There are nits to be picked after one-point losses. Always.
As much as anything else, retrospective dissection is the gospel of college football fandom; and in SEC country, if you aren’t combining spirits and profanity to motivate your second-guessing in the aftermath of a tight one, by God, buddy, you’re doing it wrong.
Arkansas lost to Alabama 14-13 Saturday night, and oh, you couldn’t find a more apt contest for searing scrutiny. You could also, incidentally, scrawl the old “game of inches” saw in your own blood on a cocktail napkin from Maxine’s Tap Room and torch the same in the middle of Dickson Street, and I’m not even sure that would exorcise all the woes this program keeps on bravely trying to purge.
The whole evening was well-framed reverie, a lot of half-century bombast for the 1964 national champs, but by the time the ever-smarmy Penn Wagers had made the last of his latest batch of dubious officiating declarations and bled the rest of the game clock away helplessly, it truthfully recalled that fateful afternoon in December 1969 instead. Here were some scrappy Porkers donning beautiful throwback gear, respecting the same by holding the line of scrimmage against a bitter and exalted rival, all to find no endgame solace. If that agonizingly slim final margin didn’t remind you of the Game of the Century against Texas in 1969, then I’m sure other things did.
For instance, playcalling curiosities after Arkansas built its well-earned but tenuous lead. Or special teams miscues. Or maybe some yellow flags that should’ve stayed pocketed on one snap and slung to the turf after another.
While Nick Saban was in ill spleen all night, incensed by his team’s feeble performance after a loss to Ole Miss, he still walked off a winner. Bret Bielema, on the other hand, frankly endeared himself further to this columnist with a gut-wrenching but utterly dignified postgame press conference that underscored exactly why Jeff Long found him worthy of the hire. He choked up because he legitimately felt the sting that his players were feeling, and because he genuinely believed all the plaudits he directed toward them. The Hogs’ effort was undeniable and the evidence of their progress is stark, but the results just aren’t bearing that out.
And Bielema noted, as he has many times recently, that all these ailments that send the Razorbacks into the locker room with disbelieving stares are readily, easily fixed. Four penalties, three turnovers and one slightly off-kilter snap helped contribute to a fairly significant point swing. What’s really unfortunate is that some who had chances to emerge as unlikely heroes came up achingly short.
Kody Walker has had such a star-crossed career that the fullback’s first quarter fumble out of the back of the end zone felt so obscenely unjust. And after John Henson’s leg betrayed him and his team two weeks ago at Arlington, how cruel is it that his tipped point-after, which wasn’t totally his own doing, would end up creating the final deficit? Allen had thrown more than 110 passes between interceptions, but naturally, when he heaved one from hash mark to hash mark through spitting rain it was about two yards shy of becoming a highlight for the ages. Instead, Jonathan Williams had no chance but to camp under the lob and Alabama’s Landon Collins snatched it for the punctuation.
Dropped interceptions were big. Alan Turner failed to cradle one in the end zone in the first half and that ended up being costly because the Tide scored its first TD two plays later. Tevin Mitchel had earlier missed out on one that might’ve yielded six and would have at worst put Arkansas on the shorter part of the field. Alabama muffed punt returns twice in the first half but the Hogs failed to capitalize, and later, the Tide managed to recover fumbles.
By the time the fourth quarter was dragging on, the battle of wills climaxed around midfield. Arkansas pushed Bama back on a fourth-and-inches, but moments later the Tide squelched any momentum the Razorbacks wanted to extract from that by doing the same. Then came Allen’s long cross-field fling that needed a bit more shoulder behind it.
It beat the bejesus out of losing 52-0, but it was a really tough one to chew on, too. Arkansas is so vastly improved that the recent defeats arguably hurt worse. But when there are 72,000-plus willing to don ponchos and muck boots to see how far you’ve come, it’s testament to the newfound faith the fans are putting in this staff and these players. At some point in 2014, though, those selfsame parties need to summon the fourth-quarter temerity needed to reward our indisputably conditional love.