Jack Pearadin and Doug Nelsen found a 1.73-carat diamond after nearly a year of searching the park's field.
We've nudged a bit past the true midpoint of 2012, but on the heels of an idle weekend and with a slate of still-meaningful games ahead, Pearls looks back, then looks forward in its quasi-traditional and moderately derisive midseason review. Though John L. Smith might advise to the contrary, I suggest that you keep your excretory system at a moderate temperature.
Offensive MVP: Cobi Hamilton. There have been times where Hamilton has looked detached, but who can blame him? He's on pace to obliterate the single-season receiving yardage mark, and he took the single-game crown with a large effort in the shameful loss to Rutgers. He's been the kind of upper-echelon target that everyone expected him to be, and has averaged more than six catches per game despite having those crosshairs on him and only scant support from fellow wideouts.
Defensive MVP: Vacated. I guess. You might allow that Trey Flowers wins this honor by default, by virtue of 4.5 sacks and a signature effort in the Auburn win that may have recast the season's trajectory. Flowers also hasn't been consistent, but then again, he's managed to achieve the seeming miracle of decent health. Alonzo Highsmith would've snatched this honor away but for — you guessed it — a season-ending foot injury. The defensive struggles this team has endured are overly documented but that doesn't mean no one's giving effort. It's just impossible to identify a stalwart on this side of the ball, even with the discernible improvement against Auburn and Kentucky.
Special Teams MVP: Dylan Breeding. With Zach Hocker having a down year in his field goal accuracy, and Dennis Johnson neutered by the awful new kickoff rule, the Hogs' senior punter gets the nod for being at his best even as the rest of his unit has floundered at times. Breeding's meteoric improvement from season to season is easily gauged in the numbers (46 yards per punt with three punts of more than 60 yards so far), but it's not just the distance that he's getting right. Placement has been mostly excellent as well, evidenced by the fact that no Razorback opponent has managed a punt return of longer than 18 yards.
Best Moment: In a seven-game stretch where the good times have been sparse, the drive that may ultimately be a fulcrum on which the remainder of the season turned occurred in the second half against Auburn. The Tigers had finally shown a spark and drawn within 10-7, and the Hogs had been listless offensively for an extended period. The Razorbacks amped up the tempo on a five-play, 75-yard burst to reclaim a 10-point edge, capped by Brandon Mitchell's gadget touchdown toss to Javontee Herndon.
Worst Mo-ment: Boy, oh boy. Pearls needs a special edition for this one, though we'll exclude any and all of Coach Smith's absurdities to pare it down. The four-week stretch in September was as demoralizing as anything we Hog supporters have witnessed, but for my money, Tevin Mitchel's frightening injury in the Louisiana-Monroe game stood above (below?) all else. In the midst of a frustrating game spiraling out of the Razorbacks' control, Mitchel left War Memorial Stadium on a cart. The life was sucked out of the fans at that moment, and it's debatable as to whether it's returned yet.
Arkansas got out of the muck by beating hapless Auburn and somehow-possibly-more-hapless Kentucky, and the season and program is very much at a crossroads with Ole Miss visiting Little Rock this weekend. As mentioned here previously, a win against Ole Miss squares the record at 4-4, puts Arkansas above water in conference play, and gives this team urgency and fire for the final, grueling month. So much of the first few weeks of the season changed our collective outlook and sandbagged our hope, but as you watch LSU struggle to move the football and South Carolina get exposed, the sense that resurgence is a practical, attainable goal returns.
Ole Miss is rallying under Hugh Freeze, but its three wins are marginal — the Rebs struggled to beat UCA and spanked Auburn, which obviously requires little exertion at this point. The Rebels arguably were best in two losses: covering the spread at Alabama, and then losing to Texas A&M after essentially dominating the Aggies for all but the last seven minutes.
It will be the first few minutes on Saturday that will be telling. The Razorbacks will benefit from the return of tight end Chris Gragg, Mitchel is on the mend, and the running game has finally clicked as it did in a tardy fashion the past two years. Ole Miss yearns to prove that it's on a faster track back to respectability than Arkansas, though, and has a quarterback that shows enough moxie to deliver. If Tyler Wilson outplays Bo Wallace, the Hogs win this game, pure and simple. Wilson has been steady and competent when healthy thus far, yet he's not truly had that "senior moment" (in this case, very much a virtue) where he grasps a desperate team by its facemasks and pushes them toward checkmate.