It was precisely one year ago that War Memorial Stadium was the backdrop for what this column (and much of the sporting public) termed the Hogs' biggest football disaster ever, a pitiful lay-down against Louisiana-Monroe that set in motion nearly three more months of ill feelings about the Arkansas program.
So, when the Hogs lethargically trotted onto the same turf Saturday night against an even lesser foe — FCS also-ran Samford — and went to the fourth quarter trailing 21-17, you probably instinctively reached for the ejector seat button.
But it would've been panic built on pretext alone. Last fall, Kolton Browning minced a completely befuddled and undisciplined Hog defense to give the Warhawks the comeback victory in OT, and Arkansas, in a mystifying second half where Paul Petrino tried to make a freshman QB a machine-gunner, collapsed under the weight of its own hype. The 2013 team has no delusions of greatness, merely poking one hole a week on the 12-game punch list and hoping it will learn along the way.
And nothing teaches a team resiliency more than a game like the one against the Bulldogs, which oh by the way, Arkansas eventually won on the strength of a strong fourth quarter, 31-21. It's a trite point to drive home, but the Hogs' handful of mistakes transformed a would-be rout into something that resembled a nailbiter in score only. The truth is that the Hogs dominated this one by generally all statistical measures but made a handful of crippling errors, specifically ill-timed fumbles and penalties. That largely offset a near 2-to-1 yardage advantage and yet another monster night for the tailback tandem of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, which has amassed very nearly 600 rushing yards total in two games.
Where they've faltered, if at all, is in the exact domain where you'd expect young talents like this to stumble. Collins scored his first collegiate TD in the fourth quarter and promptly let his already-legendary exuberance get the best of him as he incurred an admittedly ridiculous penalty for jumping into the stands to celebrate it; Williams lost a fumble late in the third quarter that gave Samford a short field for its go-ahead score. The message both can take is pretty evident, even if the position they own is not resplendent with depth: secure the ball and skirt the NCAA's obtuse celebration rules, or cede carries to the other.
Brandon Allen, meanwhile, continues to impress. If the final numbers don't wow you — hitting 9 of 17 passes for 125 yards sure as hell looks like something taken out of an SWC box from the Hatfield era — the young man's ascension into the leadership role should. For beginners, some dropped passes put a modest sheen on his overall performance. He also took a slightly greater amount of punishment from Samford's pass rush, but weathered it well in the end.
This team's progress will be in correlation with Allen's. Provided that he continues to minimize errors (no picks in 39 attempts so far) and that he commands everything before the snap so the team doesn't play behind the chains, there is cause to be ecstatic. Remember that Allen earned this job and his staff's copious praise in the spring, knocking Brandon Mitchell clear out of Fayetteville. And if that Louisiana-Monroe debacle of a year ago ultimately was a catalyst for his maturity into the three-year starter of a winning program, then maybe it was worth the torture.
The Hogs did also take the field against Samford without reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Week Trey Flowers, linebacker Jarrett Lake and safety Rohan Gaines. It was jarring to see the defense yield a couple of well-orchestrated drives, but it also may have benefited the team as a whole to get new blood into the mix. Again, for all the leaks that the ship sprung on a miserably hot night, with the now-standard lot of half-attuned War Memorial fans checking their watches to make sure they weren't missing some kind of telethon on PBS, the patching came quickly and forcefully enough to make sure that this year would not be another oh-fer in the Monolith on Markham.
Once-proud Southern Mississippi arrives in Fayetteville this weekend with a 14-game winless albatross in tow, and it is as discouraging a time for Golden Eagles fans in Hattiesburg as they've ever experienced. As the schedule turns nasty in a hurry, Bret Bielema's words of caution will have to resonate this week more than any other, because the tendency to look ahead is usually inescapable. Fortunately, Samford should've been just the scare tactic the Hogs needed.