Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
ARKANSAS FOOTBALL WRAP-UP:
Razorbacks take lumps, dish out a few as well
Arkansas running back Alex Collins pulls in a pass past Florida defender Darin Kitchens during the third quarter of a Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013 game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla.
FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas’ 2013 football season will likely be remembered best for the school-record nine-game losing streak that will tail the Razorbacks through the off season.
The program’s second head coaching transition in two years to Bret Bielema’s ground-oriented attack was a jolt in terms of offensive philosophy from Bobby Petrino’s system, and the Razorbacks defenders, already thin in ranks, had to adjust to their third defensive coordinator in as many years.
Bielema has said in recent days that he is committed more than ever to building Arkansas back into a championship contender in the SEC.
“This conference is everything that I thought it was, times 1,000,” Bielema said last week. “It’s great competition. … I think the fact that this is a team that has gotten better every week, in spite of everything that’s going on, truly gives an indication of where they can be.”
Arkansas (3-9, 0-8 SEC)
Aug. 31 Louisiana-Lafayette W, 34-14
Sept. 7 Samford^ W. 31-21
Sept. 14 Southern Miss W, 24-3
Sept. 21 at Rutgers L, 28-24
Sept. 28 Texas A&M * L, 45-33
Oct. 5 at Florida * L, 30-10
Oct. 12 South Carolina* L, 52-7
Oct. 19 at Alabama * L, 52-0
Nov. 2 Auburn * L, 35-17
Nov. 16 at Ole Miss * L, 34-24
Nov. 23 Mississippi State *^ L, 24-17, OT
Nov. 29 at LSU * L, 31-27
^Little Rock game *Conference game
After its 3-0 start, the Razorbacks hit a bump with a key injury to quarterback Brandon Allen, who needed several weeks to be healthy enough to throw deep down field. Despite that, Arkansas still had a chance to put away a road victory at Rutgers and possibly break into the national rankings in Week 4. However, leading 24-7, the Razorbacks allowed a punt return for a touchdown and a critical fourth-and-12 touchdown pass of 33 yards as the Scarlet Knights fought back for a 28-24 victory.
Arkansas wouldn’t win again over the season’s final two months, although it gave then-BCS No. 17 LSU all it could handle on the day after Thanksgiving.
Bielema talked after that game about developing the team’s killer instinct.
“I wanted our guys to feel it … and I think our players will do the same once they grasp it and truly get the feeling of what beating somebody’s will out of them can do to a person,” he said. “It’ll come. Unfortunately, it can’t come now until next year.”
Bielema and his coaching staff hit the recruiting road immediately after last Friday’s 31-27 loss at LSU.
“If Razorback fans want to help us now, be as lively and creative as you can ever be in a Twitter world and support us and it’ll go a long, long ways,” he said. “Because [if] we put another recruiting class together like we did in this one, it’s going to be awesome.”
Arkansas fans also should remember 2013 as the debut seasons of players who could become SEC stars, such as Alex Collins, the program’s second 1,000-yard freshman rusher, tight end Hunter Henry, offensive linemen Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper, versatile skill player Korliss Marshall, defensive tackle Darius Philon, linebacker Brooks Ellis and defenders like Jared Collins, D.J. Dean, Brandon Lewis and Deatrich Wise.
The back half of Arkansas’ first winless conference season in its 22 seasons as a member of the SEC planted seeds of hope for what Bielema plans to build.
The Razorbacks were drilled by an average margin of 32.3 points per game in their first four SEC games, but the margin fell to an average of 9.75 points per game in the last four losses, and each game was closer than the next.
After losses of 18 and 10 points to Auburn and Ole Miss, the Razorbacks were in position to win their final two games against Mississippi State and at LSU.
Arkansas will enter its 2014 opener at SEC West champion Auburn carrying the burden of its nine-game losing streak.
“It’s easy to just say the players don’t understand how to win, but as coaches we’ve got to understand how to win,” Bielema said. “We’ve got to put the game away by what we teach them, how we coach them, how we call the plays at the end. That’s 100 percent on me.”
Here is a look at the best and worst of the Razorbacks’ 3-9 season:
It’s a tie. Arkansas thoroughly dominated Louisiana-Lafayette 34-14 in the season opener, out gaining the Cajuns 522 to 274 in total yards. The Razorbacks nearly pulled off an upset of LSU in the season finale but got conservative offensively in the fourth quarter and gave up a pair of big pass plays in the quarter on their way to a 31-27 loss in what might have been their most consistent performance of the year.
Arkansas scored first against South Carolina, then gave up 52 consecutive points in a 52-7 homecoming loss. The Gamecocks held Arkansas to 248 yards on 37 offensive snaps while piling up 537 yards on 89 plays of their own.
The first fake punt was the best. Sam Irwin-Hill, feigning a rugby punt against Rutgers, ran to his right, stopped and lofted a 24-yard pass to deep snapper Alan D’Appollonio for a first down to set up a field goal for the first score against the Scarlet Knights.
It’s another tie. This one is between the fake punt call from their own 44 with the Razorbacks leading Mississippi State 10-3 late in the second quarter, and the halfback pass from the Ole Miss 39 with Arkansas on the move early in the third quarter while trailing 20-17.
A crowd of 72,613 packed into Reynolds Razorback Stadium on a rainy day for the conference opener against Texas A&M and cheered hard throughout as the Razorbacks lost 45-33.
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAY
Tailback Jonathan Williams took a toss right and surprised Rutgers by chunking a 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hunter Henry as Arkansas took a 24-7 lead. A close second was Javontee Herndon’s diving 49-yard touchdown catch from Brandon Allen against tight defense in the Louisiana-Lafayette game.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAY
The unit’s only touchdown is the easy winner. The Razorbacks had been hammering and sacking Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova when Trey Flowers’ heavy pressure caused a poorly timed and ill-advised throw by the junior. Cornerback Tevin Mitchel made an easy interception and ran it back 26 yards, diving into the end zone for a touchdown.
TOP SPECIAL TEAMS PLAY
It came in three installments as freshman Dan Skipper capitalized on his 6-10 frame for three blocked field goals against Rutgers, Florida and Mississippi State. Korliss Marshall’s 87-yard kickoff return, which set up a touchdown against Auburn, and Zach Hocker’s career-long 54-yard field goal against Mississippi State are honorable mentions.
BEST OFFENSIVE EFFORT
Jonathan Williams’ tackle-breaking 19-yard touchdown run against Texas A&Mwas memorable in several respects. Williams took the swing pass in the right flats, broke a pair of dead-to-rights tackles, spun out of the grasp on a defender and charged into the end zone.
BEST DEFENSIVE EFFORT
End Trey Flowers was dropping into coverage, tracking a tight end on a third-and-3 pass on Southern Miss’ first possession, when he laid out horizontally to intercept a pass by Alan Bridgford during the Razorbacks’ 24-3 victory.
Arkansas reached its high point of the season on back to-back plays at Rutgers. Trey Flowers stripped the ball free from Gary Nova on a sack and Chris Smith recovered at the Scarlet Knights’ 21. On the next snap, Jonathan Williams took a pitch right, pulled up and threw a strike to tight end Hunter Henry for a touchdown and a 24-7 lead.
A series of plays in the first half against Auburn made Arkansas seem snake bitten. AJ Derby suffered an interception on his first pass after Brandon Allen suffered a deep gash on his shin at the Auburn 20 on the Hogs’ first drive. Then Derby lost a muffed snap to set up Auburn’s first field goal. The capper came with Auburn leading 14-3, when the Razorbacks drove to first and goal at the Tigers’ 4 before being stuffed on consecutive running plays at the 1.
BEST BUDDING RIVALRY
It has to be Arkansas vs. Auburn. The Razorbacks’ 35-18 loss to SEC West champion Auburn was much closer than the final score indicated. The clash of philosophies between Bret Bielema and Arkansas native Gus Malzahn is sure to be a long-running hit, and the teams square off again in next year’s opener at Auburn.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Freshman Alex Collins lived up to the hype, rushing for 1,026 yards to lead the nation’s freshmen. He joined Darren McFadden as the only freshmen to run for 1,000 yards at Arkansas. Collins opened his college career with three consecutive 100-yard games, the first player in the SEC to accomplish that feat and the first in the NCAA since Adrian Peterson did it for Oklahoma. That’s heady company indeed for Collins, whose average of 5.4 yards per carry and 4 touchdowns should improve substantially next year.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Ends Trey Flowers and Chris Smith. Flowers, the team leader with 13 1/2 tackles for loss, could have been a hero for his performance at Rutgers. Smith led the team with 8 1/2 sacks and produced77 lost yards and 6 quarterback hurries.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Kicker Zach Hocker made 13 of 15 field goals with 1 blocked and made all 28 of his extra-point attempts for a team-high 67 points. Hocker kicked field goals of 54 and 53 yards, and his only true miss was a 58-yarder at Ole Miss. Hocker finished his career with an Arkansas-record 354 points.
Center Travis Swanson started all 50 games of his college career and is headed toward the NFL Draft. Swanson’s only missed playing time in four years was a few series at Florida, a couple of plays at Ole Miss and when the reserves were in during routs. Swanson showcased his ability as a pulling blocker more this year.
Senior Javontee Herndon and tight end Hunter Henry. Herndon led the team with 31 catches for 409 yards and 4 touchdowns, and the true freshman Henry was right behind him with 28 catches for 409 yards, 4 touchdowns and a team-best 14.6 yards per catch.
Alex Collins by a nose over Jonathan Williams, who rushed for 900 yards and 4 touchdowns and averaged 6.0 yards per carry.
TOP DEFENSIVE LINEMAN
Trey Flowers edges Chris Smith, based on more disruptive big plays, with an interception and a team-best three forced fumbles. Robert Thomas had 31 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks before missing the last five plus games with a broken leg.
Senior Jarrett Lake had to be Mr. Flexible for the unit, playing both outside and inside linebacker. He had a stint as the team leader in tackles before finishing with 77, tied with junior linebacker Braylon Mitchell. Freshman Brooks Ellis came on strong at season’s end.
TOP DEFENSIVE BACK
Safety Alan Turner was not considered a starter prior to camp, but the junior wound up being a mainstay with a team-high 97 tackles and two interceptions.
Sports, Pages 18 on 12/05/2013