Tuesday, September 22, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Hog fans should temper expectations

Leader sportswriter

For the second week in a row, the Arkansas Razorbacks disappointed on the gridiron, but considering the team lost to Toledo in the first of these two disappointing weeks, Saturday’s 35-24 loss to old Southwest Conference rival Texas Tech didn’t come as a surprise.

The bulk of Arkansas’ problems Saturday didn’t come on offense, as the team totaled 424 yards and was pretty well balanced (228 rushing, 196 passing). The obvious problem was on defense, where the Hogs surrendered 486 yards of offense.

The only time the Red Raiders (3-0) punted Saturday was during pre-game warm-ups, because the Razorback defense didn’t have an answer for slowing down TT’s fast-pace, quick-pass offense.

Leading up to the game, Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury compared his quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, to 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel because of his dual-threat capabilities.

Kingsbury was the offensive coordinator for A&M the year the current Cleveland Browns quarterback won the Heisman. Mahomes is no Johnny Football, but the Hogs’ defense made the comparison look credible on Saturday.

Mahomes completed 26 of 30 passes (86.7 percent) against the Razorbacks for 243 yards with one touchdown. He did throw two interceptions, but one of those was practically a punt at the end of the first half.

Mahomes also ran for 58 yards and two TDs on 10 carries. A couple of those runs came on critical third-and-long situations, which helped the Red Raiders finish the game 7 of 10 on third-down conversions.

Arkansas’ offense had the right game plan going in, which was to control the ball and clock and keep the Red Raiders’ up-tempo offense on the sideline. That strategy doesn’t work, though, if your defense can’t keep the opposing team’s offense out of the end zone.

For Arkansas’ offense, the play up front was an improvement from last week, where the vaunted biggest offensive line in all of football got their tails handed to them by Toledo.

Big doesn’t necessarily mean good, though, and although the O-line showed improvement Saturday, improvement was to be expected against Texas Tech’s less than stellar defense – where throughout the Big 12, at least in this day and age, football scores look more like basketball scores.

In last year’s win against the Red Raiders, the Razorbacks’ ground game absolutely pummeled and demoralized the Texas Tech defense. In that game, the Hogs rushed for 438 yards and seven touchdowns en route to a 21-point win, and a good chunk of those yards came when Texas Tech’s defense knew what was coming. They just couldn’t stop it.

Because of last year’s struggles stopping the run, Kingsbury made it an offseason priority to recruit bigger and stronger players to add to his defensive front, and although the Red Raider defense has improved from last year, especially in that area, it’s still one of the weakest defenses Arkansas will face this year.

Junior running back Alex Collins bounced back from last week’s not-so-impressive effort with 170 yards and one touchdown on 28 carries. He didn’t finish the game on a high note as he got the ball stripped from him by a 175-pound redshirt freshman safety on Arkansas’ final offensive possession. But other than that, he looked a lot better running the ball compared to last week.

Senior quarterback Brandon Allen, who’s (often unfairly) been the most criticized Razorback since he earned the starting job three years ago, completed 76 percent of his passes for 196 yards and two scores with one pick Saturday.

The one interception came when he was trying to throw it out of bounds, but was rolling left on the play and the right-handed QB couldn’t get enough juice on the throw to get it out of play.

Allen, as usual, did miss some throws, one of which came while under pressure in the second half to a wide-open Jeremy Sprinkle near the goal line on third down. But, at this point in his Razorback career, it’s become clear that you can’t expect Allen to make every single throw, and that includes the clutch ones.

The senior QB would’ve had a third TD toss had it not been for a questionable offensive pass interference call on tight end Hunter Henry midway through the fourth quarter that would’ve brought the Hogs within 35-30 of Tech’s lead.

A good portion of the Arkansas fanbase will likely continue to put the blame for the Razorbacks’ early-season struggles on the senior QB, when in reality he’s far from the main or only problem with the team.

The defense couldn’t tackle in space and was awful Saturday. Then again, it looked like a defense that was without three NFL caliber players on a team that finished the 2014 regular season 6-6 with just two SEC wins.

Although the offensive pass interference call on Henry was questionable, the Hogs continued to pick up costly penalties Saturday, totaling five for 43 yards. At least those numbers were nearly cut in half from last week’s nine penalties against Toledo. So, there was improvement there.

The redshirt freshman kicker, Cole Hedlund, has yet to live up to the expectations that surrounded the former high school All-American.

In the last two weeks, he’s missed two field goals that someone of that caliber and hype should probably make, including a 37-yarder in the fourth quarter that would’ve brought Arkansas within 35-27 of Tech’s lead.

Another obvious problem for Arkansas is injuries. Looking at the sideline Saturday, it looked as if the Razorbacks were playing in late November with the several players that were sporting crutches, including last year’s leading rusher.

Already down two receivers, Arkansas lost yet another wideout Saturday when Jared Cornelius broke his forearm while landing awkwardly on the sideline after a 34-yard reception.

Now down three receivers for an extended period of time, one of which is the team’s best in Keon Hatcher, on a receiving corps that wasn’t very good to begin with, will surely lead to struggles in the passing game when the team gets into its SEC schedule, which starts this Saturday against No. 14 Texas A&M (3-0).

The players don’t deserve all the criticism, though. The team flat out didn’t look ready to play last week’s lone Little Rock game against Toledo, and there was no answer for stopping Tech’s offense on Saturday.

The lack of preparation and inability to adjust accordingly falls on the coaching staff, and it starts with the head coach, who’s paid millions of dollars a year to have this team as best prepared as possible to play each and every game, and that ultimately hasn’t been the case these last two weeks.

It also doesn’t help matters when your head coach fails to back up his words. On the week of the Little Rock debacle, head coach Bret Bielema was openly critical of top-ranked Ohio State’s strength of schedule (or lack thereof).

Bielema was right in the fact that Ohio State’s schedule is, on paper at least, a lot weaker than the SEC gauntlet the Razorbacks will have to go through, but what immediately followed that criticism was the loss to Toledo of the Mid-American Conference.

Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan, known for his colorful interviews, was asked at a weekly press conference early last week if he wished the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots played in a different division than his team.

“Yeah, probably,” said Ryan. “Play somebody else. Not gonna mention names. I’m not gonna pull an Arkansas coach.”

Bielema was once again forced to put his foot in his mouth after the Texas Tech game, for comments he allegedly made during the summer at the Texas high school football coaches’ convention.

Kingsbury, the son of a Texas high school football coach, clearly took offense to the head Hog’s supposed comments and wasn’t shy about his dislike for Bielema during Saturday’s post-game press conference.

“At the Texas high school football convention this summer, he said, ‘If you don’t play with a fullback, we’ll kick your ass. If you throw it 70 times a game, we’ll kick your ass.’ He just got his ass kicked twice in a row, and probably next week by (Texas) A&M as well. So, that did feel good,” said Kingsbury.

It’s one thing to be outspoken and talk a little trash, but when you don’t back it up, especially against teams from the MAC, expect to be mocked and ridiculed for it.

Considering the Razorbacks enter SEC play this week with a 1-2 record and have already been bitten hard by the injury bug, rather than expecting a season like last year’s, Hog fans should expect a season more similar to 2013, where the team finished that season winless in SEC play for the first time.

As far as fans go, it’s OK to be critical, but the Arkansas faithful should continue to support the team. Win or lose, that’s what real fans do, and this year’s team needs all the help it can get.

At the same time, the Razorback fanbase, if it hasn’t by now, should seriously temper its expectations for this season. Be supportive of the team and hope for the best, but don’t expect much success the rest of the year.