- Brian Chilson
- Bret Bielema
This column was in its relative infancy five years ago when the editors astutely branded my column about a shocking Razorback loss to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock with the headline "Worst loss ever." My ugly mug and that damning description appeared on ESPN and CBS a week later as those networks ran a montage about the embarrassing defeat overseen by John L. Smith, and I felt sure that given all circumstances at hand, that designation would never be at risk again.
After all, Bret Bielema took over for UA interim head coach John L. Smith, and yes, after a hard initial campaign trying to adapt and remake the program, he guided the Hogs to a respectable, if underwhelming, 22 wins over the next three years. There were some rough defeats along the way, no question, but nothing could possibly compare to Smith's Top 10 team, forcibly bequeathed by St. Petrino unto him, gagging away a 21-point lead over a Sun Belt team.
On Saturday, for a good couple of hours, the Hogs tried like hell to renew that headline for another five-year term. Coastal Carolina, another Sun Belt team with a history of thorough beatdowns by Power 5 conference schools and a sparkling 1-7 record (which included a 51-17 shellacking by Arkansas State that Red Wolves' fans crowed justifiably about), sauntered into a sparsely populated and largely disinterested Reynolds Razorback Stadium and built a 13-point fourth quarter lead.
Make no mistake, had the Chanticleers held on, Bielema would have been summarily dismissed, Jack Crowe-style, within a matter of hours. Things have been bad enough for the Hogs this fall that the odds of Bielema's survival have eroded weekly, but getting taken down by a first-year FBS member with a backup quarterback at the helm would have been Bielema's death knell for certain.
Arkansas, of course, found a sense of urgency when the score ballooned to an unthinkable 38-25 Chanticleer lead. T.J. Hammonds was off to the races immediately on an 88-yard scoring run, and after the Hogs held Coastal Carolina in check, they marched downfield for a winning score on Cole Kelley's keeper, just one play after Austin Cantrell's fumble at the 1 threatened to jeopardize this epic moment in Razorback lore.
Here is the oddity of this unforgettable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons game: Arkansas genuinely did dominate the game in all phases. The Hogs put up a commendable 523 total yards to the Chanticleers' modest 359 (about average for the season). Kelley had his most accurate game throwing the ball so far, 16 for 25, and the only blemish on his day was a disastrous backward pass that was charged to him as a fumble, but which really should've been pinned on the coaching staff for employing such a boneheaded call in a tight contest. Buoyed by Hammonds' career-best 119 rushing yards on only seven runs, the Arkansas rushing attack hit 259 yards on a mere 35 total carries, whereas Coastal Carolina struggled to reach 3.4 yards per tote.
So how did this late-season breather turn into a gasper? Well, for starters, Arkansas's much-maligned defense is not always bad, but it is almost always terrible on third downs. An awful lower-tier foe should never rack up eight third-down conversions against an SEC defense, but Coastal did, and as an added bonus never committed a turnover. That 1-7 team may have been outclassed at every position in theory, but the Chanticleers played with heart, poise, discipline and smarts, four traits of which their hosts were and have been bereft. Bielema looked resigned but relieved in a postgame on-field exchange, smiling and saying "Hell no" when asked if he feared for his job, but also bearing the in-game marks of a man who is coming to grips with the fact that his execution can only be stayed so long. He winced, buried his face in his play sheet, grimaced and scowled ... yet many times he still had that somewhat familiar visage of a lost soul, a genuine guy who is simply out of his element. And when the likes of Coastal Carolina can elicit that sort of appearance from an SEC head football coach, then he's not likely to wear that label forever.