Quarterback questions loom as Hogs prepare for Rutgers road trip

Football is the ultimate team sport. It’s 11 competitors on the field working as one to complete a single goal.

While every moving part is necessary for the gridiron machine to work effectively and efficiently, like any device, some pieces are just more important than the others.

Unquestionably, a team’s starting quarterback is that important piece. Take him off the board, and it’s like losing your queen in chess. While there are other pieces at your disposal, no other is as specialized and the loss of no other piece changes your strategy more.

A team can win without its starting quarterback, but the task is more difficult. Adjustments must be made on the fly and other players must take on more of the load.

The Arkansas Razorbacks did that successfully last Saturday in their 24-3 victory over Southern Miss when starting signal caller Brandon Allen injured his right shoulder after diving into the end zone for the Hogs’ first touchdown late in the first quarter.

Arkansas (3-0) vs. Rutgers (2-1)

Date: Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013
Location: High Point Solution Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.

Pressed into early service, junior back-up A.J. Derby started tentatively but answered the call. He executed and played well enough for the Razorbacks to win the game, which is a quarterback’s prime duty. In the second half, he completed several short passes to back the Golden Eagles off and kept the chains moving with a nice scramble to pick up a first down.

Derby’s teammates rallied around him. Arkansas’ defense pitched a second-half shutout and the Hogs’ offensive line led the way as rushing tandem of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins ground out an Arkansas win.

While it would be disingenuous to make too much out of the Hogs’ victory over a team that has the FBS’ longest losing streak at 15 games and counting, it’s worth noting that the wheels came off the wagon a year ago when the 2012 Razorbacks faced a similar situation and lost in overtime to Louisiana-Monroe.

The victory won’t go down in the annals of Razorback history as significant, but it did give the Hogs a chance to face adversity head on and conquer the situation. That should help the team’s confidence, and it can’t be emphasized enough how important confidence is in athletics. The victory speaks to the adaptability of head coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who orchestrated halftime adjustments that put Derby more at ease and allowed the Razorbacks to move to 3-0 against an admittedly inferior opponent.

As for the extent of Allen’s injury, expect Bielema to be coy about it this week leading up the Hogs’ first road trip to face Rutgers at High Point Solutions Stadium at Piscataway, N.J., unless the injury requires surgery. With closed practices, Arkansas has no impetus, responsibility or advantage in sharing specific information about the injury with Rutgers or the public.

Bielema has been noncommittal when asked about injuries of other Razorbacks players this season — Rohan Gaines who missed the Samford and Southern Miss games — and hasn’t mentioned at least one injury and a suspension — Trey Flowers’ knee injury and Jarrett Lake’s suspension which kept them sidelined against Samford — when not questioned about them prior to the game.

Following the Southern Miss victory, Bielema said Allen’s injury is a bruise, and that he thinks Allen will be able to play against Rutgers. That very well may be the case, but slings like Allen was wearing on the sideline during the second half of the game are often used to hold a shoulder in place after a separation.

However, the sling could have been used just to steady the shoulder to promote healing. Generally, bruises are iced off and on during the first couple of days after the injury. Allen’s shoulder didn’t appear to be iced in the second half, but it could have been in the training room during the second quarter and halftime and later after the game. The point here isn’t to play doctor, but just to show how futile it can be to guess.

In years past at Arkansas, one could almost be certain the correct injury information would slip out at some point during game week. People like to talk.

Case in point: Following the shoulder injury to starting quarterback Jason Allen in 1991, head coach Jack Crowe planned a quick installation of the Wishbone to take advantage of backup quarterback Gary Adams’ quickness against Texas A&M.

Crowe convinced the local media to sit on the information. When practices are open to the media, it is generally under the agreement that specific plays and formations will not be described or broadcast.

However, Crowe failed to shore up his own staff. Evidently a graduate assistant let the info slip on a phone call with a friend from Texas, who quickly got the word to College Station, Texas. I’ve also heard that an assistant coach told a recruit from Texas, who then in turn told the A&M assistant who was also seeking his services. Either way, the Aggies knew of Arkansas’ plans by Tuesday that week and were not taken by surprise. Texas A&M won that Saturday, 13-3, but their victory had more to do with the Aggies being the better team than loose lips.

Arkansas’ athletic department has run a much tighter ship since the lessons learned from the e-mail debacle in which Diana Nutt, wife of former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, forwarded an email about former Razorback quarterback Mitch Mustain. That one e-mail was the catalyst that ultimately brought the Broyles era of Razorback football to a close. But, I digress.

So, we may or may not know whether Allen will be able to quarterback the Hogs against Rutgers (2-1) until Saturday. Likewise, the Scarlet Knights could be without their starting signal-caller Gary Nova, who torched the Hogs at Razorback Stadium for 397 yards and 5 touchdowns in a 35-26 victory last season. Nova went to the sidelines with a head injury last Saturday in Rutgers 28-10 victory over Eastern Michigan.

Not knowing for sure who will start at quarterback for either team does add some extra intrigue to the game that was interesting enough on its own. Whether Allen plays or not, the adjustments Arkansas’ offensive staff made at halftime last week should give fans confidence that they will put the Razorbacks in the best possible position they can for facing Rutgers.

Whether that will be enough for the Hogs to return home 4-0 remains to be seen.