ESPN, which has taken extraordinary delight in assiduously reminding the free world of the magnitude of Arkansas's football freefall, actually did the program a solid Saturday night.
Since the Hogs had squandered anything resembling a dream season in the span of eight days, the match-up with Rutgers got farmed out to ESPNU, which is what happens when you flip your Corvette into a ditch and wind up driving a Corvair in the aftermath. The broadcast team was uncannily tolerable and professional: Clay Matvick and Matt Stinchcomb were fair and even-keel, and therefore, they are likely to never be assigned to a Razorback game again. Instead of taking the Gary Danielson approach and alternately tarring and pitying the state of affairs in Fayetteville, these guys treated the match-up with a level of dignity.
That's not to say that the production team didn't take a few choice opportunities to play a dramatic montage that encapsulated this terrible month. Headlines retelling the disaster, including Pearls' memorable declaration of the Louisiana-Monroe game as the "worst loss ever," were cycled through rapidly. John L. Smith was front and center, natch, clips of his regrettable plea for everyone to smile getting extra time. The snapshots of dejected players and fans got lots of play.
While Cobi Hamilton was out there running wild to the tune of a conference- and school-record 303 receiving yards, virtually everyone else in a red jersey resembled a stagehand that didn't know where to go. Speaking candidly and somewhat objectively, Arkansas is being manned right now by the most hopelessly overmatched head coach and offensive and defensive coordinators in the country, all at the precise same moment. Paul Haynes is now cooping up in the coaches' box as a matter of self-preservation, I suppose. Why Paul Petrino hasn't joined him upstairs is something of a puzzler, since he's calling offensive plays designed to keep our broken-down defensive unit on the field as much as possible.
Rutgers won the game, by the way, 35-26. I don't feel compelled to regurgitate all the garish stats, or spill too much ink on Gary Nova, whose career-defining opus (five TD passes ... FIVE!) was hardly surprising given that he followed the very same template that Kolton Browning and AJ McCarron had observed and absorbed. This Razorback team has that deadly combination of zero pass rush and atrocious man coverage, so Nova was quite comfortable all night slinging the ball to slot receivers and flankers running short routes with plenty of room to run after the catch. Then, thanks to Petrino's insistence on having Tyler Wilson wing it two out of every three snaps, the time of possession beast that has eaten Arkansas alive for years did it again. Nova was unmolested and his confidence was brimming. He started chucking it farther and deeper, and wouldn't you know it, the Hogs' defensive backs just had no conceivable hope of doing anything about it.
The trough is not yet in sight, honestly. Wilson came back and looked okay, though his receivers failed him multiple times and his running backs continued to provide no kind of consistent cushion. That's largely Petrino's fault, of course, but failed execution is failed execution, even if the play itself is unimaginative or doomed to fail at the outset. Even with skill players in spades, the offensive line is etching itself into the annals as one of the most underwhelming units in the SEC era. There is no push after the snap, few creases to exploit and the substandard protection of Wilson has already been documented.
There is little chance that the defense makes any strides, what with its designated chief being so disengaged. Haynes' lack of presence is mind-boggling. He is not without credentials and his debut in the Cotton Bowl was a refreshing dose of inventiveness. I'm at a loss to try to discern what happened, but he seems to relish this job as much as a feral cat enjoys being bathed.
Back-to-back road trips to College Station and Auburn loom, and while neither Aggies nor Tigers have appeared terribly imposing so far, what difference does that even make now? Arkansas is in its worst shape since 1997, when Danny Ford was glumly watching his team get ravaged in front of a bunch of disillusioned fans (at least those that bothered to appear) while Kay Stephenson tried to script plays that didn't even work in Canada. It was one of the most forgettable autumns in this state, and unfortunately this one is shaping up to not even have that distinction. There are eight games left, and yet none of them feel within reach.
There have been pleasant surprises before, though, and maybe escaping these fairly toxic environs will actually serve the team well. A&M is still wrestling with its own fresh obstacles and an early kickoff at Kyle Field may have the crowd somewhat muted. If there's one last shot at radically shifting the makeup of this lost season, this is certainly it.
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