You can love or loathe sports blogger Clay Travis of Outkick the Coverage fame — and Arkansas fans who have been the subject of his venom over the years likely fall in the latter category — but last week he authored something of a self-fulfilling prophecy when he posted a long-winded railing against Hog backers. It was the standard-issue, you-rednecks-are-unrealistic-psychos kind of fare you can find anywhere on the Web, except Travis went to Vandy so he assumes he's entitled to be supercilious.
What odd timing, too, because only a few days had passed when the Hogs suffered their first loss of 2013, a puzzling and quirky 28-24 defeat against Rutgers in Piscataway, N.J. Because Arkansas fans had essentially penned this as an unofficial barometer for bowl prospects with the SEC onslaught yet to begin, losing seemed to be a death knell if you got on Facebook or Twitter after the final seconds ticked away. If Arkansas football fans are anything it's foolishly consistent. Or consistently foolish.
The game's ultimate outcome was really no more bothersome than the way Arkansas had cultivated a false pretense of a commanding lead in the third quarter. The Hogs were reliant on a ground game that had been effectively muted, a walk-on backup quarterback whose accuracy is sorely lacking, and a defense that simply hadn't been challenged the first three weeks. It's always irritating to watch a 17-point lead disappear, but can you say it was all that shocking?
For the first time all season, Arkansas had been the beneficiary of some good fortune. Rutgers should've been ahead by at least 10 points after two possessions in the opening minutes, but a flubbed QB-tailback exchange and a blocked field goal kept it scoreless midway through the first quarter. The Hogs then used a well-designed fake punt to set up a field goal, and Tevin Mitchell ran back an interception for a 10-0 lead.
The hardest thing to keep in mind, when your team is on the receiving end of those kinds of blessings, is that momentum is fleeting and that adjustments are not solely for the losing team to make. When Arkansas got to the locker room ahead 10-7, the Hogs did demonstrate a firmer commitment to the run and also to making A.J. Derby more comfortable. But ultimately it was a trick play, a gadget pass from Jonathan Williams for a score, that had Arkansas sniffing blood in the water. Not even with that 24-7 margin did this young and untested squad seem to have a sense of control. I saw it, you saw it.
This was the game where Arkansas's known problem areas became so evident that it scared the hell out of us. Linebackers like Jarrett Lake and Austin Jones are playing out of sheer necessity, and they both were exposed in New Jersey, which means you can be certain that all these remaining teams to the South will find those same avenues to exploit. In the secondary, the Razorbacks are skilled but not steady, and the lack of corner depth behind Mitchel and Will Hines is going to be an issue later if it isn't already.
Offensively, Derby's a man of modest talent but he isn't helped by a receiving unit that is simply too thin and too small to make an impact. Imagine for a moment that the Iowa transfer, picked on mercilessly for two weeks for his seeming tentativeness, had someone remotely reliable on the outside. Tyler Wilson's growth into the starting role in 2011-12 was aided substantially by the presence of receiving stalwarts who had literally every aspect of the position — hands, route-running, courage between the hashes and legs to go long — blanketed. It was hardly fair to expect Brandon Allen to get much mileage out of this crew; it stands to reason Derby wasn't going to suddenly find a bunch of open targets. To be honest, it was a little surprising that Jim Chaney invested enough faith in Derby to have him chuck it 26 times in a relatively hostile road environment after he was only permitted to throw six passes in the Southern Mississippi win.
Nonconference play ended, then, on a much lower note than it began. Arkansas doesn't have to start its SEC slate with Alabama, which had become a tiresome custom for obvious reasons, but instead gets something that is arguably tougher to deal with, a Texas A&M team that loved nothing more than seeing Rutgers' Gary Nova shake off concussion effects to have yet another monster game against the Hogs. Johnny Manziel is far more gifted and dangerous, and even if the Hogs have the benefit of a rocking crowd at Reynolds Razorback Stadium Saturday night and a brilliant defensive gameplan, the uncertain status of Allen and the known limitations of Derby do make this an even more daunting prospect now.
The question is whether Hog fans will, after another loss, start to effuse the same rhetoric that makes Clay Travis such a marksman. It's going to be the test that Bret Bielema may have not fully anticipated: Can he soldier through these valleys enough to make everyone appreciate the peaks he promises later? Some magic in the Ozarks on Saturday night would undoubtedly take the sting down many notches, and breathe vigor back into the people who want the new head coach to thrive.