Monday, November 23, 2015

From the Bench

Only Person Who Could Stop Razorback Offense on Saturday Night Was the Coach

Robert Shields

Many times it has been written in this space that you never leave the game up to the one guy on the team who never has to block or tackle.

This is proof positive that Bret Bielema never reads my column because he left the game to the one player who is probably based more in soccer than playing football.

When Bielema went with his kicking team at the end of the game, it statistically only had around a 67-percent chance of winning the game, and we all know in reality when the game is on the line the kicking team is even less dependable.

Most fans hold their breath in overtime when they score and have to wait to see if the ever-dependable kicker makes just the extra point. So having to use the kicker to win on a field goal should be a last resort when no other options are left rather than a strategy that you waste several plays to run the clock and set up.

There are so many things that can go wrong with a kick in the crunch, and this time it had nothing to do with the kicker because his protection broke down. This has not been the first time that the blocking for the kicking has failed the kicker as it also happened in a game-winning field-goal attempt against Ole Miss. This happens because the defense can sell out on the kick as the kicking team has no choice but to kick and the defense can load up and outnumber the protection.

The coach somehow thought running the ball three times in the middle and setting up for the ever-suspect field goal while running the clock down to a little more than 40 seconds was his best avenue to beat Mississippi State. I guess he wanted to exhaust the Mississippi State timeouts. This part of the plan worked.

But I have to wonder what game the Razorback coach was watching during the evening because a 53 to 51 lead with more than 40 seconds probably wasn’t going to hold in this track meet anyway.

There is little doubt with that much time that Bulldog quarterback Dak Prescott was going to take the ball and move right back down the field against the very suspect Razorback defense for a field-goal attempt by the Bulldogs (assuming that Mississippi State would not have scored a touchdown).

On its last drive, the Razorbacks needed to get the next first down or score a touchdown. All night, Arkansas had moved the ball down the field and scored touchdowns. I’m not sure why the Razorback coach lost his confidence at this point. He is risk-adverse to a fault, and it has fed into many fourth-quarter losses for the Razorbacks and this game was no different.

Bielema has a red-hot quarterback over the last few games, yet his faith at that late point in the game was not with Brandon Allen but the kicking team. He went against his quarterback that won him several tight games in a row.

This wasn’t the same Bielema who went for two in overtime against Ole Miss. At some point in the game, the old Bret Bielema returned afraid to roll the dice.

Guys like Hunter Henry, Jared Cornelius, Dominique Reed, Jeremy Sprinkle, and Drew Morgan were scoring at will and had found the end zone seven times during the game, and you had to feel they were going to find it one more time as their quarterback moved the team down the field rapidly into scoring position.

They only one who could stop the Razorback offense was their coach by shutting it down to put the shaky kicking team on the field.

You have to wonder what the other coaches on the team were thinking as Bielema shut down the offense. It was puzzling. The team was probably going to score a touchdown and then could try a two-point conversion so the Bulldogs’ only hope would have been going the distance in 40 seconds just to tie the game.

What has become quite clear over the last few games is that the quarterback is a gamer and can win games in the clutch. Razorback fans will lose him next year, but you won’t lose your coach and it’s OK to wonder if he is a gamer.

Send what you would have done in the game to

Monday, November 16, 2015

From the Bench

Everybody Loves a Winner as Hogs Continue to Roll Over SEC West

Robert Shields

After some really good chances in the past to win at Death Valley in Baton Rouge against the formidable LSU Tigers, this Razorback group took control of the game and never let go. The fact that LSU is almost unbeatable in a night game in this venue made no difference to this band of Hogs. As a matter of fact, this band of brothers wearing all red sent the LSU faithful finding the exits early.

In 2009, a Ryan Mallett led team played the Tigers to the bitter end and got a dishonest call that cost the Razorbacks the game. If you remember that season, the Razorbacks got hosed in the Florida game as well that year.

In 2011, the Razorbacks were ranked No. 3 with Tyler Wilson at quarterback, but the team ran into the Honey Badger.

Then in 2013, the Razorbacks seemed to have the game won when backup LSU quarterback took the Tigers on a game-winning 99-yard drive ensuring the Hogs would not win a single SEC game that season.

In 2015, things were different. The team shook off an early fumble on the opening drive, and the defense came out and made the LSU offense go three and out. Such a turnover in the past probably would have doomed most Razorback teams in Baton Rouge, but not this one as they came right out on their next possession and scored on a pass to Dominque Reed.

The Razorbacks only punted twice, which is an indication the offense was clicking as it has all year. The difference is that as of late the offense converts in the red zone. As the stat kept popping up on the television screen that the Hogs have converted on 17 out of their last 17 attempts in the red zone, then it quickly became 18. This team does not squander opportunities that it did earlier in the year.

This Hog team is red hot, and nobody wants to engage with them. Alabama was lucky catching this team when they did because this Razorback team is much better now than when the Tide played them. Even then, the Razorbacks controlled the game for three quarters before the wheels came off the wagon. The Razorbacks were one of the few teams that was able to keep Derrick Henry under 100 yards.

It helped the Razorbacks catching LSU after it received a beat down from Alabama. The Hogs get the same benefit this week facing a Mississippi State team that was just roughed up by Alabama.

The Razorbacks have a real chance to finish 8-4, which is where many fans had them for the season, but probably few saw them getting there by the path that they have taken.

It was hard to imagine this team, which over the previous three years struggled so much on the road, would go 3-1 in road games in the SEC. Many probably had the Razorback going 4-4 in the conference and winning its four non-conference games. Instead, they may go 6-2 in the SEC and finish second in the vaunted SEC West.

Another difference in the team now as compared to just a few weeks back is that the receiving group has turned into monsters. Time and again, they help Brandon Allen out converting crucial third-down situations.

One has to wonder if the departure of Kendrick Edwards and JoJo Robinson was actually a plus for the team. Maybe, they were superior athletes, but in the end the receiving group with Jared Cornelius, Dominque Reed, and Drew Morgan have teamed up to become problematic for opposing defensive coordinators. Maybe it’s a situation where it was addition by subtraction.

The Razorbacks need to find another running back, though. When Alex Collins has to leave the game, the team gets extremely thin, and Kody Walker even as good as he is cannot pick up all the lost slack. Denzell Evans or Juan Day have to get ready.

But Alex Collins is turning into a special back as for one of the first times he just flat outran the LSU defense all the way to the end zone -- a flash of breakaway speed that has been missing at times. But maybe even more importantly, he has protected Brandon Allen’s backside and picked up that blitzing opposing player.

Funny how just a few wins turns things around. Go back just a few weeks and many fans had their pitch forks out after the Alabama game talking about the Bielema flop. As written in this space at that time, that was a non-event and the only reason it even mattered to some was because the team was losing.

When you are losing, everything is under the microscope. But now that Bielema is winning, all is good even as he misspoke about hoping on the plane last week with his wife.

It was funny because everybody loves a winner.

Send your winning ways to

Monday, November 09, 2015

From the Bench

Razorbacks’ Epic Day Would Have Them in Mix for
SEC West Championship if Not for Collapse Against A&M

Robert Shields

“In an epic day in Oxford, Mississippi,” said Chuck Barrett, the play-by-play man for Razorback radio toward the end of the broadcast on Saturday. “Epic day” was putting it mildly.

The backward pass from Hunter Henry that somehow miraculously ended up in the hands of Alex Collins mainly because a tall Dan Skipper tipped it away from an Ole Miss defender was probably one of the most epic plays in Razorback history.

It ranks up there with great plays like Ken Hatfield’s punt return against Texas, Bobby Duckworth’s catch from Ron Calcagni against Texas Tech that put the Razorbacks in the Orange Bowl, and DeCori Birmingham’s Miracle on Markham catch.

Yet, this play was probably the most improbable of those as the Razorbacks were backed up to around the 40-yard line needing 25 yards to get a first down at the 15 on fourth down. The Razorbacks faltered on the first three plays of the overtime on offense and even drew a penalty and had a fumble that it luckily recovered. That’s the reset.

Then on fourth down, Brandon Allen lofts a pass to Henry who intelligently knew when being tackled to make the backward lateral become a throw and not a fumble as a fumble can only be advanced by the offensive player making the fumble.

Then after the Skipper tip, Collins ends up with the ball in an almost “I fell back and hit my head on a gold brick holy cow look what I found” kind of way. But, also key was that Collins’ economy of motion was already going in the right direction.

Ole Miss fans thought they had won and threw their drinks in the air dousing everyone as Henry went down. The Rebel faithful left the game being wet and sticky as usual -- but as losers.

Bret Bielema always preaches to “play through the whistle,” and his team did just that. Even as Collins fumbled at the end of the run, his teammate kept playing as Dominque Reed alertly fell on the ball. It was enough for the first down, which at that time was nearly equivalent as scoring the winning touchdown.

Poetically, Collins, who had been bottled up all day by the stingy Ole Miss defense that was totally committed to stopping the run, had his longest run of the day putting him over 100 yards after the lateral to him. It’s a tough play to chart for the box-score statisticians.

The Razorbacks, of course, scored a touchdown to match Ole Miss in overtime. The difference was that the Razorbacks decided to go for two.

I have chastised Bielema in the past for not rolling the dice when he is presented with a chance to win on numerous fourth-down plays where he decided to punt and rely on his defense to win it. But in the Ole Miss game, he rolled the dice and knew not to rely on his defense to win the game.

The defense was done, and it actually became evident earlier in the game when Ole Miss drove down in a matter of seconds for a game-tying field goal at halftime. The only reason Ole Miss did not score a touchdown was because it ran out of time. The Razorbacks from that point pretty much had to match score for score the rest of the game.

After the Razorbacks scored the touchdown in overtime, it was time to go for two and end the game because short of an Ole Miss turnover the Razorbacks were not going to stop them. Presented with the opportunity, Bielema took the chance to win and did not follow the coaching book of kicking it, surviving it, and hoping for the best in the next overtime.

The first two-point conversion attempt was a disaster, but Allen was face-masked in front of an official to save the Hogs and give them another chance. The face-mask call was significant because Allen was going to escape and only by the Ole Miss player dragging him down by his facemask did he tackle him.

Then even in the face of the failed attempt, Bielema did not waiver as the team lined up again and called the right play as Allen fell into the end zone to win the game.

Allen and quarterback Chad Kelly of Ole Miss dueled all day with Allen throwing six touchdowns and Kelly throwing for three and running for another three. Yet Allen’s feat was more impressive. Nobody mistakes the Ole Miss defense for the Razorback defense that has numerous holes and has all season.

Allen had to go against this tougher defense that obviously had the game plan to stop the run and make Allen beat them through the air. He did just that. It was ironic that Allen scored on a run on the game-winning two-point conversion.

In the end, Allen’s performance was probably the most prolific of any Razorback in school history. Odd considering many Razorback fans see him in a much different light before this game as being at best just an average quarterback.

In past close games over the last three years, you could always sense the team was fearful and trying not to lose. In this game, they just kept looking for a way to win.

As maligned as the defense played, it came up with one of the most important plays of the game that will probably be forgotten. As time was running down in regulation with Ole Miss with the ball and no real hope of the defense stopping the Rebels from getting into position to kick a game-winning field goal just like it did before halftime, Deatrich Wise came up with a sack on Kelly. For the first time all day, the defense held Ole Miss on downs leading to a Razorback field-goal attempt that on its own would have been good had Ole Miss not blocked it.

But for a late fourth-quarter collapse to a bad Texas A&M team in Dallas, the Razorbacks would be right in the mix for the SEC West championship.

Bielema is now on the winning side in the SEC standings for the first time at 3-2. He has also won his last two overtime games in the SEC. He is 2-1 in his last SEC road games. Since the LSU game last year, he is 5-3 in the SEC. In SEC games this year decided by one score or less, he is 3-1.

After the game, his boss, Jeff Long, gave him a sincere and loving long embrace. Everything is trending the right way for Bielema even when he is talking about hoping on the plane for the ride home.

Send what you hop on when it’s time to leave to

Monday, November 02, 2015

From the Bench

Lack of Bowl Would Be Step Backward for Razorback Football Program

Robert Shields

The game turned into the rout that it was supposed to be as the Razorbacks pummeled UT-Martin. For the first time in many games, the Razorbacks got to play the reserves, and the crowd was treated to an opportunity for an early exit knowing the game was won. Most took that opportunity.

If you want a negative from the game, the Razorback defense did not show up. Or at least that is what you have to hope as UT-Martin threw the ball with ease against the Razorbacks, which is not a good sign for the upcoming game against Ole Miss, which is not ashamed to put the ball in the air.

If you want a positive, the Razorback offense looked killer in the red zone. But in a rent-a-win game like this, it’s hard to read anything into anything.

Those who left early missed decent performances by Austin Allen, Juan Day, and Denzell Evans. It’s important because these are your guys of next year unless some great freshmen arrive. The loss of Rawleigh Williams last week was a blow to the running-back group as Williams was the back-up to Alex Collins when Kody Walker and Jonathan Williams went down with injuries.

The emergence of Denzell Evans or Juan Day would be welcome additions and both showed some speed, which has been lacking at the spot this year.

The Razorbacks returned to .500 with a record of 4-4. There were plenty of painful losses in those four games, but the one that sticks out the most is the Texas A&M game, which the Razorbacks should have won holding onto a lead with a chance to put it away before a penalty changed the outcome.

It hurts because A&M is not that great of a team, and to lose to them in the same exact fashion as in the previous season seems improbable.

A win over A&M would have put the Razorbacks at 5-3, which is where many fans probably had the team at this point just one victory away from securing a bowl game. And make no mistake, this team needs to make a bowl game and win it. Anything less will be a step backward compared to last year for a team that was projected by many to have a much better season.

Sure, some will point to the Toledo game as being bad. But, Toledo is a very good team and remains ranked and undefeated. Toledo had solid play up front on defense and a quarterback that was worthy of being on the Alabama depth chart.

Still, the Hogs should always beat Toledo and almost did as they were one missed completion to Hunter Henry away as the ball sailed over his head. Toledo caught the Razorbacks at the right moment as the team was still trying to find itself with all the injuries of Keon Hatcher, Jared Cornelius, Kody Walker, and Jonathan Williams, to name a few on offense.

The injuries have continued, but the team seems to be adjusting and finding itself much like it did last year late in the season. The team now has to win two out of its last four. Missouri is target one. LSU in Baton Rouge appears to be a longshot victory.

For a clear path to a bowl without having to apply for a waiver at 5-7 (which at that record fans will still feel like the team is a disappointment from starting projections), the Razorbacks must find at least one victory against either Ole Miss or Mississippi State.

Of those two games, both present their challenges. Mississippi State with Dak Prescott will be a tough out as he is one of the better, if not the best, quarterback in the SEC. Prescott is playing well and will cause the Razorback defense problems. The upshot is that it will be played in Fayetteville.

Ole Miss conversely will be on the road in Oxford. Ole Miss is very beatable, but it is also one of the most unpredictable teams in the SEC losing to Memphis State and yet beating Alabama.

The schedule this year set up to be very difficult with teams like Alabama, LSU, and Ole Miss on the road all being the better teams in the SEC.

Next year that reverses as all those teams plus Florida come to visit Fayetteville, and it also sets up as the type of schedule that gets a coached fired as losing at home never endears the fans base.

Send your path to a bowl game to

Monday, October 26, 2015

From the Bench

Bielema’s Win Over Auburn Could be Like Nolan’s Against Arkansas State

Robert Shields

The four-overtime win over Auburn was one of the most exciting Razorback football wins in a long time for all the right reasons. The game took a similar path as past games with the Hogs holding a slim fourth-quarter lead before blowing it and allowing the game going into overtime – but this time there was a better ending.

Before this game, Bret Bielema had blown a lead and ended up in overtime three times. In all three of those games, they Razorbacks lost by bowing out quickly in the first overtime.

This time was different as the team dug in deep. In the third overtime period, it looked the bleakest for the Razorbacks as they trailed by eight with Auburn having already scored and making the two-point conversion. History under Bielema was not on the Razorbacks’ side, but the team responded scoring on a Kody Walker 4-yard run.

This left the Hogs with one play to tie or lose. It was Brandon Allen’s best moment. He threw the ball where only Jeremy Sprinkle could catch it slightly behind him.

The Razorbacks started the fourth overtime period and scored quickly and followed with another two-point conversion. The pressure was turned on Auburn. The defense was afforded the opportunity to rest and then rose to the occasion, and the rest was history.

It’s hard to know what this game meant to Bielema and his tenure at Arkansas. Even if he would have lost the game, he was probably still going to be the Razorback coach, but for how long is debatable. A fourth game blown in the fourth quarter and lost in overtime would have been devastating to many fans and their faith in Bielema.

As written last week, this game against Auburn was probably one of the most important in Bielema’s three-year career in Fayetteville. Many fans speculated that Bielema would have at least five years, which is odd considering fans didn’t even want to give Houston Nutt his “two-year pass” after dealing with the football program’s NCAA investigation that was not even of his own doing.

I find this game with Auburn tantamount to Nolan Richardson’s win against Arkansas State in Barnhill Arena. It went without saying if Nolan would have been the first coach to lose to A-State in such a marquee matchup at home that he would not have survived to coach the next season. A-State controlled most of the game and extended a lead to a large double-digit margin in the second half.

The Razorback basketball team was done in that game until Cannon Whitby banged in a long-range three-pointer off the backboard to ignite the team. Stephan Moore jacked up Brad Goshen as the Razorbacks rallied to send the game into overtime.

The rest is history as the Razorbacks won the game and launched Nolan’s wonderful career at Arkansas including three trips to the final four, two trips to the final game, and one national title.

Will this game and miracle rally in overtime over the Auburn Tigers launch the prestigious career we all expect out of Bielema here at Arkansas?

Send your expectations to

Monday, October 19, 2015

From the Bench

Economics Will Be the Ultimate Truth Machine in Predicting Longevity of Bielema Era

Robert Shields

To start, let’s recap the Bret Bielema era in case anyone has not kept up. In the last three years, he has lost nine games where he probably should have won. In most of those games, the Razorbacks held the lead and collapsed. In three of those games, it went to overtime where the Razorbacks bowed out quickly.

Then there is the fact that Bielema is the holder of the longest losing streak ever in Razorback history along with being the holder of the longest SEC losing streak in Razorback history. He didn’t win his first SEC road game until his third season as the Razorback head coach.

Last week, when videogate blew up about Bielema flopping or being pushed by an opposing player depending on your fan perspective, the controversy took life because the Hogs are losing. If the Razorbacks were winning, none of it would have mattered.

But it shows how some of the fan base is turning on Bielema. They are looking for anything to complain about him much like fans only start to complain about graduation rates when it is time to fire the coach. Bielema has been emotional on the sidelines before, so why does it matter now?

At the same time, callers on the radio talk shows in the state have complained Bielema shows no emotion and needs to be more fired up. He can’t win with fans one way or the other.

Some might wonder if this Bielema video was tantamount to Houston Nutt’s radio comment of “I called that play, Chuck.” Both incidents on the surface are innocuous, but for fans out for their coach, it’s all they need.

Whether you want to keep Bielema or fire him is based on your projection of where you see him taking the Razorbacks. If you want to keep him, you believe he is about to turn this thing around and start winning with his philosophy and that he just needs more time.

If you want him fired, you believe he is a loser and will continue to lose here at Arkansas. The last three years of history is on that group’s side.

Bielema is about to enter his biggest game as the Razorback head coach this week against Auburn in Fayetteville. This is an Auburn team that is struggling compared to the expectations it started with as a top 10 team.

If Bielema beats Auburn, he might turn this thing around. Fans (not to mention his players ) will be given a reason to hold onto the rope. Fans need something to believe in and not another bad game experience reinforcing the idea he can’t get it done.

Bielema’s best path back to a bowl game is winning the remaining home games against Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri, and UT-Martin. The two road games against Ole Miss and LSU seem more difficult, although Ole Miss appears to be more vulnerable after the loss to Memphis State or whatever they are called now.

It’s possible that Bielema could lose to Auburn and still make a bowl, but fan projections of his ability will take another hit if he loses to the Tigers at home.

What Bielema has in his corner is a something special. He has an athletic director who loves him. When you have an athletic director that basically cries talking about you and says that you made football fun again last year, you are golden.

Plus, if Jeff Long has to fire Bielema, it’s an admission that he made a big mistake, one for taking the year off with John L. Smith and secondly for hiring Bielema, one of his key hires at the helm of the Razorback athletic program.

In the end, it may not even be Long’s decision to fire Bielema. Economics is the ultimate truth machine, and sure Bielema has a great big buyout (whose fault is that, by the way), but you can still pay Bielema his yearly guaranteed part of his contract in increased ticket sales to cover the loss.

In other words, if the promise of a new coach can pre-sell thousands more tickets than Bielema could next season, the decision becomes much easier.

All that will be based on fans’ like or dislike of Bielema. And everybody loves a winner.

Send your predictions of the remaining season to

Monday, October 12, 2015

From the Bench

Lack of Bowl This Season Is Verification Bielema Can’t Get It Done

Robert Shields

On Saturday, the Razorbacks had their chance to evaluate, measure, and verify their own ability against the best in the SEC in the Alabama Crimson Tide. For three quarters, the Razorbacks held their own as the sleeping giant took most of the game off. Then after a long touchdown pass and a bizarre fake punt by the Razorbacks, the monster of the SEC awoke and reeled off 24 unanswered points.

For three quarters, Alabama rolled out a performance that made it possible for the Razorbacks to win thanks to two interceptions with one leading to a touchdown and 7-3 Razorback halftime lead. The Tide also missed on two field goals to squander opportunities in the first half.

The Razorbacks, though, were not able to get the offense moving all night. Alabama, which has made winning the point of attack sacrosanct under Nick Saban, effectively dominated the line of scrimmage when its defense was on the field.

If you want a positive coming out of the game, the Razorbacks are improving. If the Razorback defense would have played earlier in the season the way it did Saturday, they would have beaten Toledo, Texas Tech, and A&M.

For the first time this season, the defensive line was able to get pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback and at times looked great. They held Derrick Henry, the bruising Tide running back, under 100 yards even with him carrying it almost 30 times. However, Henry was able to score a touchdown for his 11th straight game, an Alabama record.

The defense also shut down Kenyon Drake and for most of the game and had Jake Coker flustered to cause Alabama to attempt four field goals on the night.

But in the end, the Alabama defense was the story of the game as it dominated from beginning to end forcing the Razorbacks to punt 10 times.

The Razorback running backs of Alex Collins and Raleigh Williams averaged 2.2 and 2.0 yards per carry respectively against the Tide. I assume these are the Razorbacks’ best running backs because these are the guys that get all the carries.

With the Razorbacks trailing just 10-7, the coaches decided to fake a punt needing close to five yards on their own side of the field. I am not sure what they were thinking with their best running backs not being able to get anywhere near five yards on a carry how Toby Baker, the punter, was going to be able to do it. It was an act of complete desperation. I get that you need to try something, but was that the best decision?

As for trying something, you only have to go back a couple of possessions in the game to reach a critical point. For one of the few times in the game, the Razorbacks were mounting something of a drive and crossed midfield into Alabama territory, which was rare on the night. The team faced a fourth and one.

I wrote last week and actually on several other occasions that this coach and his staff have to learn in the SEC when you cross midfield you have to start thinking in terms that you have four downs to operate.

Again, last week, I wrote that Bielema would have to roll the dice when they are presented with opportunities. When you cross midfield into Alabama territory and face a fourth and short, this is an opportunity.

Instead, the coach decided to punt as he has so many times in his career as the Razorback coach. I am not sure what he was thinking other than keeping field position so his defense could win 7-3 by shutting out the Crimson Tide the rest of the game.

The offense had to get into the end zone again to have a chance at winning, and once they crossed midfield this was their opportunity. But once again, Bielema punted away his opportunity.

Instead, he decided his opportunity was to roll the dice on his own side of the field faking a punt with his punter running the ball against this Tide defense. It defies logic and maybe that was his point of going for it, but teams are looking for the Razorbacks to do fakes in the kicking game.

Somehow, the decision process in the game was that their chances were better to let the punter try to pick up five yards instead of a running back getting one.

After the fake punt, the beat down was on and the team never looked the same again. The team got its evaluation, measurement, and verification.

Starting in two weeks, the coach enters his period of EM&V with Auburn. The path to any possible bowl trip runs through Fayetteville as the team will have to win its remaining home games against Auburn, UT-Martin, Mississippi State, and Missouri to reach the magical six wins to make a bowl trip.

The LSU game in Baton Rouge and Ole Miss in Oxford seem unrealistic as wins right now. If the Razorbacks lose to Auburn, the hopes of a bowl trip will start to flicker and with it may be the start of the verification process that Bielema can’t get it done.

Send your measurements to

Monday, October 05, 2015

From the Bench

Same Approach From Bielema Will Be Needed for Chance Against Alabama

Robert Shields

Saturday’s Razorback game against the Tennessee Volunteers took an eerily similar trajectory to the other losses by Bret Bielema that came down to a single possession. With the Razorbacks leading 24-20, it appeared that bad luck would strike again while holding a lead in the fourth quarter. Dominating the second half and the clock, the Razorbacks went on a long drive. In similar fashion as other losses, the drive stalled and the Razorbacks settled for a field-goal attempt.

The field goal was blocked to serve as the momentum killer like so many of Bielema’s other losses. But the team did not quit or become paralyzed. The team got the ball back and mounted another drive and took it near the Volunteer goal line. Again, the drive stalled as it has become epidemic with this team failing in the red zone. The team looked to be opting again for a field-goal attempt, but instead the Razorbacks faked it and the Volunteers did not bite on it tackling the fake kicker.

The fake field goal was probably Bielema’s worst decision of the game only in the fact that he used a different kicker that telegraphed the fake because it was a different look that drew the attention of the Volunteers. If you’re going to go for it, use your offense instead of a fake kicker to make a tough running play in such tight quarters.

But again, the team did not quit or become paralyzed. In fact, it played harder. For the first time in a long time, the defense held an opposing team operating with four downs with the game on the line. The defense buckled down around midfield and made the Volunteers turn the ball over on downs.

Still facing time on the clock, the offense had to evaporate it. Facing a third and short, the offense powered forward with a banged up Alex Collins on a misdirection toss sweep. The play call was brilliant as Tennessee was expecting another hammering play between the tackles. From there with a new first down, the Razorbacks exhausted the clock.

After the back story, the difference in this game more than the other close losses by Bielema was that he did not play conservatively. He threw caution to the wind. He was not afraid to roll the dice on fourth down on a couple of occasions. Even if the misdirection toss sweep play did not work, he would have come back and gone for it on fourth down or that is what I would like to believe.

Even the bad fake field goal late in the fourth quarter was a positive in that he was not playing afraid to lose but playing instead to win. I believe this transferred over to the team. The team played to win by rolling the dice with each opportunity.

The game was a loser-leave-town match and as the television called it, the “Desperation Bowl.” A loss to Tennessee would have made a path back to a bowl game almost impossible with the remaining schedule. Fans can at least imagine a path now.

Winning breads momentum, and it did that in spades last year for the Razorbacks, so the team will at least carry the confidence of this road win into Tuscaloosa for the next game. Bielema has almost certainly pointed out that the team still holds its own fate in its hands with only one conference loss.

The Razorbacks still have an issue that surfaced at times in the Tennessee game on several plays including special teams -- the team is slow, which is a killer in the SEC. To combat this lack of speed, the Razorbacks will have to play more disciplined, or more busts in the kicking game are going to happen and cost them more games.

The poor play of special teams has always been an indication of a team not having depth. Special teams are typically made up of guys who are not seeing the field all the time and when another team is exploiting them, it’s a sign that the other team has better players waiting in the wings.

If you want some positives coming out of the game, Drew Morgan, Alex Collins, and Raleigh Williams keep getting better with every game and maybe their coach has also turned the corner with his new attitude of rolling the dice instead of punting away his team’s opportunities.

To have a chance at Alabama, the team and coach will have to play with the same caution-to-the-wind approach with a less-conservative attack acting upon every opportunity.

Send your Razorback football risk management plan to

Monday, September 28, 2015

From the Bench

Bielema Running Out of Excuses and Petrino Holdovers

Robert Shields

The conversation among Razorback fans this week will center on Bret Bielema’s inability to win a close game at Arkansas. There are nine examples now over his three seasons at the helm of the Razorback’s football team.

The latest cut came Saturday night in an overtime loss to Texas A&M that was very reminiscent of the overtime loss against Texas A&M last year. The Razorbacks had a good lead and then allowed A&M to score quickly.

A key penalty late in the game sealed the fate of the Razorbacks when the Hogs had a fourth down and roughly two yards, and it was flagged by a motion penalty moving the team back five yards and close to the A&M 40-yard line.

The unofficial survey of fans at the Hangout in Gulf Shores, Alabama, which is where I had the pleasure to watch the game, was that everyone knew the A&M comeback was about to begin the moment the flag was thrown.

Moved back to around the 40, Bret Bielema then sent on the punt team and sealed the fate of the Razorbacks one more time. As bizarre as it sounds with a fourth and seven, he needed to roll the dice and go for it.

But that is not what Bielema does, so he punted A&M back to their 15-yard line. On the exchange, the punt gained Arkansas 25 yards of field position against A&M’s offense.

This Razorback defense isn’t going to play any better at the 15 than at the 40. Bielema controlled the team’s fate at that moment, but to punt it back and expect a different result than what happened is an example of forgetting history or being too stubborn to change.

After the debacle of the defense last year against A&M, you would think that the memory would have stuck, but it did not. Instead, Arkansas punted its opportunity for victory to A&M and gave them new life just as they were on the verge of securing victory.

And worst of all, Bielema decided to punt it back with the obvious fact that this year’s defense is not even as good as last year’s.

When you are the underdog with a team that most consider inferior to your opponent, you can’t play it safe by the numbers. You have to take some chances when you have the opportunity to lock up a game, and in almost every close Razorback loss under Bret Bielema he was faced with a decision that typically resulted in giving the ball back to the other team and resting on the hope of his defense pulling it out.

With some Razorback fans, Bielema will start to own the mantle of being a loser. The facts are what they are right now -- and he needs to change those facts.

It should be noted that last year’s defense was composed of many of the better players that were Bobby Petrino holdovers. As a matter of fact, two of the injuries haunting this team with Jonathan Williams and Keon Hatcher, the best running back and receiver, are also Petrino players.

The reality is that many of Bielema’s recruits – and remember he has been heralded as the better recruiter as the sycophantic Razorback press keeps telling you he is recruiting better than any coach in the past – are not stepping up to fill the void of the Petrino players who are leaving.

The Razorback defense has been porous all over, but in particular the linebackers, who before the season started had the most question marks. One could wonder if AJ Turner or Otha Peters, both Petrino players, would have had an impact on this team and provided depth if still around.

Eventually, Bielema will run out of Petrino players and will only have his recruits to look to. And eventually, excuses (we are already getting there) will run out.

Bielema is running out of excuses with the fans who are being subjected to one bad loss after another and is just starting to look like, in the words of Donald Trump, a loser.

Bielema’s inability to seize the moment permeates throughout the team as the players are starting to reflect that same paralyzing characteristic.

Send your stories from the Hangout to

Monday, September 21, 2015

From the Bench

Razorback Football’s Unraveling Fueling Fan Divisiveness

Robert Shields

Like just about everyone else in Arkansas, my expectations for this Razorback football team were too high. But unlike the Razorback press clique that serves more as a public relations arm to pump up the program, I will say this -- I was wrong.

After being on my sugar high coming off the shutout wins against LSU and Ole Miss and then curb stomping Texas in the bowl game, I ignorantly thought that the Program was going in the right direction.

I look back now and can dismiss all three of those wins.

Ole Miss was in decline after losing its star receiver in the Auburn game, and the Hogs caught them at the right time. Ole Miss went on to get hammered by TCU in its bowl game.

Also looking back, LSU at that point in the season was mailing it in and the Hogs caught them on a dismal day. LSU would go out later and tank against Notre Dame.

Then we all now know that Texas is just plain terrible and probably will have another coaching change at the end of this season.

I wrote a column in August that predicted a Razorback win in the SEC championship game and a 12-win season. To some degree, it was a satire, but I did believe this would be a good team. I thought eight wins was a realistic expectation for any fan, and if they got some breaks 10 wins was definitely possible.

The Razorbacks could have won 10 games last season if it would have gotten the breaks in the four losses to A&M, Alabama, Mississippi State, and Missouri as the Hogs led at one time in all those games.

There lays my fallacy.

This year’s version of the Razorbacks is not the same as last year. I should not have believed the hype that players like Darius Philon, Martrell Spaight, and Trey Flowers could be replaced so easily. Or that the system was in place for Robb Smith. The Razorbacks could not replace those players on defense.

I also did not think the coaches would tinker with an offensive line that played really well last year. They did. They essentially only had to replace one player on the line. Instead, they got cute and started swapping players around all over the place.

Needless to say, the injuries have also mattered to very key personnel. The team is not as deep as other SEC teams.

After now explaining away my rare false hope of optimism for the Razorbacks, let me summarize it simply: This team is bad.

Mostly, it’s just slow and looks like a bad Big Ten team, which is what we all must have known Bret Bielema would bring except for the bad part. I had hoped that his Paleolithic offense would still work in this day and age, and maybe it will.

I would like to believe part of the fall this year is from the team having some lack of identity as it does not play smashmouth football as it did before. It was like the line took time off from pushing the seven-man sled. One of my favorite sayings about football is from John Madden. He always said he knew what type of team he would have by how his team pushed his seven-man sled in August.

Nothing in the Texas Tech game spoke more loudly when the Razorbacks reached around the 5-yard line and only needed 2 yards on third down to get a first down. Yet the decision was to throw the ball, which ended in an offensive pass-interference penalty.

The score was needed as the Razorbacks could have cut the lead to 35-31, but instead it stayed at 35-24. The Razorback woes in the red zone stem directly from its inability to run in tough yardage situations.

Now on to Texas A&M, and if the Razorbacks are going to salvage the season, there is no better opportunity than to start this weekend against the Aggies. It will switch the fan base’s attitude quickly if they can snap the three-game losing streak to A&M. A fourth loss in a row to the Aggies and a third for Bielema will not be a good result.

Over the last few weeks, the most curious thing to me besides the team losing is the fact that Jeff Long has gone silent. He has the opportunity to quell the fire of GSD II that erupted over the last week following the loss to Toledo that has laid bare the raw nerve of the issue.

Social media over this time has exploded with Razorback fans arguing with each other that playing in Little Rock was to blame for the Toledo loss only to wait another week to prove the other side wrong after the loss to Texas Tech in Fayetteville.

It’s not the venue. The team is bad and has been since after the 2011 season. The Razorback program has endured record losing streaks both in conference and overall during these years, and the reality is that the team loses everywhere.

If there was one concern for me of GSD II that erupted on social media was the fact that some seemed to have gained satisfaction or vindication by the Razorbacks losing the game to Texas Tech in Fayetteville in an almost, “I told you so,” mentality.

The state has always been united behind the Razorbacks, but blaming the loss and poor play in the Toledo game on the venue at War Memorial was divisive.

This is not something the team or the Program needs at this time, and maybe with the big bucks that Jeff Long is paid he will mend these fences quickly.

Send your game plan for A&M to