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Agony vs. Aggies



You watched Austin Allen fire that third-down pass into a "window" that was more like a keyhole, and you knew, didn't you?

No matter what optimism you summoned during another wild second half against these damnable Aggies, you sensed the inevitable, right?

Arkansas cannot conquer Texas A&M. This time, it was a 50-43 gut-wrencher in four quarters and a single, truncated extra period. Allen chucked a third-and-7 bullet right into Aggie safety Armani Watts' waiting arms to end the game after A&M scored first on the heels of a marginal pass interference call against Hog freshman Kamren Curl.

If I were descended from Theodore Geisel, I might put it this way: We cannot beat them when we're ranked, we cannot beat them when they've tanked. We have no chance in Quarter Four, we cannot stop them anymore. This game makes me lose my mind, and for SIX YEARS running, a win we cannot find.

Bret Bielema's entire day in Arlington, Texas, was a cavalcade of regrettable decisions, from the apathetic wardrobe (Bill Belichick earned sweatshirt rights by winning, you know, five Super Bowl rings) to kicking to Christian Kirk, the bedeviling one, once the Hogs finally seemed to wrest momentum and control late. He sobbed in the postgame press conference again, and I know it's an authentic expression of his and the staff's collective angst, but it's also an emotional episode that is losing steam and credibility after four years of tragicomic heartbreak in this Southwest "Classic." It's like a movie studio churning out mindless sequels to "Old Yeller" at this point, and when the damn dog dies at the conclusion of the first movie, you've really got no business trying to bilk the consumer for these sequels.

Let's talk positives for as long as it can be sustained: Austin Allen has found a dependable downfield threat in transfer wideout Jonathan Nance, whose two fourth-quarter grabs nearly made him a hero, and South Carolina grad transfer Dave Williams continues to be an unsung backfield hero. Backup quarterback Cole Kelley and freshman running back Chase Hayden were effective on Dan Enos' new gadget plays, designed to throw a defense off the scent of Allen, who again was hounded by a pass rush all day. The defense is a work in progress but it's undeniable that Dre Greenlaw, Santos Ramirez and Henré Toliver are providing leadership as the transition to 3-4 still irons itself out.

Oh, and Connor Limpert made all five of his first collegiate point-after tries. Yeah, he couldn't quite boot it past the electric Kirk on a fourth-quarter kickoff after the Hogs scored a go-ahead TD on Allen's deep strike to Nance, but he's not Cole Hedlund, and that same attribute worked for Adam McFain in 2014 and 2016.

That's about where the joy ends. Arkansas put up 43 points and lost, and paradoxically, the defense was not the culprit. Mind you, big plays again haunted the Hogs, and one of them in the first half should've been an 89-yard scoring run by true freshman quarterback Kellen Mond, but for an errant early whistle by the official who thought a foot hit the chalk near the Arkansas 10. Paul Rhoads' unit is flawed, but its effort is not.

No, where the culpability lies, as it has every year since 2014, is on the sidelines, where game management just betrays the affable head coach at the worst possible times. At the end of the first half, Bielema chose to take his timeouts with him into the locker room, bleeding the remaining seconds off the clock with a four-point lead. Allen had struggled to stay clean, granted, but he's a senior and you clearly trust him, so why go into a shell late in the half, especially knowing the recent history of this game has been unkind? The Hogs also needed to test Limpert's range and mettle with a field goal try, and he wasn't given an opportunity.

On the back end of the game, Bielema's similarly beleaguered counterpart, Kevin Sumlin, settled for a tying field goal in the fourth quarter. Seemed mysterious, right? Not when you've got a stranglehold on this game every September! Arkansas elected to avoid Kirk with its last kickoff, leading 43-40. Seemed smart, right? Not when you pooch it to the 35 and let a walk-on jaunt it past midfield. The Aggies needed three points to save themselves, so the Hogs facilitated overtime for them with hideous special teams decisions and execution, and made an 18-year-old quarterback's job that much simpler.

If Arkansas has any hope of rescuing this season, it really rests on this team's ability to take advantage of the sudden, jarring softness of the conference as a whole. The remainder of the schedule affords the Hogs with two likely nonconference wins — let's take wagers on the size of this weekend's crowd for New Mexico State in Fayetteville, shall we? — and a slate that outside of the road trip to Alabama is suddenly not that imposing. If the Texas A&M game is at least useful in providing the Hogs with a fulcrum on which to tilt the rest of the year, maybe the stinging defeat will be more or less worth it in the same way the 2015 loss was. But that team had more weapons on the perimeter, a disciplined and massive offensive line and a pass rush that progressively improved as the season wore on into November.

The other Aggies from Las Cruces, N.M., will be in state this weekend. Arkansas can't do any better in September than 2-2 now, but man, winning a game against an FBS team for the first time since before Thanksgiving seems like it would be a major healing moment for such a wounded team. And momentum cannot be understated. Allen is visibly losing patience and composure all too early in the season, so he has to not only have a productive Saturday ahead, but one that reestablishes confidence in his offensive line. It's a unit that will be shaky all season, yet again, so miracles cannot be anticipated.

Given that so many of the Hogs' competitors in the conference have scuffled against lower-tier competition of late, a victory cannot be assumed either. This staff has to revert to the drawing board for all conceivable reasons, continued employment chief among those. Arkansas needs a clean, productive, smart game even if there's a shortage of live bodies there to witness it.

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