In 2015, Bret Bielema’s perilous future as Arkansas’s head coach tilted in a favorable way when the Hogs outlasted Auburn in a four-overtime classic at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, setting in motion a strong finish to what was shaping up as a lost season.
A year later, with the Hogs cruising along nicely at 5-2, Gus Malzahn put Bielema back into a submission hold in a 56-3 rout that, for the first time, called into question whether some of the Razorback players were doing the dreaded “q”-word midgame. It was a beating so thorough that opinions on the head coach’s competency shifted almost instantly.
It’s only fitting, then, that Malzahn would again be playing a role in tormenting his onetime employer and the coach with whom he’s been pitted as a philosophical adversary. Bielema took some ill-advised jabs at hurry-up offenses a good while back, and that was the virtual tapping of the gloves in a five-year bout in which Malzahn has had a decisive upper hand. He flexed it again Saturday night in a 52-20 blowout that saw Razorback fans fleeing for the exits mere minutes into the third quarter. Some of the players acted as if they wanted to sneak out behind them.
That assessment is not to be inferred as an allegation that the Hogs quit. But the minute Auburn nudged its narrow 17-6 halftime lead upward to 24-6 on the first of Kamryn Pettway’s three second-half touchdown runs, the metaphorical air went out of the literal stadium. And those second-half demons that have plagued Bielema’s entire half-decade here just hounded the Hogs some more.
In an ironic twist, the Hogs’ beleaguered special teams probably had the best night, and that’s saying something, considering that there was a critical muffed punt late in the first half with the score at 10-3. Punter Blake Johnson was erratic again, but at least got to take credit for a season-best 60-yard boot. De’Vion Warren had a 100-yard kickoff return for six, and Connor Limpert cleanly banged home two midrange field goal attempts in the first half when the team was feeling a measure of pride.
The defense? Well, the 3-4 experiment can now assuredly be chalked up as a failure. McTelvin Agim was purported to be a Jadeveon Clowney type of player and, at least in this scheme, he isn’t in that orbit at all. A team that got precious little heat on the quarterback in the traditional 4-3 model last fall is creating almost no duress on signal-callers now. Jarrett Stidham had a comfortable pocket almost all night, and when he was rushed, he was either accurate throwing on the run or picking up sizable chunks of yardage with his feet.
Ultimately, Auburn was balanced, which Malzahn — love, loathe, or be indifferent about him — has preached endlessly as the cornerstone of his offense. For all the gimmickry he tends to employ, it all seems to coalesce perfectly against Arkansas, and on Saturday the Tigers racked up 629 total yards and eight different players ran the ball and another octet had receptions.
On the flip side, quarterback Cole Kelley’s second start was much the same as his first, with the added bonus of fumbling problems. The big guy is facing the same issues that injured starter Austin Allen did, and he’s doing some commendable things for a redshirt freshman who had no game experience until seven weeks ago. But there are no downfield threats for him to rely
Things are bleak, folks. We’ve forsaken any semblance of sugarcoating here already, but from one Auburn game to another across a 12-month spectrum, Arkansas is a woeful 4-9, and only two of those wins have come against SEC teams. Worse yet, in those nine losses, the Hogs have been outscored 234-60 after halftime. If Bielema has given up on retaining employment here, that’s fine, but the audition tape for another job is getting sketchier each week, too.