3 thoughts: This may be Arkansas' worst loss ever

By: Matt Jones
Published: Sunday, October 23, 2016
Arkansas Razorbacks wide receiver Jared Cornelius (1) (left) stands on the sideline with teammates on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, during the fourth quarter against Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala.
Photo by Jason Ivester
Arkansas Razorbacks wide receiver Jared Cornelius (1) (left) stands on the sideline with teammates on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, during the fourth quarter against Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala.

— No one knew what to expect here Saturday, but it's safe to say no one expected that.

Arkansas has lost four games by 50 or more points in the modern era, all of which have come in the last 12 seasons.

Three were explainable - and blowouts weren't surprising at the time - because down Razorbacks teams were playing a program at the height of a dynasty.

Arkansas lost 70-17 at Southern Cal in 2005 and 52-0 to Alabama back-to-back years in 2012 and 2013. Two of those teams went on to play in national championship games, while the Razorbacks didn't win more than four games in any of those seasons.

But Arkansas is past futility in the Bret Bielema era, or at least it should be. The Razorbacks have looked like a quality SEC team for the better part of two years now. There have been some big losses over that time, but even in those, Arkansas has typically kept the game within reach until the fourth quarter.

That's what made the 53-point loss to Auburn so hard to fathom. Arkansas was just coming off a win over Ole Miss - which doesn't look so big in retrospect - and Auburn had only shown that level of play against Arkansas State and ULM.

Reader poll

Was Saturday's 53-point defeat the Razorbacks' worst loss ever?

  • Yes 78% 307 votes
  • No 21% 85 votes

392 total votes.

But make no mistake, that game wasn't a fluke. If those teams played 10 times, the Tigers would probably win them all because of personnel mismatches. We just didn't realize how mismatched those teams actually were until they took the field.

Gus Malzahn's record may not be what many Auburn fans want four years into his tenure, but he is still one of college football's best at finding mismatches on the opposing defense. He found all of Arkansas', which has defensive backs who take bad angles on ball carriers and looks slow against SEC teams.

Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele also had plenty to exploit with one of the nation's best pass rushes going against one of the SEC's worst offensive lines.

Las Vegas set the betting line at 10 points for this game, but the prevailing thought was that Bielema's team would find a way make things competitive like it so often does. It turned out to be anything but competitive and has to be one of the most surprising Arkansas results we have ever seen.

We are prone to hyperbole, but given the Razorbacks' recent success, it also has to be considered one of Arkansas' worst games ever, both in margin of loss and in level of play.

Robb Smith may not survive this

Arkansas' run defense was supposed to be the team's strength this season.

The Razorbacks returned starters at almost every position from last season's unit that was a top 15 national run defense. It was a group that held eventual Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry to his lowest output of the season, and LSU's Leonard Fournette to his second-lowest output last year.

With as many as 10 defensive linemen thought to be SEC starting quality, stopping the run was going to be a given with this group, even if the back end continued to struggle to defend the pass.

That couldn't have been further from the truth.

Arkansas' run defense is the worst in recent memory. You can say the same for the defense as a whole.

The Razorbacks are allowing 8.3 yards per rush attempt in SEC games. That's almost a first down every time the opponent carries the ball.

Texas A&M gashed the Razorbacks' run defense in Arlington and Alabama carved it up in Fayetteville, but Auburn annihilated it. The Tigers' 543 rushing yards were the most ever allowed by Arkansas, a team that played in the wishbone-heavy Southwest Conference.

And what's even more unbelievable: Auburn did that with its leading rusher Kerryon Johnson, who was unable to play with an ankle injury.

Such defensive ineptitude falls on the shoulders of the Razorbacks' coordinator, Robb Smith, whose seat should be on fire entering the open date.

Auburn had seven runs of 20 yards or more. The Tigers had many more between 11 and 18 yards, as well as a 45-yard touchdown pass.

In the past five games, the Razorbacks have given up 17 plays of at least 30 yards, and nine plays of more than 50.

Five of the eight opposing quarterbacks this year have rushed for at least 60 yards. Arkansas is allowing 43.6 points per game against Power 5 opponents.

It should be noted that Smith's unit is playing short-handed. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw and defensive back Kevin Richardson are two top players who are injured, but everyone is playing a man or two down at this point in the year.

Any coach would say that injuries are no excuse for poor execution, and that's exactly what we've seen from Smith's side of the ball for the majority of the past two seasons. It's almost a given the Razorbacks will give up 40 points, 500 yards and a handful of backbreaking plays in every SEC game.

It's been written here before, but it bears repeating: Smith is due a $50,000 pay raise next season, just like he was given this year after a poor defensive showing in 2015.

At $800,000 per year, he is Arkansas' highest-paid assistant coach. It would not surprise to see Arkansas invest that in someone new next year.

Coaches need to protect QB, too

Arkansas' worst nightmare almost came true Saturday - yes, one even worse than a 53-point loss.

Austin Allen was nearly knocked out of a game when Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson hit him low and from behind. Allen had to be helped off the field, but continued a season-long exhibition of toughness by returning for the Razorbacks' next series.

Allen played into the fourth quarter with a brace on his right knee. He played OK given the injury, the lack of a supporting run game and poor pass protection.

The starting quarterback has become one of the team's best players. There is little doubt he is the team's most important.

Arkansas' worst nightmare is for him to suffer an injury that causes him to miss substantial playing time.

That is partly because even with a run game that has been hit-and-miss, Allen has kept Arkansas competitive in most games this season. That much is evident. But under the surface there is an even more glaring reason: quarterback play drops off sharply behind him.

That is mostly because of youth and the inexperience that is associated with it. Arkansas' backup quarterbacks are redshirt freshman Ty Storey and true freshman Cole Kelley.

Bielema has been reluctant to take his starting quarterback out of any game despite the score during his Arkansas tenure. Allen played the entire Alabama game despite the Razorbacks trailing by as many as 25 in the fourth quarter, and he played all but a couple of series in the 42-point win over FCS Alcorn State.

You can't help but question why Allen was still in the game in the fourth quarter Saturday with the Razorbacks down 39. It made even less sense given his injury and the success with which Auburn's pass rush had been able to get to him.

It wasn't until Allen's knee swelled up and required additional treatment that Storey entered the game for good. It wasn't so much a coach's call as nature's call. It was a bad call to leave him in for so long.

The same goes for all of Arkansas' starters. Two offensive linemen, Hjalte Froholdt and Brian Wallace, suffered injuries in garbage time Saturday when their understudies could have been gaining valuable playing experience.

That any starters were in the game at that point was indicative of an all-around poorly coached game.

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