It’s unfortunate for Arkansas head football coach Houston Nutt that he can’t close games to the public like he’s fond of doing for practices. Then maybe Razorback fans could continue to be deluded into thinking Nutt is building a nationally competitive program in Fayetteville. But for the 76,564 in Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday night, and the national audience tuning in on ESPN, Southern California’s win left no doubt where Arkansas stands on the national scene. That is, nowhere near it.
There were some positives. The crowd was as loud as any we’ve ever heard, and didn’t give up until late in the game. Sophomore tailback Darren McFadden was a step slower than normal, but judging from Saturday, he’s going to be back to his great self sooner than anyone could’ve imagined. The Springdale Three — quarterback Mitch Mustain and receivers Damian Williams and Ben Cleveland — showed the poise exhibited by their high school coach/offensive coordinator on the sideline. And Marcus Harrison proved he’s a legitimate SEC defensive lineman.
But when you lose 50-14, the positives aren’t what folks are talking about.
And even though the defense was put in tough positions from the game’s early stages, it didn’t make the plays when they were needed. USC had a quarterback starting his first game, and a true freshman starting at tailback, and the Razorback defense forced zero interceptions and recovered no fumbles. And at the end of the first half, right after the Hog offense had seized the momentum with a touchdown to draw within six points, USC methodically marched 44 yards down the field in 2:23 to kick a field goal and take back control of the game. You give up 50 points and 472 yards in a game, and that’s not a solid defensive effort.
But really, everyone but the most oblivious homer should have known the Hogs simply weren’t equipped to win this game. There’s still plenty of season left, and a full compliment of cream puffs to get well against.
So much more troubling than the outcome of the game is what has happened since. Less than 24 hours after the score went final, Robert Johnson was benched in favor of freshman Mustain, who led the Hogs on an impressive touchdown drive before throwing a pick his next series. Look, we’ve said for weeks that Mustain should start from the beginning, so we’re not saying it’s the wrong decision ultimately. But Mustain did not show enough in his brief appearance to win the job Saturday. If he deserves to start next Saturday, it’s because he’s deserved it all along.
And Johnson, who has demonstrated nothing but class, being demoted from starting quarterback to wide receiver after one game is one of the most inexplicable moves in memory. Is this the same quarterback that our coaching staff praised as vastly improved in the off-season? They must not believe it, because Johnson made it one game before being dumped. Not just dropped in the depth chart, mind you, but basically told he’s never going to play quarterback for his team again. Johnson didn’t play great, but he didn’t deserve that.
That takes us full circle to the head coach of team, who continues to amaze by doing everything he can to take none of the heat for every questioned coaching decision. Commenting on the decision to wait until the fourth quarter to play Mustain, Nutt pointed the finger of blame to coordinator Gus Malzahn and quarterback coach Alex Wood, saying that it was their decision to keep Johnson in and that he wanted to play Mustain earlier. Even if that’s true, why say it? The buck never stops with Nutt, not in his mind at least. You’re the head coach, Houston. It’s your call and your team. If only that mean ol’ offensive coordinator would let you do what you want.
Despite the sound thumping, Nutt’s doing his best to keep Arkansas fans believing that the program is in the same league as USC. “Take away the five turnovers, and it’s a different game. There’s no doubt in my mind that it would be a nail-biter to the end if we play our normal way of ball security.”
Well, that’s going to be a problem, because you can’t take away the turnovers. They’re part of the game, and part of the reason why USC is 36 points better than the Hogs. But the main reason is because USC has better coaches who have recruited and developed better players. Arkansas isn’t a break or two away from playing with USC. This school needs a program overhaul to compete nationally — starting with where the buck should stop but somehow never does.
--By J.R. and Henry
EDITOR’S NOTE: J.R. and Henry are a couple of sports fans in Little Rock who earlier this summer got fed up with the status quo sports commentary in the daily papers and began filing a regular column on the Arkansas Times’ Little Rocking blog. Catch then the rest of the season every Monday and Thursday.