Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
On Thanksgiving night, Bret Bielema could settle into his bed knowing that after a rather miserable 2013 inauguration, he had slipped comfortably into his job and the results were bearing some small but edible fruits for this ravenous fan base. He was only 25-24, but 18-10 with two bowl wins over his last 28 contests, a smattering of takedowns of ranked teams, and a stabilized roster that showed off the staff's endeavors to enlist and develop a caliber of player that would lead to better days ahead in a rugged conference.
Twenty-four hours later, the outlook went from rosy to rotten. Missouri, playing like a team desperate to avoid the 3-9 season that Bielema authored three years before, erased a 24-7 Hog lead in a matter of minutes in the third and fourth quarters, and held off two red zone charges by the Hogs late to emerge victorious, 28-24, in this latest chapter of a contrived and uninspiring "rivalry" featuring a trophy that is far more aesthetically sound than the football that's been played, three years running, between the participants.
Make no mistake: Mizzou played exactly like a three-win team even as it rallied. The Tigers dropped clean passes that would've inflated the margin to something greater than it ended up being, and whiffed on open-field tackles. The thing is, they also secured the football, which Arkansas failed to do (Austin Allen had two catastrophic red zone interceptions), and took chances that their nowhere season afforded. "What team runs a fake punt inside its own 10 in the second half?!" you might have mused. Then you might've said to yourself, seconds later, "Well, a 3-8 team that wants to wreck an opponent's season does."
Murphy's Law ate the Hogs alive over the final half hour of clock at aging, uninteresting Faurot Field. The aforementioned gaffes were significant, but it was the listless play on both sides of the ball that made defensive coordinator Robb Smith's seat hotter — yet again, the Hogs generated no discernible pass rush against an offensive line that hardly qualifies as staunch — and even made Dan Enos' offensive play selection worthy of intense scrutiny. The Razorbacks were scoreless after halftime and the old red zone woes resurfaced. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle failed to cradle a potential game winner, but all things considered, would a 31-28 win snatched out of the jaws of defeat mean that much? The whole second half was so aggravating that it didn't even seem like a win would be either deserved or celebrated.
And as a result of this lifeless and erratic performance in a season fraught with them, Arkansas now faces a bowl prospect that is realistically no different or better than the Liberty Bowl nod it received last year, when it was more competitive and interesting to watch generally. Smith has a really tall task ahead if he wants to recapture whatever spark he had back in 2014, because the paucity of speed is now visible against teams that have little of it themselves. Missouri is reasonably well stocked at receiver but the Hogs got battered in the second half by a third-string tailback and Drew Lock had all the poise and confidence of a guy leading a team with an inverse win-loss record. Enos can likely remedy a few issues on the situational playcalling side, but he's still dependent upon a terribly unsteady line to ensure those calls can be carried out.
And special teams? Well, Adam McFain missed a field goal again, and Deon Stewart simply looks too excitable to return kickoffs with any degree of consistency. Toby Baker is closing in on his final punts of a really stellar two-year run. There's a lot of work to be done there, too, so the feeling after game 12 is oddly similar to the one going into the season: This is a team that lacks leadership and resolve, and that's not an indictment of Allen, who soldiered through injuries all year and was productive and reliable when those aches and pains weren't being inflamed.
A bowl game of any kind is both important to and meaningless for this team. The seniors, save for Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan, honestly failed to acquit themselves most of the year, and it would accordingly not be all that surprising if the entire April draft went by without any Hogs getting selected, Morgan's utility as a slot and possession receiver notwithstanding. Sprinkle notably lacked any kind of chemistry with Allen, and wide receiver Dominique Reed was an utter disappointment. Linebacker Brooks Ellis is a hard-working guy and defensive lineman Deatrich Wise has all manner of physical tools, but neither is going to be terribly appealing to a professional team in need of depth.
Yet there's another month of practice to be gained and a chance for Bielema to get back above sea level record-wise, and push his bowl mark to 3-0, even if it will again be at the expense of a marginal power conference team like Iowa, Minnesota, Miami or North Carolina. For the next few weeks, the team is going to have to put in work to make fans forget one of the worst losses the program has sustained of late, and it isn't unrealistic to believe that some of the staff may not be along for that excursion.
Post Script: On Tuesday evening, Oregon rather callously dismissed Mark Helfrich after four years. In a pretty competitive and rapidly improving Pac-12, Helfrich sustained a 4-8 ding in what ended up being his last season, but prior to that, he lost eight games over THREE seasons and had the Ducks at the doorstep of a national title in the first year of the four-team playoff. Granted, there was abundant talent there, but when a guy who goes 33-8 over three years gets zero leash after one lost season, we are once again reminded about the increasingly fickle nature of athletic directors across the country. Helfrich was celebrated as a bright offensive mind and was well regarded for his even keel demeanor, and yet all of that amounted to very little tangible vocational currency in the end.
Bielema’s 50-game mark at Arkansas is demonstrably worse than Helfrich’s, but he also inherited a program in tattered shape. That said, the harsh lesson from what happened at Eugene is that expectations of fans and boosters move the needle on a coaching decision nowadays, and Bielema’s fifth season on the Hill could be his last if there isn’t a perceptible upswing in 2017.
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