Friday, December 26, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Hogs resuming an old rivalry

Special to The Leader

The football world won’t end for Monday night’s Advocare Texas Bowl loser in Houston – the bowl that pits a pair of 6-6 teams trying to rebuild toward matching their former Southwest Conference days.

Arkansas of the SEC and Texas of the Big 12 kick off at 8 p.m. Monday on ESPN at the NFL Houston Texans’ NRG Stadium.

For second-year coach Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks, who are coming off a 3-9, 0-8 in the SEC 2013 season, just going 6-6 beat the odds.

All eight of the Razorbacks’ SEC games were played against teams ranked at the time in the AP national Top 20, including six in the Top Ten. Among four nonconference games, the Hogs visited the Big 12’s Texas Tech and hosted a Northern Illinois team then holding the nation’s longest road game winning streak.

Arkansas swept all four nonconference games. In the SEC, Arkansas skunked 17th-ranked LSU 17-0 and eighth-ranked Ole Miss 30-0 for its two league wins. And other than the second half against Auburn and first half against Georgia, was competitive throughout every SEC game, including nail-biting losses to present No. 1 Alabama, then No. 1 Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Missouri.

Already buoyed by junior 1,000-yard rusher Jonathan Williams’ announcement on Christmas Eve to return for his 2015 senior year and not turn pro, the Razorbacks can build off defeat in Houston. But they would much rather build off a victory, and not just because it would insure a winning season instead of a losing one. It would mean they beat Texas, still the team many Razorbacks fans want to beat more than any other team, despite that Arkansas and Texas last played a Southwest Conference game in 1991.

The rivalry used to have national reverberations when 90-year-old retired athletic director Frank Broyles coached Arkansas and the late fellow Hall of Famer Darrell Royal coached Texas.

After hearing from Broyles about this bowl selection, Bielema said, “It gave me chills. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and it gave me a full circle of what it means to play Texas to a certain generation and how much has to be carried forward to our players.”

First-year Texas coach Charlie Strong, an Arkansan from Batesville, also knows his Longhorns can live with a loss, but would live a whole lot better beating an Arkansas team that Texas has defeated 56 times out of 77 matchups in the rivalry’s history. The staunchest of Longhorn fans still bitterly anguished over each of those 21 defeats.

Both teams mostly rely on defense.

Texas All-American tackle Malcom Brown, fellow 300-pounds-plus tackle Hassan Ridgeway and linebackers Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks combine for 49 tackles behind the line for negative 174 yards.

Arkansas senior first-team All-SEC linebacker Martrell Spaight leads the SEC with 123 tackles. He, along with senior All-SEC second-team defensive end Trey Flowers and sophomore All-SEC second-team tackle Darius Philon combined for 32 tackles-for-loss for negative 146 yards.

Overall, the secondary behind Arkansas’ heralded trio is the Razorbacks’ most improved defensive aspect from last season.

Texas’ offense has struggled, losing starting quarterback David Ash early in the season to a career-ending injury.

However, sophomore replacement Tyrone Swoopes, 6-4, 243, reminds Arkansas backup defensive end and Forrest City High grad Tevin Beanum of Dak Prescott, the Mississippi State first-team All-SEC quarterback.

“He’s a bigger guy but he can move,” Beanum said. “We have to be aware that he likes to take it up vertical and out of the pocket.”

Swoopes’ passing can be erratic with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, but he has a 1,000-yard receiver in John Harris, 64 for 1,015 and a good possession receiver, Jaxon Shipley, 58 for 571.

Malcolm Brown, no relation to defensive tackle Malcom Brown, leads Texas’s rushers with 176 carries for 683 yards.

Arkansas junior quarterback Brandon Allen is 178 for 316 for 2,125 yards and 18 touchdowns and just five picks, a dramatic improvement from last season. All is also improved physically since Arkansas’ last game. In the regular-season finale at Missouri, Allen injured his oblique muscle, which impaired him immensely from rolling out in the second half of the SEC finale at Missouri.

The running game is Arkansas’ strength, though the Hogs found it harder to run against SEC defenses than their nonconference foes. Williams is just one of two 1,000-yard backs this year with 1,085 yards. Sophomore Alex Collins has rushed for 1,024.

Arkansas has played a tougher schedule than Texas and has the more impressive wins with its shutouts of then No. 8 and No. 17th-ranked teams.

A 33-16 decision over 24th-ranked West Virginia is Texas’ most impressive victory. The ‘Horns were routed 41-7, 28-7 and 48-10 by Brigham Young and 11-1 Big 12 co-champions Baylor and TCU.

To Las Vegas odds makers, all that has added up to Arkansas being favored by six to 6.5 points.