Growing pains plague Hogs’ transitioning program

Photo: Walt Beazley, UA Athletics

There aren’t many positives for Razorbacks fans to glean from Arkansas’ 30-10 loss to Florida last Saturday.

It was the Hogs’ third loss in a row this season and their sixth consecutive Southeastern Conference defeat, dating back to last season. Arkansas hasn’t won in SEC play since defeating Kentucky, 49-7, on Oct. 13, 2012.

The defensive woes that date back to Bobby Petrino and Houston Nutt’s tenure as coaches continues to beset the Razorbacks — big cushions and tackling lapses leading to big plays for the opponents.

Likewise, Arkansas receivers have had difficulty making plays for years against the SEC’s more physical secondaries. Petrino called his receivers out three seasons ago for being intimidated by Alabama’s defense, and it seems Arkansas coach Bret Bielema could level the same criticism at this year’s receiving corps after their less than stellar performance against Florida.

Following the game, Brandon Allen faulted himself for playing poorly against the Gators, and he didn’t play well. Allen’s throws appeared a bit off from the get go, and his Pick 6 reversed the momentum of the game. However, the sophomore, who is still nursing a sore shoulder, suffered through a staggering number of drops by his receivers and two brutal blindside sacks where the offensive line failed to pick up safety blitzes.

As the physical nature of the Gators’ play began to wear on the Hogs, mental mistakes began to stack up with penalties and missed assignments because of a general lack of focus.

It was a team loss if there ever was one, and it showed how far Arkansas’ transitioning program must come to be a contender in the SEC.

It will be interesting to watch the Gators the rest of the season. Florida has five games left against Top 25 opponents — No. 10 LSU on Saturday, No. 25 Missouri on Oct. 19, No. 7 Georgia on Nov. 2, No. 14 South Carolina on Nov. 16 and No. 6 Florida State on Nov. 30.

Will Muschamp’s Gators are somewhat of a model of what Bielema would like to build on the defensive side of the football at Arkansas. The Hogs coach does believe in establishing the ground game first on offense, but he’s not quite as conservative as Muschamp has been in his first three seasons at Florida. The 42 passes thrown by the Razorbacks on Saturday proves that.

But the point is the Razorbacks are in transition and there will be more growing pains like the ones experienced at Florida this season and likely next as Bielema builds on the foundation he inherited. Let’s just hope those growing pains become less and less severe, starting Saturday when No. 14 South Carolina visits for an 11:21 a.m. kickoff.

There really is no secret to the difference in the game. It’s really the same issue the Razorbacks have had in competing at the highest level since joining the SEC, a deficit of athletic ability.

At some spots the Razorbacks matchup well with the Gators, just like they did against Texas A&M the week before, but overall those programs have more talented players across the board.

On a given day, the Razorbacks do have enough ability to upset the Gators or the Aggies, but Arkansas’ margin of error is so slight against the big boys in the SEC.

Already Arkansas has made strides in recruiting under Bielema, particularly with offensive and defensive linemen, but the Razorbacks desperately need to add top-notch talent at linebacker, the secondary and receiver.

And as he has by playing freshmen like Alex Collins, Hunter Henry, Denver Kirkland, Dan Skipper and Korliss Marshall, Bielema needs to keep paying his young talent to send the message to recruits that if you are good enough to compete in the SEC there is a spot for you to do it with the Razorbacks.

Arkansas should be a much-improved team next season with so many sophomores and freshmen playing key roles, but there remains room for difference-makers, particularly at receiver.

As for this year, the Hogs must keep pushing forward and demanding more from themselves each week. There are victories for this team to have this season, but the Razorbacks must play sharper than they did against Florida or the growing pains will persist.