The fragility of the Arkansas Razorbacks has never been more apparent than in the third quarter of the Hogs’ 34-24 loss to Ole Miss just after Bret Bielema’s squad had played some of their best football of the season.
There seemed to be some spirit in the Razorbacks at the opening of the second half. The Hogs trailed Ole Miss, 20-10, but came out of the locker room with a winning attitude.
The Razorbacks defense took advantage of a Rebel false-start penalty and an excellent play by tackle Darius Philon on a screen pass that dropped Ole Miss back Jaylen Walton for a 2-yard loss.
On third and 17, the Hogs pressured Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace, and he made an ill-advised throw that Arkansas safety pick Alan Turner picked off at the Rebel 46.
The Hogs offense took over and hammered for a first down on runs by Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall. Alex Collins and Williams pounded inside on consecutive plays to set up a third and 6. On play action, Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen zipped the ball to Javontee Herndon not only for a first down but also a nifty run after the catch good for 31 yards to the Ole Miss one.
Kiero Small did the honors and with 11:29 left to play in the third quarter, Arkansas trailed just 20-17, and the Hogs had something they hadn’t felt since mid September — momentum.
The Razorbacks defense picked up right where it started the half, and forced another Rebel 3-and-out, and no doubt every Hog fan at the game, viewing from home or tuned in on the radio was getting excited.
The Hogs had scored on their last two full possessions — one in the second quarter when Allen hit freshman tight end Hunter Henry for a 17-yard TD — and the defense had stiffened up enough to give the offense some breathing room.
On first down Kiero Small rumbled for 3 yards, and Collins zipped for 11, giving the Hogs a first and 10 at the Ole Miss 39.
The stage seemed set for an upset and the Razorbacks’ first victory since September and first in SEC play since October of 2012.
But, that was not meant to be.
Ole Miss sniffed out a halfback pass, which Arkansas had already run several times this season, and dropped Williams for a 9-yard loss. It was like the clock struck midnight, and the Hogs’ glass slipper shattered on the gridiron.
All the momentum the Hogs had built evaporated, and the Razorbacks were back at Square 1.
On their next series, the Rebels went 94 yard for a touchdown with 75 of it coming on a Wallace pass to Ja-Mes Logan to take a 27-17 lead and the Rebels weren’t seriously threatened again.
The Razorbacks did score another touchdown and got close enough to attempt a 58-yard field goal in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, but the Hogs never regained the enthusiasm, energy and emotion with which they opened the second half.
While the Razorbacks lack speed at key positions and talent and depth across the board, Arkansas also seems to have some psychological hurdles to clear before it once again can become a winning program.
One play early in the second quarter can’t so thoroughly break a team’s back, not if it wants to finish above .500.
Now, the Razorbacks have an open date this week they could have used in October before playing their final two games against Mississippi State at Little Rock on Nov. 23 and at LSU on Nov. 29.
No doubt Arkansas assistants will be on the road, evaluating players this week, while also further evaluating their younger players. There are two opportunities for wins still on the board, but the future of the program will be better served making sure the players are matched at their best positions. Those are things generally done during the latter portions of early bowl practices to get a jump on spring ball.
Since the Hogs won’t be going bowling, those evaluations need to be done now rather than later.