Column: Bret Bielema picks an odd time to take his foot off the pedal
It was mid-October, halfway through Bret Bielema’s third year at Arkansas, and things weren’t looking good in Fayetteville.
The Razorbacks had just lost to Alabama, falling 27-14 in a game where they were competitive for a long time, but ended up losing all the same.
The numbers were getting staggering. Bielema had failed to 14-19 overall at Arkansas and just 2-16 in SEC games. Everyone knew he had a big rebuilding job on his hands when he got there, but results should have been there by now. People were getting restless.
Then everything changed. Like magic.
The Razorbacks went on a four-game winning streak, winning two crazy games in overtime, an easy nonconference game and a thorough stuffing of LSU. Senior quarterback Brandon Allen had found his way, and the Hogs were winning because Bielema was pushing all the right buttons. He was going full-bore forward, playing aggressively every step of the way, hair on fire with every decision.
That was most obvious in the 53-52 overtime victory at Ole Miss, where he scored in overtime then immediately went for a 2-point conversion and the win in a now-or-never moment. Arkansas got it, and the winning ways continued.
That aggressive mind-set continued Saturday night in another wacky shootout with Mississippi State. The Razorbacks made a huge comeback behind Allen, who threw seven touchdown passes on the night.
Push, push, push.
Down 51-50 in the closing minutes, the Razorbacks flew down the field with five straight Allen completions, starting from the Hogs 11 and quickly getting to the State 19 in two minutes.
Then Bielema, ever the aggressor, went completely conservative. He took the ball out of Allen’s hands and ran it three times, forcing the Bulldogs to use up all their timeouts while settling for a chip-shot field goal to win the game. There was no effort to score a touchdown, none whatsoever.
The problem with that, though, is that sometimes those automatic chip-shot 29-yard field goals aren’t always automatic. This one certainly wasn’t. Protection completely collapsed on the right side of the line and the kick was blocked. What looked like a fifth-straight win suddenly – and painfully – ended in a 51-50 loss that left Arkansas at 6-5.
Doesn’t 7-4 sound much better? Doesn’t five wins in a row sound much better? Doesn’t a final win against Missouri and an 8-4 finish sound better?
It all sure does.
Now here’s the problem. On the surface, it’s hard to be overly critical of Bielema for shutting it down and settling for a field goal. That’s a play that should be made. But right now, who’s the must trustworthy player on the Razorbacks roster? That’s Brandon Allen. Look, he threw a school-record seven touchdown passes – and NO interceptions. He threw for 406 yards, and then you took the ball out of his hands in the most important minute of the game.
In this crazy five-game stretch, Allen has thrown for 1,587 yards. He’s thrown for 19 touchdowns and only two interceptions. In other words, he can be expected to be careful with the ball. Why not give him a chance to score a touchdown and end this sucker?
Don’t you trust Allen more than anyone? Mississippi State had done well on the battle of the line of scrimmage all night, so it was possible they could get a good push on a field-goal try. It’s exactly what they did, and the easy block sealed the game.
It’s too bad for the Razorbacks, because they’ve been on an incredible run. They’ve shown the type of team they can be under Bielema, and that’s pretty darn good. Had they finished 8-4, there might have been a case to be made that they were the second-best team in the SEC behind Alabama. Had Florida stumbled twice to Florida State and Alabama, a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl might even had been an option.
Now, a win over Missouri is a must to finish with a winning record and show some progress. One little point has changed the perspective of a season again for Bielema and the Hogs.
Next time, trust Allen. Or, at the very least, remind those big Hogs on the line to make their blocks on a kick.
That one play changes the perspective of the season. One point.