Arkansas can flip narrative with victory over TCU

Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema / Photo:

What a big game Arkansas’ matchup with TCU has developed into for both the Razorbacks and their head coach Bret Bielema.

The Razorbacks’ host the No. 23 TCU Horned Frogs at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. CBS is televising the game in their prime afternoon slot for the whole nation to see.

While the game only has marginal national interest as an interconference showdown between the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12, this football game is huge for the Hogs and their head coach.

Since the Razorbacks blew their final regular season game against Missouri and their Belk Bowl game against Virginia Tech after holding double-digit first-half leads, Arkansas fans have had an uneasy feeling about their football team and coach.

If anything a coach like Bielema, who believes in “normal American football,” should know how to protect a lead, and in the fourth year of his program, he should have the on-the-field resources to do it.

That was not the case, and that’s why fans have been legitimately anxious rather than eager going into the fifth season of Bielema’s regime. Was last year an anomaly or par for the course going forward?

Razorbacks fans aren’t sure where their program stands at this juncture, and they are not sure if the current Hogs have the wherewithal to truly be competitive in the SEC West this season.

Despite the fact the Razorbacks had an opportunity to post a nine-win season going into their final regular-season game a year ago, the Hogs weren’t competitive in the SEC last fall. Within some games they competed and even played well at times, but ultimately the scoreboard said Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn, and LSU blew them out. That’s not competitive in anyone’s book.

Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema (left) speaks with TCU head coach Gary Patterson before the Razorbacks’ game at TCU on Sept. 10, 2016.

Photo: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports / Via

The shining star for the season was a blowout of Florida, but Arkansas followed it up by struggling to beat Mississippi State and then came the second-half meltdowns against Missouri and Virginia Tech.

There seemed to be some dissention within the ranks of the defense that festered into a couple of truly embarrassing performances, and statistically it was one of the worst years defensively the Razorbacks have experienced in the modern era. The only Arkansas defense I’ve observed that played as poorly was in 1990 during Jack Crowe’s first year as head coach.

Compounding matters, a mostly inexperienced offensive line could not physically execute in the trenches like a team that makes the running game their bread and butter should. Pass protection also proved difficult for a variety of reasons, not all of it the fault of the offensive line.

Granted, all of that was from last year, and Bielema took steps to overhaul the defense with a change of scheme to the 3-4, the promotion of Paul Rhodes to defensive coordinator, and the hire of two defensive assistants with NFL experience in John Scott Jr. (defensive line) and Chad Walker (outside linebackers).

Bielema’s assessment of the last year’s offensive struggles must have been that the Hogs’ talent needed to mature and develop because very little has changed. But, that’s possibly good. Arkansas’ program needs stability.

However, there were signs in the Florida A&M game that the issues that stymied Arkansas last year were still present.

Quarterback Austin Allen struggled with trusting his new stable of receivers, locking in on one target rather than working through the route tree. He held the ball too long at times, and force several throws. He had one interception, and two others probably should have been picked off.

It’s one game, but Allen didn’t look the way we all imagine a fifth-year starting quarterbacks should look against a cupcake opponent.

Arkansas ran the ball well between the tackles, but the Rattlers snuffed out most of the Hogs’ outside runs, and Arkansas’ receivers and backside lineman are going to have to do a better job of downfield blocking if the Hogs hope to get the most out of their running game this season.

While it’s hard to tell against a lower-division squad like FAMU, the defense did look improved. They ran to the ball and appeared to be in good position most of the night, but the loss of starting cornerback Ryan Pulley for the season is huge. Losing Pulley is a bigger blow to the Razorbacks than the loss of running back Rawleigh Williams Jr. was in the spring.

Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen / Photo:

Arkansas fortunately had ready-to-play backs behind Rawleigh Williams Jr. in Devwah Whaley, Chase Haden, and David Williams, but true freshmen Kamren Curl, Chevin Calloway and sophomore Britto Tutt have yet to prove themselves as capable cornerback replacements for Pulley. Then again, Pulley was a question mark last season before the clamps on TCU receiver Taj Williams and caught everyone’s eye.

So, that’s the admittedly pessimistic narrative going into Saturday’s game. It’s why the excitement level in Fayetteville isn’t bursting at the seams like it usually is for a big, early season matchup. Hog fans seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude before investing whole-heartedly in this team.

It was a bit disquieting that Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long felt the need to give Bielema a vote of confidence at a speaking engagement at Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club this week. The old joke is that coaching searches tend to follow such votes of confidence.

Now, let’s not put the cart before the horse. Bielema seems to be on solid ground with Long, and has an expensive buy-out clause in his contract for reinforcement.

Fans may be uneasy, but they aren’t disgruntled. No one is requesting phone bills or hiring planes to fly banners over the stadium.

The Razorbacks can change the pessimistic narrative quickly with a victory over TCU. It’s as simple as that.

With the reputation Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs program has established for the better part of two decades, a Razorbacks victory Saturday would have Hog fans jumping both feet in the boat instead of just testing its seaworthiness with their big toe.

Hog fans just need a reason to believe and to flip the page on last year and get on board with their Razorbacks.

That’s going to be tough, though.

All three phases of Arkansas’ squad will have to work in concert to hold the high-octane Horned Frogs in check.

Arkansas can’t afford turnovers and three-and-outs. The Razorbacks have to sustain drives against TCU’s disruptive defense to keep their own defenders off the field as much as possible.