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.
2013 STORY OF THE YEAR:
Bielema’s Hogs finish on wrong side of record
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, center left, walks along the bench during an NCAA college football game against Rutgers in Piscataway, N.J., Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013.(AP Photo/Mel Evans)
FAYETTEVILLE - Now that it’s over, Arkansas football Coach Bret Bielema can see why SEC insiders projected the Razorbacks to struggle in his first season at the helm.
The adaptation to new schemes and terminology on both sides of the ball and the transition to a third head coach in as many seasons made for difficult hurdles for the Razorbacks to overcome.
Arkansas, after Bielema urged media to pick the Razorbacks “the lower the better” was picked to finish last in the SEC West and it did, registering its first winless conference season since 1942.
The Razorbacks, who were 3-9 overall after ending the season with a school-record nine-game losing streak, are the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s story of the year in state sports.
Bielema said in a recent interview with the Democrat-Gazette that the Razorbacks have to be better in “everything” in 2014.
“We took an offensive and defensive philosophy that really was completely different to anything that those kids had heard for their entire time,” Bielema said. “I don’t care if they’re a freshman or a senior, they heard things they never heard before. They saw things they’d never seen before.
“We put them in schemes and asked them to do things they had never done before.So it’s going to take a transition. You see teams that have had a lot of success, one thing that they’ve all had is they had common ground for a number of years.”
Bielema pointed out how Gus Malzahn walked back into a familiar situation with players he helped recruit at Auburn, as well as the coaching staff continuity that paid dividends this season for SEC programs like Missouri, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and LSU.
“The teams that are in the upper level of our league have had consistency in what they’re doing,” Bielema said. “I’m new to the world; Butch [Jones] is new to the world, [Mark] Stoops is new to the world.
“You look at even Will [Muschamp], what’s he in, year three? He really did change what they were doing offensively and defensively a lot, and you saw how much struggles they had this year.So as we build this thing and get more players that know what we want and how we play, we’re going to get better and better each day.”
Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney introduced a more ground and pound and play-action offensive attack - vastly different from the previous Petrino schemes - just as the Razorbacks were undergoing a major transition at skill positions.
Offensive threats - quarterback Tyler Wilson, running backs Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson and receivers Jarius Wright, Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Chris Gragg and Cobi Hamilton - from the past several years were replaced by less-proven players.
The transition yielded a 1,026-yard rushing performance from SEC freshman of the year Alex Collins and two 900-yard rushers, with sophomore Jonathan Williams adding 900. But the offense struggled with efficiency and ball security and finished 99th nationally with 357 yards per game.
To complicate matters,quarterback Brandon Allen suffered a non-contact injury to his throwing shoulder while diving into the end zone to avoid a defender the third game against Southern Miss. Allen missed one game, a 28-24 loss at Rutgers in which the Hogs couldn’t hold a 24-7 third quarter lead, but his shoulder needed several more weeks to fully mend.
The schedule did Bielema no favors. Their opening eight-week stretch had no bye weeks but consecutive games against Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama, who were all ranked when the Razorbacks played them and were all projected to finish at or near the top of their SEC divisions.
Arkansas was competitive in a 35-17 home loss to eventual SEC champion Auburn. But the Hogs could not overcome costly first-half turnovers, failure to score from the Auburn 1 late in the first half, and yielding an 88-yard touchdown pass on which a defender was in prime position to make a play on the ball.
The Razorbacks had chances to win their last two games against Mississippi State and LSU, but could not move the ball and score late in either game and had key defensive lapses at crunch time in both.
Arkansas ranked No. 77 in total defense, allowing 413 yards per game, and it was No. 87 in points allowed, at 30.8 per game. In SEC games, the Razorbacks permitted 475 yards and a league-worst 37.9 points per game.
Poor ball security, an affliction that helped derail Arkansas’ 2012 season, was again one of the worst culprits in 2013. The Razorbacks were tied for 111th nationally with a minus-0.8 turnover margin, and their minus-12 margin in SEC games was the worst by four.
Bielema said he liked the attitude his players kept through the difficult season and that he never saw any quit in the team.
“I know a couple of games got away from us scoring wise,” he said. “I looked at the South Carolina game the other day and you forget how some of those critical fumbles came after huge plays that would have been scoring drives, and that’s how quickly the game can change on scores.
“I like the fact our seniors played throughout the year. They didn’t give up. … If you have a group of 3-9 seniors playing good football, you know you’ve got them. It’s been good for me to be on the road and see fellow coaches that I’ve competed against that said, ‘Hey, we were watching you, and we love the way - you can see the way the kids are playing - that they love the way you’re playing.’ ”
Bielema said he sees a silver lining in Arkansas’ direction.
“I think the part that’s fun for us is to see two teams play in the SEC championship game that won two [SEC] game total [in 2012], to show how fast that can turn,” he said. “To know that one game in particular that we were head to head - we didn’t play Missouri obviously - we were right there toe for toe with Auburn, and they’re playing for the national championship. If you ever want an excuse for how close we are, that’s a great, great reason.”
Bielema said he believes another recruiting class like his first at Arkansas will keep the Razorbacks on the right track to eventually compete for the SEC championship.
“If anybody is concerned, I’d tell them to sit back and relax and enjoy the ride,” Bielema said.
Sports, Pages 19 on 12/26/2013