- Brian Chilson
Picture Bret Bielema pole-vaulting for a minute. Then, once the laughter subsides, hear me out with this absurd analogy.
Four times in four seasons, the Hog head coach has tried like hell to clear the "Bama bar" without immediately evident success. There's not too many ways to pierce the walled football enclave that Nick Saban has constructed. The Crimson Tide are reaching an unthinkable apex in an era of alleged parity, rotating new QBs in every single year, sending studs off to the NFL early, testing young players at skill positions, and generally getting all the same dominant results regardless of how dramatically the target on their backs continues to expand.
Bielema dusts himself off quite nicely, though, and takes the hard lesson to heart. His debut year's lowest point was a 52-0 blasting at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and though that loss was implanted squarely in a nine-game losing skid, Arkansas pulled itself from the muck to be awfully competitive in the final weeks. The last four defeats on the Hogs' ledger boasted a quality of play that advanced dramatically each week, as they lost by 18 to Auburn, 10 to Ole Miss, seven to Mississippi State in overtime, and finally by four at LSU. And they were squarely in all four of these games in the final quarter.
The last two years, Bama's narrower wins catalyzed late-season porcine success. The Tide's 14-13 escape in 2014 proved the Hogs had progressed rapidly from doormat status, and the remainder of that year bore that out, with consecutive shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss and a Texas Bowl beating of the Longhorns. After leading for nearly three full quarters in Tuscaloosa last October, the Razorbacks unraveled a bit late to end up on the wrong side of a 27-14 margin; Arkansas's measly 2-4, 1-2 record at that point belied the authority with which it played down the stretch, winning five of the last six regular-season games and then steamrolling Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl.
So here we are in 2016, and post-apocalyptic fears after the Tide waxed the Hogs 49-30 were rampant. The defense was disorganized; the offensive line, a sieve constructed of large immobilized humans. But Bielema made damn sure that his team wasn't going to lose twice to Alabama, as the adage goes. Seven days after the loss on the very same field, Arkansas looked quite a bit steadier in all facets of a 34-30 takedown of 12th-rated Ole Miss. Austin Allen took one nasty sack on the opening possession, then stayed generally upright and secure in the pocket for another banner night at the helm of Dan Enos' precision offense. Were it not for an errant snap that led to a 22-yard third-quarter loss, and Allen killing off the remaining clock in the last possession by running around for negative yardage, Arkansas (5-2, 1-2) would have again nudged toward the 500-yard total offense mark against an ostensibly stingy defense (statistics tell otherwise — Ole Miss has yielded a passel of yardage so far in 2016, but still boasts a slew of pro-caliber talent).
The obvious flaws exposed by Alabama received abundant attention. With linebacker Dre Greenlaw gone for the year, the Hogs leaned on young Dwayne Eugene, Jr. to hold serve, and he commendably did so. A defensive line that was neutered a week ago was refreshed, as Deatrich Wise Jr. and Jeremiah Ledbetter made impact plays against the run and the pass. But mostly, the secondary shored up its work: after Chad Kelly lit the Hogs up on two drives in the first half to the tune of a 13-21-0, 190-yard effort, the DBs locked down passing lanes and challenged the Rebels' sizable wideouts physically. Kelly ended up misfiring on 13 of his 18 second-half throws, chucking one pick to Henre Toliver and having another one taken off the board by a suspect penalty.
A week of toiling in practice was evident. Santos Ramirez made the hit heard 'round the Ozarks when Kelly desperately lunged for the first down marker on a 4th-and-16 scramble with less than two minutes to go, but even before that ringing blow, he and fellow safety Josh Liddell were extremely active against an offense that is nigh impossible to permanently clamp. Ole Miss (3-3, 1-2) was hell on wheels when first downs were productive and the speed of the game ramped up, but as Enos has consistently done the past 13 games — again, post-Alabama — he has deployed a variety of inventive plays and entrusted them to skill people more than capable of executing them.
The go-ahead touchdown was the archetype: after Rawleigh Williams barreled down inside the 10 to get the last 22 of his career-high 180 yards, Enos had Jared Cornelius familiarly in motion for what portended a jet sweep on second-and-goal from the 6. Instead, Cornelius slowed his presnap jog to a light trot, took the handoff, and picked his way off tackle with all the instinct and vision of a true tailback. It wasn't as breathless as the Brandon Allen two-point lunge to victory a year ago, but it was just as effective. And in the end analysis of 2016, it may be the play that causes everyone to muse again about how the Hogs are mastering the lessons that Alabama teaches them.