From all the criticism and concern I’ve heard this week about the Arkansas Razorbacks’ play last Saturday in their season opener against Texas-El Paso, I had to go back and double check the score.
Yep, SECsports.com confirmed for me that the Hogs did beat UTEP, 48-13, last week and that the Razorbacks are 1-0 and are indeed ranked No. 18 in the nation going into Saturday’s 3 p.m. contest with the Toledo Rockets at War Memorial Stadium.
Pardon the sarcasm, but have we become so cynical and jaded that we can’t enjoy a game for its own sake? Does each individual game always have to be placed into a larger context for days after it’s played? Should one early season game be considered an indictment for the entire season, particularly a victory?
I’m questioning myself, too. I noticed the defensive front seven’s over pursuit and some shoddy tackling early in the game. From an assignment standpoint, I had hoped or maybe even expected the Razorbacks to pick up exactly where they left off last season.
In hindsight, expecting midseason form out of the Hogs was probably too much. Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema indicated throughout fall camp that he had held back on the reins in terms of live tackling. Bielema reasoned would rather have his team as healthy as possible going into the season instead of beaten up before its daunting SEC slate even begins. It’s clear now he planned to gradually work the Razorbacks into playing shape for the season, and that the Hogs’ first two games were to be a part of the process. Think of Arkansas’ first two opponents as sparring partners before the meat of the schedule begins.
If that sounds disrespectful to UTEP or Toledo, so be it. The Miners and Rockets have their reasons for playing these games — cash. Each game has its own merits, but each game can prepares a team for the next one if corrections are made and executed on the field.
With an experienced team and a schedule that did not demand the Razorbacks to be in midseason form from the start, Bielema and his staff have the luxury this season of bringing the Hogs on slowly.
The UTEP game gave defensive coordinator Robb Smith and his staff the chance to play a lot of people and experiment a bit. The Razorbacks played 11 different defensive linemen in the first quarter alone, and they didn’t always execute assignment football, which allowed UTEP to make some yardage the Miners probably shouldn’t have. Likewise there were some busts in the back end of the defense by overeager Hogs. Add it all up and the Razorbacks gave up 204 yards and 13 points.
Should Razorback fans be concerned? It remains to be seen, but I don’t think so. The mistakes made are correctible. Bielema said tackling fundamentals were reinforced in practice this week, and since the Hogs tackled so much better last season under Smith and his staff, I believe worry is premature.
No cause for alarm
As with the defense, some have been worked up about the Razorbacks’ running game not being as dominating as they had expected. It’s true the Hogs’ rushing numbers weren’t impressive in and of themselves. Don’t ever expect Bielema to call 34 carries for 182 yards borderline erotic, but under the circumstances those numbers shouldn’t be alarming.
First, I don’t think we should assume the Razorbacks are going to be a truly dominating running team this year just because of Bielema’s reputation. The Hogs were physical a year ago, but in SEC play, they didn’t exactly push the best opponents around. What could make their job a bit easier, however, is if Arkansas’ passing game is as improved as it appeared Saturday.
The Miners played stubborn football positioning nine men near the line of scrimmage, just daring Brandon Allen (14 of 18 for 308 yards and 4 touchdowns) and his much improved stable of pass catchers to torch them with impunity.
Second, no matter how dominant the Hogs’ offensive line is, seven can’t block nine effectively. With the Miners having two defenders unaccounted for around the line of scrimmage, the Hogs still managed to average 5.4 yards per carry. One of the few times UTEP played its safeties at a normal depth, guess what happened? Alex Collins went for 70 yards.
Third, the Razorbacks’ running game was vanilla. The Hogs kept it between the tackles all day. I know some football fans consider running the football bland in and off itself, but there are creative things that can be done in the running game that the Hogs chose not to show against the Miners because it wasn’t necessary. For instance, Arkansas used only a few formations and very little if any misdirection against the Miners. We might not see any of those bells and whistles until the Hogs need to use them.
And finally, it was so promising to see Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos not bang his head against the wall in an attempt to run the ball when the pass is what was open. After hearing former Arkansas head coaches Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino give lip service to a balanced offensive attack, it was nice to finally see some evidence of one. Obviously it’s too soon to make any grand conclusions about Saturday’s game, but the passing game showed promise.
Toledo could be a considerably better test for the Hogs this week. The Rockets are used to moving the chains and scoring points even though they struggled in the first quarter last week against Stony Brook. The game was called for inclement weather with Toledo ahead 16-7 at halftime, but from all appearances the Rockets were ready to roll.
Toledo’s offensive line averages 6-6, 310 pounds, and defensively, they have two linemen in Orion Jones, who plays on the nose, and Treyvon Hester, who also plays inside, that are considered possible NFL talents. Their secondary is experienced unlike UTEP’s and should pose a bigger test for Allen.