The Hogs finally played a meaningful opponent last Saturday, and it near killed me. You must understand: I live in hockey country now, most people I know couldn't care less about sports to begin with, and my wife went to schools that don't even have football teams. I watch the game alone with my dog, and my dog is starting to show signs of concern. I'm just not exhibiting healthy behavior.
Neither are the Hogs. A win is a win is only a win until next week. If the Hogs can't convert third downs, the winning will end. They were 4 of 12 on Saturday, and those are generally losing numbers. Winning this particular game doesn't change that fact.
I'd focus on the successes if I felt like it was reflected in Petrino's playcalling. Clearly, he's intent on running the ball, and his intentions are good, but they've so far been for naught. The Hogs wrung a meager 53 yards out of 23 tries last Saturday, averaging 2.3 yards per attempt. All of the failed conversions in the fourth quarter began with a failed first down rush. The possessions in question ate up about four minutes off the clock. In the interim, Georgia came within 20 yards of Blair Walsh winning another game with his leg.
I preached the necessity of running the ball against Todd Grantham's 4-3 last week, but Petrino's motivation in the fourth with a two-score lead had to be about clock management. Grinding out a win, as they say. But the only thing we ground down was our defense. And our sputtering, flooded offensive possessions also backed our special teams into a corner, though they answered the call on every account.
I'll admit it: Part of my trouble with winning a game by the skin of clenched teeth is about perception. It's hard to see other teams go out and make statements against quality opponents, as several programs did in the past two weeks, and then look closely at our various failures without trepidation. Much of the SEC will wither under scrutiny this year, and standout teams need to assert themselves against the wounded ducks.
Lucky for the Hogs, most analysts haven't put the East under a microscope, and many still respect a road win in the SEC enough to pause in wonder at Mallett's fantastic final drive between the hedges. It was a truly Heisman-worthy marvel that speaks directly to his composure under the lights, to say nothing of his raw ability. People have a tendency of talking about him as if he were only a specimen, an arm without a head. No one can look at that final drive and come away doubting Mallett. We're through potential and on to greatness.
This upcoming contest against Alabama on the Hill will lay everything bare. The needling inconsistencies could turn into grand stabbing daggers against an opponent like the Tide. Alabama has not only a good offense, but one of the best in the country, ranked ninth overall. Mark Ingram hasn't missed a beat. Julio Jones is healthy again and something fierce, the Venom to Joe Adams' Spiderman. Trent Richardson is ready to assert himself at any moment. And Greg McElroy is playing like a veteran. This arsenal has already chalked up over fifteen hundred yards of total offense, with it pretty much evenly split between the passing and the rushing game. As good as our defense has been, Mallett and the offense can't subject it to much over 30 minutes on the field with these beasts.
That means moving the chains against a Nick Saban defense. The Tide only return three starters — one of whom missed much of last year with an injury incurred against the Hogs — and the fresh faces have yet to face a significant challenge. Petrino is likely eager to test the young secondary, and one hopes that the barrage will be ceaseless. No matter how well the Razorback defense plays, Mallett and company will find themselves needing to outscore that explosive offense. Things like field position and tempo matter more than balance and time of possession in a race. Once the pistol fires, a stalled running game may have to get left behind.