Over the course of the season, Ryan Mallett has let quality defenses get into his head. After superlative outings against Missouri State and Georgia, the Alabama Crimson Tide made his return to earth look as inevitable as gravity. He completed only 12 of his 35 passes and complemented that abysmal percentage with some of the poorest decision-making we've seen all year. Florida saw an only slightly better outing, with his inability to make short completions the difference-maker in a hard-fought contest. One game later, Ole Miss muffled his effect on the game almost entirely. His only touchdown pass was as fluke-y as they come, and repeated drops by his receivers clearly had him off-balance.
I've been harder on Mallett than most. A guy who's set just about every single-game record on the books in his first season probably doesn't deserve to be called “the Shakiest Gun in the SEC West.” However, you can't deny that Mallett hasn't handled pressure well. We got our first glimpse of his tendency to try and force things downfield in the fourth quarter of the Georgia game. He looked agitated and even petulant in the pocket, like he was too good to ever be down. Consequently, he insisted on an all-or-nothing approach, ignoring all but the deepest patterns, airing the ball out again and again to no positive effect.
Mallett's always been the first to acknowledge his part in our losses, but taking responsibility involves more than owning up to your mistakes in a press conference. Honest assessments must lead to realizations. Realizations must lead to change. Change must lead to progress. Mallett went 23/27 for 329 yards against South Carolina. Nine different receivers got the ball. The Hogs converted 10 of 16 third downs.
Numbers like these are nothing new for Mallett, but doing all this against a solid defense that boasts one of the top secondaries in the country is something we haven't seen until now. Most importantly, he showed poise while playing from behind. He took his knocks behind the line of scrimmage but didn't get shaken. He utilized each piece of the field in a methodical way. Bobby Petrino didn't suddenly remember that DJ Williams played for his team. Mallett improved his ability to work through his options and fought off his instinct to chunk the ball for all it's worth on every down.
This is called progress.
Progress for a guy like Mallett isn't easy to notice. He comes out of the gate with superhuman ability. His development has been almost entirely mental. Becoming a great quarterback costs more than intermittently living up to your tremendous promise.
Next year, I'm confident that Mallett will cement his position as the best quarterback to ever play football at the University of Arkansas. Not because he can throw the ball a mile. Not because he's 6'7”. Not because he'll go in the top five of the NFL draft. But because he matured into a quarterback whose mind is every bit as dangerous as his arm. With this performance against South Carolina, he's headed in that direction.
As for Saturday, Troy's about as dangerous as non-conference cupcakes come. After opening the season with losses to Bowling Green and Florida, they've breezed through seven straight victories against Sun Belt competition. Levi Brown's a pocket passer who has thrown for close to 3,000 yards and 15 touchdowns on the season. His backfield's not quite a threat, but they're active enough to keep us honest. Shaun Southward erupted for 140 yards last week against Western Kentucky. We can beat the Trojans soundly, but they could easily lure us into a back-and-forth. With two big conference games yet to come in November, our goal should be to sit key starters after the first half. Unfortunately, that's going to depend on a defense that's been a little erratic throughout the year.