Critical mistakes haunt Hogs in Aggie loss

Photo: Sam Craft / A&M Athletics

The first rule of football has always been don’t beat yourself.

That has been an issue for the Arkansas Razorbacks against Football Bowl Series opponents all season, and it was no different in the Hogs’ 24-17 loss to Texas A&M last Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington,Texas.

From the opening play of the game to Arkansas’ last telegraphed pass that the Aggies picked off to escape with their seventh consecutive victory over the Razorbacks, critical mistakes plagued the Hogs’ efforts.

Only one of those losses falls on the shoulders of first-year Arkansas head coach Chad Morris, but unfortunately that fact only amplifies the situation that Arkansas’ football program is in at the moment.

The Razorbacks gave up a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the opening play of the loss to the Aggies. After the score, ESPN held the camera on Morris’ face for the longest time, and his frustration was evident. Credit him and his staff for holding the team together.

It’s the second kickoff return for a TD the Hogs have yielded this season and the third touchdown Arkansas’ special teams have given up on the year. The other was a punt return for a TD.

Razorback quarterback Ty Storey’s late-game interception was a desperation play with the clock running down. He had a target open in the middle of the field when he elected to throw deep to the sideline, but he also had Aggie rushers bearing down on him. A quarterback can only do so much, and Storey played his guts out all day Saturday.

A lot of Razorbacks played their butts off to no avail, guys like linebackers De’Jon “Scoota” Harris, Dre Greenlaw, and cornerback Ryan Pulley. It’s probably not fair just to name those three, but that trio plays the game at a high level with heart and passion. They are fun to watch.

However, some of the Razorbacks’ play is just frustrating to watch.

Defensive penalties didn’t directly lead to points, but, man, were they destructive in a close game. Two hands-to-the-face penalties extended A&M drives on third down when the defense should have been off the field, and at least three encroachment penalties gave the Aggies short chains, making it that much easier on them.

Some teams are talented enough to survive penalties like that and still win. Right now Arkansas is not one of them.

A few teams are strong enough to overcome giving up scores by their special teams from time to time, but not almost every week like the Razorbacks have been doing this season.

Take away those critical mistakes, and Arkansas played a competitive football game against a solid football squad. Erase similar flubs against Auburn, and maybe that game wouldn’t have been an embarrassing 34-3 blowout.

The Razorbacks played their best football game of the season against the Aggies. The Hogs were one big play away from really making the Aggies sweat. It was nice to watch a game featuring the Razorbacks where the last drive was meaningful after back-to-back blowout losses to North Texas and Auburn.

However, until Morris and his staff correct the critical mistakes their players make far too frequently, it’s going to be difficult for the Razorbacks to win a game. The SEC is too strong of a league for a team to play so haphazardly and expect to have a chance to win.

The fact the Hogs had a chance to tie or possibly win the game on the last drive speaks well of the team and the coaching staff. Arkansas’ offense has taken some baby steps forward the last two weeks. The Razorbacks’ defense has been solid, except for a lack of discipline that led to harmful penalties. There was even improvement in the special teams. It looks like the Hogs have finally found a punter in Reid Bauer, who averaged 43.2 yards a punt. That’s not outstanding, but it’s the best we’ve seen this season.

However, it’s a shame that breakdowns have all but neutralized the improvements.

Whenever a coach takes over a program in a new conference there is a learning curve and kinks to be worked out. Patience is needed for Morris to rebuild the program. It will take time to change the culture, and it will take time for better players to be recruited.

However, the persistent special teams issues should have been coached out of the players before the season started. It’s not too much to ask any FBS team to stop self-destructing in the kicking game.

The Razorbacks face No. 1 Alabama at 11 a.m. on ESPN at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. It caps the most grueling stretch of the season. Through September Alabama certainly appears to be everything that its No. 1 ranking denotes.

It goes without saying that the Crimson Tide are as well-coached and as talented as any team in the nation. They do not need any help winning games. Hopefully the Razorbacks won’t give them any.

Again this Razorback team needs to be judged on improvement. They made some against the Aggies, but their mistakes were too glaring to pull off what would have been a stunning victory.

It will be hard to discern improvement against Alabama. The Crimson Tide are so dominant that they actually force good teams into making game-killing mistakes.

The Hogs need to rise to the challenge and not be intimidated. Play hard and sound football, and see what happens.