future where it can take its lesser talent and beat the more athletic and powerful Hogs.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

From the Bench

Razorbacks’ 10-Game Losing Streak Continues as Petrino Returns to Glory

Robert Shields

In the end, it looks like the Arkansas Razorbacks’ banishment from college football is going to be longer than Bobby Petrino’s.

The Razorback losing streak now is at 10 losses in a row, and nine in a row in the SEC after the loss to Auburn. Mercifully, the overall losing streak will more than likely end this Saturday against Nicholls State. If it doesn’t, you have to wonder what Frank Broyles would have done in this situation.

When the SEC losing streak ends, however, is anybody’s guess, and nobody wants to be the first SEC coach to lose to Bret Bielema and be instantly put on the coaching hot-seat list. The windbreaker mystique is gone from Bielema, and if anything it’s a bad-luck charm at this point.

First the good from last Saturday’s game against Auburn. The offensive line has lived up to its billing as being strong in the running game. They also did a good job in pass protection except for the time that Brandon Allen got drilled leading him to throw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and basically ended the game.

Another positive sign for the team was that after falling down by 14 points in the first half, they battled back to tie it before halftime. The team on the road last year probably would have rolled over and gotten beat 52-7. The fact they responded was good and should give you hope for the next three games.

You should be generally hopeful that in a few weeks the Razorbacks will be 3-1. They can and should beat their next three opponents in Nicholls State, Texas Tech, and Northern Illinois. Later in the season, they will beat UAB only leaving them to have to find only two victories in the SEC to make a bowl game.

Also on the upside, the team was efficient in the red zone, which they will have to be in order to convert their chances and not squander them with the Razorback defense being very giving.

Now the bad. Even though the Razorbacks stayed tough until halftime, it was against Auburn’s second-string quarterback. On two possessions in the first half on third and short, the defense stopped Auburn, but you could tell if Heisman candidate Nick Marshall had been in the game they would have gotten those and probably scored.

The Razorback defense was porous and gave up yardage on just about every possible play imagined by Gus Malzahn. The defense looked soft. The secondary has always been a question mark before the season, and most knew it would be a work in progress. But the secondary was equaled in ineptitude by the defensive front. What was supposed to be the strength of the defense was pushed around and essentially never got to the Auburn quarterback.

The fact the defense cannot stop anyone is putting unfair pressure on the offense to have to score on every possession, and that is not going to work. It’s not that type of offense. It’s a methodical offense not a track meet as they will see in Lubbock against Texas Tech.

Much like last year, the Razorbacks have no player who is a game changer, the type of player who can take it to the house on the next play. The offensive line often blocked plays well, yet nobody could break free for a touchdown. The offense has to methodically march down the field to score rather than strike with a big play. That is a problem in the SEC.

Auburn had several players who were game breakers that exploded for big gains or scores. The game looked like a match-up of one talented SEC team playing a slow and lumbering Big Ten team even when the game was evenly matched. I will let you figure out who was the Big Ten team.

The one potential big play for the Razorbacks occurred in the second quarter when Brandon Allen threw what I thought was his best pass of his career way down field and hit the receiver in dead stride behind the defense. The receiver dropped the pass that was a certain touchdown.

The play was significant. If the catch is made, the Razorbacks are winning at halftime. Who knows how the game is played out from that point. The pressure is on Auburn to perform and the Razorbacks can sit back in their methodical game-grinding offense and does not have to put Allen in precarious must-pass situations.

The dropped pass was also meaningful as that play is the payoff play in the play-action pass offense that Arkansas now deploys. You must make defenses pay for cheating by committing too many people to stop the run. When you drop the bomb, the defense is a little more willing to take chances knowing that even if they get beat, there is still a real possibility the Hogs will blow it anyway.

Eventually, the defense cheats and starts committing nine men to stop the run, and seven offensive guys blocking can’t block them all. In the second half, Auburn had the Razorbacks outnumbered at the point of attack and the Razorbacks had no way of countering it to back them off.

Games often turn on a single play, but in the end they often break in the better team’s favor. And great teams are able to overcome the potential game-changing moment. Arkansas as of yet is not near that point, no matter how often Bielema wears the windbreaker.

As you may have seen on Monday night on ESPN, Petrino has landed back in the national spotlight and his new team is already there in his first game. It makes you wonder who exactly is still paying for their sins.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

From the Bench

The Bielema Experiment Rolls Into Season 2 With Key Message of Doing It the Right Way

Robert Shields

The Bret Bielema Era enters its second season when the Razorbacks kick off against the second year of the Gus Malzahn Era at Auburn on Saturday.

Bielema spoke last week to the Little Rock Touchdown club. He is a gifted speaker sans the foul language in front of kids, but it’s just part of who he is. He is genuine. The record crowd at the club’s first meeting of the season broke the old record by about 150 people. One could take this as a sign folks in Little Rock are still engaged in the program, which would be a good sign because the worst sign is apathy and empty seats.

The speech was interesting in what was not said. Having seen quite a few of these preseason speeches right before the season starts, you expect to hear the superlative talk, certain players are mentioned, and there is an overall positive spin. It’s just what coaches are supposed to do before the first snap.

Instead, the crowd was treated to coach Bielema’s life philosophy put into action as a coach. He related a story of building a fence for his dad with his brother and how they started to shortcut the process from using six nails to two nails. The project failed, and through that experience Bielema learned to do it the right way the first time.

That was his message to the crowd -- that he is doing it the right way. It also came off as a plea to be patient because doing it the right way takes time. You can take a shortcut, but in the end it will be something that won’t last. He says he is building something that will last at Arkansas.

A few days later, Bielema spoke at a kickoff luncheon in northwest Arkansas. The significance out of that luncheon was that Chancellor of Athletics and Prosperity (Is that right?), Jeff Long, choked up when talking about Bielema.

If you are wondering if Bielema will be around next season, there was your answer.

The important line from Long was that Bielema has made being around the football program fun again. Of course, some fans choked later when hearing this comment as few found a record-setting losing season of 3-9 as anything but fun being around the football program.

So the theme of the week is that things are being done the right way. To prove this, it was mentioned that Exhibit A is Arkansas was at the bottom of the SEC when it comes to the police blotter standings. I do believe people of good character matter when it comes to building a team, but it’s not the only thing.

It seems universally accepted by those who follow and worship the football program that Bobby Petrino did things the wrong way yet took the Razorbacks to rarefied air being ranked in the top five.

So I interpret in the theme of doing it the right way is that some want it all. They want to win and to do it a certain way. This will be a tough task to undertake at Arkansas. This will begin the second season of the Bret Bielema experiment with the themes given to us that “he does it right, a certain way, we want to win, and this will require time and patience.”

Looking back at the first year of the experiment, it was rocky to say the least. The team is still in the middle of an incredible nine-game losing streak and coincidentally has not won since his wife’s outburst on twitter to Wisconsin fans with the memorable hashtag #Karma.

When Bielema first arrived, he battled with Wisconsin fans on Twitter, which to some looked juvenile and far beneath an SEC coach who really shouldn’t have time for such nonsense.

Then there was the arrival and the proclamation that he came to beat Alabama only to have the Crimson Tide take it easy on the Razorbacks in a 52-0 absolute beatdown.

While still at Wisconsin, Bielema was also guilty of hinting that SEC teams were cheaters. Not surprisingly, some of the coaches in the league did not take kindly to it and were probably lying in wait for him last season with extra motivation from their bagmen.

Bielema’s mouth did not stop at that point. He waded into the debate as a vocal leader about the pace-of-play issue. In that process, he dragged a player from the University of California who had passed away into his argument and later had to apologize after the chancellor of Cal was upset about it.

Bielema got panned in the offseason by at least two writers -- one from the Birmingham News and the other from Sports Illustrated -- questioning if he is a fit at Arkansas.

Change in human nature comes in two forms, one being learned change and the other being forced change. Forced change only lasts as long as the force stays in place. Learned change is lasting.

But I think Bielema is learning about the SEC. He has been quiet since the Cal player controversy. His speech in Little Rock was not brash as his personality in the past has been. His speech was more reflective and engaging. He also doesn’t carry on debates with Wisconsin fans any longer.

I think it’s safe to say he learned his defense from last season would not work in the SEC as he gutted almost the entire defensive coaching staff. They appear to have implemented a more basic defense that will bring more pressure, or at least that is what we are told.

Bielema seems to have found the value of Korliss Marshall, a value that was evident last year. Big plodding runners may work in the Big Ten, but Bielema got exposed to the fact that in the SEC teams have game breakers and game changers who are lightning fast and every team needs at least one.

Bielema also learned, or hopefully learned, that you can be third in the SEC in rushing and still lose all your games. An effective passing game is mandatory.

In the SEC, you control the game by rushing the ball, but you win games by being able to throw the ball.

Or at least you hope he has learned these things. If not, the experiment with the backing of the emotional AD is going to get a whole lot more interesting.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

From the Bench

Will Bielema and Razorbacks Make it to a Bowl? Roll the Annual Predictions

Robert Shields

After calling talk-radio host Bo Mattingly a homer last week, which should have come as a surprise to no one since his web site explains that “leveraging the positive will be a staple” on his show, Mattingly seemed to disagree.

Regardless, Mattingly, who does have the most professionally produced sports radio show in the state, made a very valid assessment of the Razorback Program when he said that the period between August 30 and April 30 will be a critical time for vice chancellor of athletics Jeff Long as he works fiddling with the playoff selection committee, the flailing football program, and what looks like a basketball program on the verge of a breakout season.

Long needs both of his coaches that he hired in the major money sports to win. Anderson has to make the NCAA tournament, and Bret Bielema needs to make a bowl game.

So let’s see if Bielema gets the football team to a bowl and makes the athletic director look good, or if a lack of success puts him on the hot seat where angry fans start to use Bielema’s cursing in front of kids at a scrimmage against him as they compile the traditional list of irrelevant reasons to fire the head coach.

Roll the predictions:

August 30 ¬¬ – Auburn at Auburn
The heat and humidity are stifling to open the season in the deep South. In the first half, the Razorback defense looks to be more aggressive. Thanks to his preseason “suspension,” Nick Marshall misses the opening play and then enters the game on second down for the Tigers. They hang tough and keep the Razorbacks tied at the half at 14-14. In the third quarter, a crucial turnover by the Hogs changes the momentum of the game. Auburn takes control in the second half and wins 35-21 as the Razorbacks wither in the Southern heat that they aren’t used to playing in. The next day, the Opelika News reports Auburn was the hottest place in the nation that day with a temp of 104 degrees, and Bielema is awarded the world record for hottest temperature while wearing a windbreaker.

September 6 – Nicholls State at Fayetteville
The Razorbacks come home in good health and fans are mildly excited about the moral victory of a 14-point loss at Auburn. The Razorbacks get the running game rolling early when Korliss Marshall has a big run to put things in motion. Although fans have known for a year he was the best running back, Bielema finally finds a way to effectively use him in the game. A severe thunderstorm pops up early in the fourth quarter and blows down the new tent for the student party high atop the stands in the south end zone. Luckily for the UA, no one was up there other than lonely DJ Greg. Razorbacks 49-10.

September 13 – Texas Tech at Lubbock
The teams exchange offensive blows in the first half as both defenses can’t seem to stop the other. Tech takes a 28-24 lead at the half. In the third quarter, Tech has a crucial mistake as Razorback linebacker Martrell Spaight returns an interception for a touchdown. The Razorbacks hold Tech in the next possession. The Razorbacks keep on rolling and hold off Tech in a wild one 59-56.

September 20 – Northern Illinois at Fayetteville
Razorback fans are wringing their hands talking about Northern Illinois as though it’s the same team from last year. The visitors are scrappy, but Dan Skipper, Denver Kirkland, and company push the visitors around. Razorbacks win 42-24. Bo Mattingly praises Brandon Allen as being the difference maker and being the leader of the team and suggests to every guest on his show the following week that Allen should be mentioned for the Heisman.

September 27 – Texas A&M at Arlington
The Razorbacks stand at 3-1 and have inexplicably picked up enough votes to be No. 25 in the nation. The A&M defense has not improved as much as the Razorback defense, yet both teams struggle early trying to find their way. A&M has a costly turnover, and the Hogs squander a couple of opportunities in the red zone by missing passing plays. Fans wonder why the team threw the ball instead of running it. Korliss Marshall is rarely seen in the game and callers to the Bo Mattingly show question what the coach is thinking. It ends up being the most disappointing loss of the season. Razorback lose 38-35.

October 11 – Alabama at Fayetteville
The game is a rout. Alabama beats the Razorbacks 49-13. Fans feel good that the offense gets on the scoreboard against Alabama for the first time in three years, and some blame the off week for the Razorbacks being sluggish in the game. Bielema guarantees in the press conference that he will beat Nick Saban in a golf-cart race at the next SEC coaches golf outing.

October 18 – Georgia at Little Rock
Korliss Marshall opens the game with a long run. The Razorback defense for the first time in weeks looks stingy. Mark Richt plays the game close, which works to Bielema’s own conservative play-calling advantage. The crowd is wild as the game is tight going into the fourth quarter with the Razorbacks trailing by two. Georgia shanks a punt. The Razorbacks mount a last drive. Alex Collins rips off a tough 12-yard run for a first down putting the Razorbacks at the 30-yard line. The next play off a play action goes to Hunter Henry for another dozen. The Hogs wind the clock down for a 37-yard field-goal attempt on the last play. The kick sails through the uprights as time expires and fans storm the field. Richt loses his job at the end of the season.

October 25 – UAB at Fayetteville
Off the momentum of the Georgia game, the Razorbacks pummel the Blazers and move to 5-3 on the season. It’s Brandon Allen’s best game throwing for more than 300 yards. Razorbacks win 42-10. Razorback Nation sportscasts start running features on where to stay at the college-football playoff sites.

November 1 – Mississippi State at Starkville
The Razorback have a mistake-riddled game and have more than 150 yards in penalties. Fans take umbrage with the officiating as it is questionable. Bo Mattingly agrees with the fans that the officiating was as bad as he has seen it in the SEC. Fans leave off the part that the Razorback have three turnovers. Brandon Allen even has a pick six. The Razorbacks, though, fight to the end but come up short losing 31-21.

November 15 – LSU at Fayetteville
The game takes a similar turn like the Alabama game. The Tigers dominate the Hogs. The schedule shift hurt the Razorbacks as the end-of-the-year game with LSU worked more to the Razorbacks’ advantage with the short week and LSU being beat up. Bo Mattingly agrees with the fans that the team’s sluggishness against these good teams is evident. The schedule break causing the team to get out of rhythm is a common theme. LSU fans are glad they found a passing game as they rack up more than 500 yards. LSU 52, Razorbacks 17.

November 22 – Ole Miss at Fayetteville
Bo Wallace for Ole Miss has a good day, and the Razorback defense is shaky. The Razorbacks just need one more win to go to a bowl game, and most fans think this is the one as the Missouri game is on the road. The Razorbacks can’t get in the end zone enough and end up kicking three field goals. It’s not enough as Ole Miss wins 28-23. The next day the angry guy who keeps running anti-Jeff Long ads in the paper puts in an ad saying Hugh Freeze would have been a great fit as the Arkansas head coach.

November 28 – Missouri at Columbia
On Thanksgiving night, the first winter weather of the season for the region plunges south and winter precipitation on Friday is expected at the game as a reminder that the Missouri Tigers don’t belong in the SEC geographically. The weather, though, seems to spark the Hogs, who are also used to the cold weather of northwest Arkansas. They fight knowing they need this game. Korliss Marshall can’t seem to break one, and the running game for the first time all year seems incompetent in the first half. Jeremy Sprinkle makes a big catch for a touchdown to put the Hogs in front late in the game. Missouri starts one last drive and Matt Mauk for the Tigers is deadly efficient moving his team down field. Then at the most opportune time, Trey Flowers explodes into Mauk out of nowhere causing a fumble recovered by Darius Philon. Razorbacks win 31-27.

That puts Arkansas at 6-6 and into a bowl for the first time since the Bobby Petrino era. I will let you decide how the bowl game goes and where Long and Bielema take the program from there.

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