J.R. and Henry: Feeding the monster
It’s another Thursday as we sit out over the Arkansas River and contemplate the events of the past few days. The Razorbacks are fresh off a nail-biting victory over winless Vanderbilt and Hog fans all across the state are concerned with only one thing: whether Houston Nutt deserves to the be the coach.
While some may not like it, it’s a fair question. When you’re coming off back-to-back losing seasons and your team has underperformed in the first three games of this season, fans should be concerned. Before you start saying Vanderbilt is not the Vanderbilt of old (and they are improving under coach Bobby Johnson), just keep in mind that Arkansas’ two wins have come against teams with a combined 0-6 record and a combined 43 points in those six games.
And it’s not just that the Hogs are not playing up to the level we were told to expect before the start of the season; the program appears to be in total disarray. Offensive line coach Mike Markuson yelling at offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn on the sidelines of the Utah State game. Running backs coach Danny Nutt yelling about nothing in particular during the Vanderbilt game. And then there’s defensive coordinator Reggie Herring, who just keeps shooting off at the mouth without backing any of it up on the field. Although lately, even his normal bluster has been tempered a little by the defense’s obvious woes.
Meanwhile, Houston Nutt, while not screaming at his assistants, appears to be focused on one thing: Houston Nutt. Statewide sports columnist Wally Hall may claim that Nutt doesn’t read newspapers, message boards and doesn’t listen to call-in shows, Wally and the rest of us know that Nutt is not immune from the goings-on around the state. And neither is the UA athletic director.
Take Nutt’s comments after the Vanderbilt game. “I needed that. I really needed that. They beat me in the last second last year. They owed me that one.”
But who’s surprised by that? This is the same coach who ran from end zone to end zone at the end of the Ole Miss game last season after Arkansas's 27-14 come-from-behind win. He wasn’t excited just because of the victory. After all, it was only the third of the season. He was excited because word on the street was that the victory saved his job. And even when he continued his national championship-esque celebration in Oxford -- who can forget "I called that play,Chuck, I called a lot of good plays today" to ARSN post-game radio announcer Chuck Barett? -- many fans and the media watched and let Nutt’s antics go generally unanswered.
But that seems to be the real story of Nutt’s tenure here at Arkansas. When things go well, he’s first in line to take credit. And that’s exactly what he did after the Vanderbilt game.
Some fans are rightfully bothered that Nutt appears only focused on Nutt. Has he put himself before the program? His success (and his contract) before the players and the fans? Of course the counter to that is that Nutt’s success means the program’s success. True enough. But the problem many see with Nutt is that he seems satisfied just getting by, and Razorback fans deserve more than that.
So when you combine two straight losing seasons, a slow early start, and Nutt’s continual public relations gaffs, the Razorback Nation has seen tension the likes of which Nutt hasn’t experienced since his days of flirting with Nebraska. But this time, the masses aren’t begging him to stay. But to be fair, they’re not necessarily begging him to go, either. It’s a mixed bag because even with the tirades on message boards and call-in shows, Razorback stadium will be jam packed on Saturday.
So what gives?
Frankly, we’re not sure. It’s a confusing time to be a Hog fan, and we have mixed emotions of our own. The offense is exciting with Malzahn in charge and freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain is absolutely fun to watch. Add running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones and three or four really good wide receivers and, well, there’s a reason to be excited.
But can one argue that because attendance is high, and the offense is exciting, Nutt has the team moving in the right direction?
There’s more to it then that. Recruiting during Nutt’s tenure has been stagnant. But for Malzahn, Nutt would be without Mustain, Damian Williams and Ben Cleveland. Would Arkansas have beaten Vanderbilt without them? Not a chance.
Realizing it’s not February, but Arkansas’ recruiting is off to a slow start. Gary Pinkel, the head coach at Missouri, just stole one of the Hogs’ top recruits. While it was a Missouri-bred player, when Pinkel -- ho coming into the season was on even thinner ice at Missouri than Nutt is at Arkansas -- takes a player away from you, you’re in trouble.
Now it’s Alabama week, as the Tide rolls into Fayetteville on Saturday. To be blunt, this is one of two make-or-break games for Nutt. All along, fans and the media have scrutinized this season and the schedule (the most favorable in recent memory with eight homes games and no back-to-back road game) and determined that a winning season is a must. In fact, most of the optimistic media types were predicting eight wins at a minimum.
In order for Nutt to reach the promise land (7-5) and a guaranteed winning season, Arkansas has to beat either Alabama or South Carolina. After watching Ole Miss and Mississippi State play, there’s no doubt the Hogs are far better than both of those squads. Add in Division 1-AA Southeast Missouri State (a 48-7 loser last week to 1-AA Jacksonville State, coached by Jack Crowe) and mid-major powerhouse Louisiana-Monroe (a 41-7 loser to Bama last week), and the Hogs have six victories without even breaking much of a sweat.
It’s a bit sad that after 5-6 and 4-7 seasons, a 7-5 year (2-6 against teams with a pulse – if you count Vandy) and a trip to a bottom-tier bowl would be enough to save our beleaguered coach’s job. But we may be getting ahead of ourselves. Arkansas could go on a tear and beat Alabama, right?
It’s possible, Alabama is not the team they were last year. But having watched the Hogs’ three games this season, it’s obvious that while the offense has improved dramatically with the emergence of Mustain under the sophisticated and increasingly more obvious direction of Malzahn, the defense has gotten worse, mostly because of key injuries and overall depth problems.
USC, Vanderbilt and to a certain extent Utah State all exposed the Hogs' depleted front seven. The defensive line was consistently pushed off the ball and because of the lack of depth at linebacker; Arkansas has had difficult stopping the run, particularly late in the game.
Alabama returns Kenneth Darby, a 1,000 rusher the past two seasons. He was dinged up the first three games, but it’s reported that he’s close to 100 percent now. While 'Bama is breaking in a new quarterback in John Parker Wilson, he hasn’t played like a new quarterback, completing 60 percent of his passes and throwing only one interception. In fact, his numbers are strikingly similar to Mustain’s.
The Crimson Tide averages 393 yards of total offense and 26 points a game, both better than the Razorbacks. Now, that statistic is a bit skewed because the Razorbacks have played better competition. Nevertheless, for those who say that Alabama is depleted on both sides of the ball need only look to the yards and points generated this season to understand that they can move the football and they can score, particularly against weak defenses.
When evaluating the teams against similar competition, it is clear the Tide has the advantage. Alabama generated four turnovers against the Commodores; the Razorbacks generated none. Neither team ran the ball effectively against Vandy, but the Tide gave up only 80 total yards on the ground to Vandy compared to 240 given up by the Razorbacks.
Looking at the intangibles, Alabama’s key players are healthy and Arkansas’ are not. On offense, Darren McFadden is still not yet 100 percent according to Nutt, Felix Jones aggravated a kidney injury in the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt, and Peyton Hillis has missed practice all week. On defense, Freddie Fairchild from Little Rock Central is out for the season, leaving an already depleted linebacking crew adapting to another unproven (and very small) player.
And that’s not even the worst part. The players who remain healthy on defense have had trouble with the basics; they tackle too high and they don’t wrap up. Missed tackles, blown coverage and a general lack of cohesion nearly cost the Razorbacks a victory last week.
This week the Hogs won’t be so lucky.
J.R. AND HENRY PREDICTION: Alabama 27, Arkansas 17
Local tell-it-like-it-is sports fans J.R. and Henry post their sports column on the Little Rocking blog every Monday and Thursday during football season.