If Bret Bielema is going to prep a video reel of the best moments he's had during a five-year run as Arkansas's latest polarizing head football coach, he's ostensibly going to use something like the first quarter against Mississippi State.
With the "crowd" assembled at Reynolds Razorback Stadium looking and acting about as enthusiastic as if they were attending a symposium on the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Bielema's charges nevertheless bolted out of the tunnel with a lot of passion on a day where most figured they'd have none. Thanks to a muffed punt by the Bulldogs and the first impact play by ballyhooed sophomore defensive end McTelvin Agim all season, the Hogs were leading the No. 16 team in the country by two scores a few minutes into the game.
The defense was swarming and the offense was, well, stale. But at least the Hogs were showing that "#uncommon fight" that has been lacking for the better part of the past two seasons.
Of course, this will still enter the annals as a Bielema-coached team, all but certain to be the last of its kind, and that meant that in the second half, Arkansas was hell-bent on finding new ways to torture its followers. This time, it came in the form of groan-worthy fourth-down calls and the Bulldogs doing what every Hog opponent does: grind in the fourth quarter against a team only prepared to grind for three, at most.
Bulldogs Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald bounced back from his early gaffes to lead Mississippi State for the winning score, a somewhat risky out route from the 6-yard line with 17 seconds remaining, leaving the Bulldogs 28-21 victors in a game they really deserved to neither win nor lose. MSU Coach Dan Mullen, likely to be pursued by Tennessee or Florida after yet another highly successful year in a onetime football hellhole, is nothing if not crafty, and he thought it best to go for the jugular late instead of leaving the outcome on the right leg of his kicker on a perilously windy day.
Bielema didn't afford his players the chance to be in that position, yet again, opting to see if his moribund offense could get a first down near midfield with the score tied at 21 at around the 4-minute mark. The message boards and social media were practically on fire when Hogs offensive coordinator Dan Enos (and let's be clear, the shine he accumulated in 2015 is long since departed, too) inexplicably called for a play-action shot 30 yards downfield on fourth-and-2. Austin Allen was pretty sharp all day and clearly had overcome his shoulder woes by zipping a few sideline routes safely to his still-untested corps of receivers, but he went long over LaMichel Pettaway on this one, and the Bulldogs were accordingly set with great field position for their final drive.
Honestly, though, it was the preceding play call that made less sense. On third-and-3, wideout Jonathan Nance slipped into the backfield to take a direct snap for the first time all season, and he ran to the short side of the field and was bottled up for a single yard. Here is where Bielema — and, by extension, Enos — would lose their present employment. In an attempt to be creative, they employed a predictable short-yardage play with personnel ill suited to maximize it.
That happened on fourth down and goal against Texas A&M last year when Keon Hatcher was sent across the formation five yards behind the line of scrimmage, all to get a few inches for a go-ahead touchdown. It was a stupid decision, exacerbated by having a receiver with modest speed execute it. The Hogs gave that game up, too.
And such is the legacy of this head coach and whatever staff he has assembled from year to year. Yes, the Hogs have been competitive, but even when tasked with merely managing a game from start to finish, they have bungled those critical moments at a serial and cruel pace. The best players on the field are not getting the opportunity to shine like they should and, in the final analysis, bad decision-making and slipshod execution is why the Aggies and Bulldogs, conveniently, have won nine out of 10 games against Bielema. And if Arkansas cannot bat better than .100 against those two programs, both situated similarly in the pecking order behind the paragons of the conference, then how can anyone expect miracles against Alabama?
Well, you can't, and you shouldn't. But you can mothball those "#uncommon" sweatshirts in the same bin where you had the "BMFP" and "Undefeated in The Rock" stowed. Because this experiment has reached its merciful, miserable end.