The distinction between these Razorback footballers and those from a season ago isn't as disparate as the records (9-1 through 10 games last year, 4-6 this time) might indicate. A methodically poor effort against South Carolina in a 38-20 loss Saturday wasn't out of character for this team, but perfectly illustrative of just how much of a football season is played within narrow margins.
You'll recall that last year, Arkansas was the benefactor of wondrous timing, and occasional moments of absurdity. The Hogs got a big lift against Vandy when Jerry Franklin collected a loose football and sprinted 96 yards to the other end zone, then watched the Commodores' kicker choke away a routine shot at overtime in the last seconds. They shifted the momentum toward a Tennessee rout with Joe Adams' awe-inspiring punt return, cemented a big win over Carolina with a crushing Jake Bequette sack and short-circuited an Ole Miss rally with a late Eric Bennett interception.
Those little vignettes carried Arkansas all the way to Dallas and a Top 5 season-ending ranking last year, and more to the point, allowed a flawed team to masquerade as a national power. This year, as the Hogs have again struggled to keep the offense diverse and the defense engaged, those episodic selections from a given game are simply not aiding the team in any way.
Your setting: Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium. It's a tight, 14-10 game at Columbia, and the Cocks have the moxie and personnel to take a gutsy plunge on a fourth-and-six play from the Razorback 42. Just a little less than 100 seconds remain in what has been a very evenly played half, and Steve Spurrier, rarely evincing the same flair he crowed about during his stint in Florida, took the dare. He let Connor Shaw chunk one downfield, where a diminutive part-time basketball player named Bruce Ellington somehow escaped that oh-so-smothering Hog coverage for a crippling TD before halftime.
That didn't cement the game, though it hardly gave Arkansas fans any hope, as this team has a fascinating compulsion to hit the 10-point mark and just sit on it for seemingly hours. The Hogs held Carolina to a field goal to open the third quarter, then started moving the ball and getting some calls. DJ Swearinger committed two personal fouls, assisting the Razorbacks to a comfy station at the Gamecock 36. This budding momentum was gone in an instant: Swearinger was quite literally handed a chance to redeem himself when Tyler Wilson lofted yet another ill-advised, off-target throw into a hornet's nest of sorts, and Swearinger raced 69 yards the other way.
That was it, too. 31-10 after the PAT? Might as well have been 99-0. CBS' second-tier team of Tim Brando and Steve Beuerlein repeatedly offered empathy in the form of give-these-guys-credit-for-not-quitting comments as some of the younger players demonstrated some pride. It was genuine, but also obfuscated something more telling: While many young players were getting the chance to shine on a national stage, even with the outcome long decided, Wilson remained on the field.
I don't expect readership from any of these loons who are currently tearing off construction paper chain-links in the Broyles Athletic Complex under a "Days Left On The Lusitania" badge. That said, wouldn't it be something if Brandon Allen got to play again this year? The albatross of the Alabama game was thrown onto his shoulders and he gamely braved it without much support or pledges of confidence from his coaches. Now, though the season remains essentially lost, he sits idly as Wilson makes a bevy of poor decisions and takes a few more chops to the gourd. It's distressing.
Allen is part of the youth movement that is set to absorb this program for the next couple of seasons. Keon Hatcher and Demitrius Wilson will be back next year trying to emerge as leaders of a receiving unit that won't have one with Cobi Hamilton gone, and they caught Wilson's scoring throws Saturday. Jonathan Williams and Nate Holmes are seeing more activity in the backfield. Otha Peters is flexing his ample muscles as a long-term linebacking solution.
If Arkansas has a hope of beating Mississippi State, it actually rests with the coaches' acceptance of this as a dead-fish season and the decision to turn Tyler Wilson out gracefully so he can rehabilitate a flagging draft profile. Allen is a sharp kid who desperately needs those coveted "reps" and the chance to make up for the occasional gaffe with a moment of brilliance thereafter. That page should've been turned after the loss to Ole Miss, where Wilson played badly enough most of the game to be put on ice anyway.
Allen should start and play the entirety of the last two games. He's deserving, Wilson merits a little rest on his own right, and this program can't extract much sweetness from the last two weeks in any realistic scenario. Even a win at Starkville with Wilson at the helm will feel empty.