Three kinds of quarterbacks got a chance to crow Saturday night in Fayetteville.
Two of those on the field — Arkansas's Brandon Allen and Mississippi State's Dak Prescott — authored convincing, unprecedented bids to win All-SEC first team honors at the position, combining for an astonishing 14 total touchdowns and leading their teams to 1,110 total yards combined.
The third brand of signal-caller was the armchair quarterback, who had a field day (rather, field night, stretching on into Sunday) dissecting the Razorback staff's decisions in the final stanza of a 51-50 loss that felt like such a rude punch to the temple for those high-flying, second-place Hogs after four blissful weeks. Social media and talk-radio were ripe with second-guessing after Bret Bielema abruptly eschewed passing aggression to call three straight runs in the final minute inside the Bulldogs' 19-yard line. The calculus here was obvious: Bielema wanted the sizzling Bulldog offense engineered by Prescott to at least burn its stock of timeouts on defense, and to position Cole Hedlund for what most observers would deem a chip-shot field goal attempt to win.
Numerous flaws in this machination were also evident. You see, Allen was in the midst of another history-making night, just doing everything with such ebullience and confidence that it made no sense to reduce him to Kody Walker or Alex Collins' delivery boy at that critical juncture. Having set a single-game (7) and career (63) touchdown pass record moments earlier by hitting an uncovered Jeremy Sprinkle for six for the third time, Allen fired off five darts to get the Hogs from terrible field position all the way into winning territory. At no point was this senior going to jeopardize a shot at winning by chucking one into heavy coverage. To be sure, Allen has thrown an interception on less than 2 percent of his tosses in 2015; Hedlund, on the other hand, was a shaky redshirt freshman with a recent history of being (a) inaccurate and (b) capable of being blocked. The entire unit has had few opportunities this fall, thus it was hardly surprising that Hedlund's 29-yarder got smacked down easily by Beniquez Brown blitzing past Alex Voelzke on the edge.
That playcalling warranted reproach not only because it deprived Allen of a chance at heroism — you know, the ones he's lustily embraced and capitalized upon lately — but because it entrusted the Hogs' bowl fate to a running game corralled by the Bulldogs all night. Collins had his least productive game in weeks, the Hogs not even generating so much as a 10-yard rush all night. Trying to push the defensive line off its heels with a run or two on first and second down made sense, but the more lumbering Walker was probably not the right choice to chew up yardage. Then, on third down, Collins could've been well employed as a decoy and Allen could have had a run-pass option to exploit on a rollout; instead, the junior tailback was asked to take a safe draw a couple of yards closer.
It felt so wrong. Hunter Henry had a marvelous night. Drew Morgan started afire, took more physical punishment, and ceded duties to Cornelius, who answered the call with season highs in receptions (five) and yardage (81). Dominique Reed was punchless most of the night, but had a 52-yarder on the prior possession, and Sprinkle had the defense fooled multiple times leaking out into the flat. Basically, it was another game where Dan Enos' mastery of the vertical was on display.
So it was left up to tailbacks who had been well contained and a kicking unit without white-knuckle experience. Then, even had the field goal been converted, a defense that had yielded its asses off was being entrusted to keep Prescott's five-wide array and legs at bay for the last 40 seconds or so?
It was a bewildering finish to a game that should have vaulted the Hogs into commanding control of second place in the SEC West, with sights on a more prestigious bowl. Now, instead, Arkansas can finish in a second-place logjam with other teams but may lose out on some tiebreakers and suffer again for those early-season defeats to Toledo and Texas Tech when it comes to bowl pecking order. A four-game winning streak that was as fulfilling and heart-stopping as any months-long stretch of games in Razorback history is over, but stakes remain high with Missouri arriving after Thanksgiving. And there are major positives to exploit on Senior Day, not the least of which will be celebrating Allen as he races onto the field for the final time in his hometown. Having broken many passing records and put himself comfortably in position to obliterate a couple more this week, the young man's transition from unnerved and unsteady to steely and poised is the story of this team for 2015. He's had the best single season ever for a Razorback quarterback, has attracted more professional scouting attention that anyone ever could have imagined him receiving, and buoyed an injured and fragile bunch in the face of extreme adversity and criticism this fall.
Missouri plays competent defense and wants to escort head coach Gary Pinkel into retirement on a high note. This will not be the time for Arkansas to ease back on that throttle that had been stuck all the way forward, because the Tigers will be fighting for bowl eligibility in their own right. And the Hogs' defense simply cannot be soft again, with Missouri having the weakest offense in the conference all season thanks to quarterback upheaval and skill position deficiency. If the Hogs want to erase the foul stench of the loss and finally appease home stadium fans who have been frankly a bit deprived for high-caliber content this year, then it's going to be up to Allen to make his last All-SEC push his most valiant one, and for the defensive line to rediscover the nasty streak it found just days ago at Baton Rouge. A 7-5 regular season may end up falling a shade shy of where many speculated this team could finish, but closing with a 5-1 flurry over the final six games and boosting its bowl standing would likely absolve the team from any criticism for falling short.