In hopes of making a fresh start, the reeling Arkansas Razorbacks eagerly welcomed the return of injured All-SEC quarterback Tyler Wilson and turned back the clock by donning white helmets Saturday night at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
But, thanks in large part to a green secondary and a continuing pattern of committing costly mental errors the Hogs were again left red-faced after falling 35-26 to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights of the Big East Conference in front of a near sellout crowd.
Arkansas (1-3, 0-1) became the first preseason Top 10 Team to lose 3 September games since Alabama did so in 2000.
With road trips to College Station and Auburn on the horizon, the Razorbacks are staring at a 1-5 start and, given the preseason expectations and coaching staff uncertainty are in the midst of a Season of Discontent unlike any in program history.
What We Saw:
–Once again, Arkansas couldn’t get out of its own way.
Off to a promising start fueled by the first TD catch in a record-setting night from wide receiver Cobi Hamilton (who had 3 touchdowns and a SEC single-game record 303 yards receiving) Arkansas led 10-0 early in the 2nd quarter and held Rutgers to a field goal after the Scarlet Knights had driven to the Arkansas 11-yard line.
The rare defensive stop was a jolt to a beleaguered Arkansas defense, particularly since it came after Rutgers extended the drive by converting a 4th-and-2 at their own 33-yard line with a trick play in a punting situation.
Unfortunately, as has been the case all season, prosperity was fleeting for the Hogs. UA defensive tackle DeDe Jones was ruled offsides on Kyle Federico’s 32-yard field goal attempt.
First-year Rutgers coach Kyle Flood tempted fate by taking points off of the board and was rewarded when the floodgates opened and Arkansas’ porous defense succumbed to the Scarlet Knights and quarterback Gary Nova, who was nearly flawless from that point forward going 25-35 and posting an eye-popping 397 yards passing and 5 TDs.
–Rutgers targeted freshman cornerback Will Hines and senior linebacker/safety Ross Rasner and had its way with them. I understand that senior cornerback Darius Winston has been a major disappointment during his Razorback career, but to continue to leave Hines in the game Saturday night well after it was clear he was a complete liability was a major coaching error.
Unless Winston was injured or in the doghouse for disciplinary reasons, he should have been given a shot in the 2nd half Saturday night. Hines was an easy mark and Rutgers abused him repeatedly.
–Arkansas’ offensive line was impotent again. The Razorbacks’ first play from scrimmage spoke volumes about the problems the unit has had this season and would again have Saturday night. When attacked by two Rutgers defenders on the edge of the line of scrimmage, Arkansas tackle David Hurd, a former walkon, took on neither defender, and instead blocked down. The result was a sack and another avoidable bump for Wilson (Hurd was also penalized twice on the night).
Later, with Arkansas down 11 points late in the 4th quarter and desperately needing a touchdown, Rutgers blitzed a safety from 20 yards off of the line of scrimmage. Arkansas center Travis Swanson spotted the blitz and received help from a running back to pick it up, but the blitzer still managed to bull rush Swanson and company and disrupt Wilson, resulting in a key incompletion.
–Arkansas freshman wide receiver Mekale McKay had a night to forget. First, he dropped a touchdown pass in middle of the 3rd quarter that would have drawn the Razorbacks to within 4 points of Rutgers (instead they had to settle for a FG and a 21-13 deficit).
Then, with Arkansas down 28-13 with 20 seconds left in the 3rd quarter, McKay ran a lazy route, failed to finish it, and rewarded Wilson’s confidence in him (Wilson gave him a 1-on-1 shot for a touchdown minutes after his huge TD drop) by failing to compete for a risky Red Zone pass and gift-wrapping an interception for Rutgers’ Logan Ryan.
What We Didn’t See:
–A supposed team strength, Arkansas’ defensive ends were terrible Saturday night. Chris Smith put up a goose egg–zero tackles–and Trey Flowers wasn’t much better. Flowers had just 2 tackles–including the sack he was credited for on a Rutgers intentional grounding penalty. Rutgers ran 74 offensive plays and threw the ball 35 times.
–Arkansas’ commitment to the running game seems to last only as long as its first unsuccessful drive.
The Razorback brain trust is failing the team by not getting Dennis Johnson more touches. He only had 6 carries Saturday, but averaged 7.8 yards per carry for a team that again struggled mightily to run the ball. For the season, Johnson is averaging 6.7 yards per carry but has only been given the ball 22 times.
What You May Not Have Seen:
Even when things seem to go right for Arkansas interim head coach John L. Smith, they eventually go horribly wrong. With his team down 9 points and facing a 4th-and-10 from its own 48-yard line with just over 6 minutes left in the game, Smith made the head-scratching decision to punt and place his confidence in a Hog defense that was hemorrhaging points.
Dylan Breeding’s ensuing punt was downed at the Rutgers 1-yard line by Arkansas special teamer, former backup placekicker and 2012 team MVP Cameron Bryan (I am sort of kidding, but the season has been so bad that I could make the argument).
A play later, Arkansas looked to be in business when it hemmed Rutgers’ Jawan Jamison into his own endzone and looked poised to record a safety that would have cut the deficit to 7 points and given Arkansas the ball back with good field position and plenty of time on the clock to drive for a game-tying TD.
If you are reading this you already know that Jamison bounced to the outside for 24 yards and effectively ended the game. What you may not have noticed were the reasons Jamison was able to do so.
First (and foremost) Arkansas defensive tackle Robert Thomas, who had blown the play up by bolting into the backfield, was blatantly held. He was unable to make the tackle because both of his arms were wrapped up by a Rutgers lineman.
A few feet away, UA defensive end Trey Flowers was held, too, as he attempted to pursue from the backside. Additionally, Hines overpursued and was blocked in the back, setting the edge for Jamison.
I am well aware that the preceding paragraph reads like sour grapes. It isn’t. Arkansas’ defense was awful all night. Period.
But, the non-calls on this particular play were equally brutal. Chris Smith and Hines compounded the officiating errors with poor technique as both bit inside rather than maintaining containment.
If Smith had done his job, he would have tallied a key safety in spite of the non-calls. Instead, he took a selfish false step and missed a chance to step up big for his team and help it overcome poor officiating on a key play in the game.
What We Hope To See Next Week:
Arkansas desperately needs to find a way to pull an upset at Texas A&M. To do so, the Hogs will have to come up with an answer for freshman phenom and dual threat Johnny Manziel, who is more talented than the quarterbacks that the Hogs have turned into seemingly Heisman-caliber signal callers so far this season.
The Razorbacks defined 2011 with their effort against TAMU and they could begin to redefine their imploding 2012 season with a rousing, completely unexpected win in hostile territory Saturday morning at Kyle Field.