Arkansas is not supposed to lose to Louisiana-Monroe. Never. Not once.
But it happened. And it happened in a way that is not in my imagination -- after cruising to a 28-7 lead in just over one half of football.
Then, it all came tumbling down for the Razorbacks. For John L. Smith. For Jeff Long. Both will have to weather a tough season, apparently. That 34-31 overtime loss will haunt both and continue to cause pain for the Razorback Nation for a good while.
There are still games to be played in the 2012 season. But these Hogs will have to improve a bunch for there to be anything but pain over the next few months.
It's clear now exactly how good of a coach Bobby Petrino was for these Razorbacks. Fantastic. Exciting. Victorious.
The other thing that, it's clear that Tyler Wilson is the face of the program right now. In college football, it's always a coach. The coach stays from year to year and players move on. But Wilson had to be the face starting last April because there was no one else on campus -- surely not a coach -- capable of being that for the program.
That leadership -- and the season -- was in the emergency room during the second half Saturday night. Wilson could not lead and no one else did. No one took control to steady the ship as a Sun Belt team -- perhaps a very good one -- scrambled back with a pretty good leader, quarterback Kolton Browning.
It appears Wilson -- like Tevin Mitchel -- is going to be fine. If he's not alright to play this week, then perhaps next week. He might even play this week against No. 1 Alabama in what could still be a highly entertaining game. But things need to be corrected in the offensive line -- the heart of the offensive line -- before the Hogs play the Crimson Tide.
It was that heart of the offensive line that gave me hope for this season. I thought that center Travis Swanson and guard Alvin Bailey could be difference makers up front in both pass protection and run blocking. I thought that was where the Hogs could make some yards running.
It has been mistakes in that area that have doomed the Hogs in some ways so far this season. It hasn't been massive problems with the new tackles, Brey Cook and David Hurd or even Jacon Peacock, that have allowed breakdowns in the blocking.
Swanson gave up the sack in the opening week. ULM's blitzer came through his area Saturday night for the hit that knocked Wilson out of the game. Swanson is a good and effective blocker and he didn't appear to have many mistakes in the first two games, but he's got to improve and keep Wilson upright for this team to win.
And Bailey has to be the man up front and clear some running room for the backs. If he's the puller on the sweep, he has to collapse the edge. I didn't see much of that against ULM's defense. I didn't see it on the third-and-1 play in the fourth quarter when Knile Davis tried to turn up after getting to the corner. He made nothing on that play.
I felt the pain of Razorback Nation as I drove back to Fayetteville in the early hours Sunday. I know the entire state hurt. I felt it as first Mitchel and then Kody Walker were carted off in the fourth quarter. Never have I seen that in War Memorial Stadium. Never have I felt that. It was surreal.
By then I'm guessing the entire state knew and felt the pain of a season gone south. By then, Arkansas was without a fullback. Kiero Small was injured Wednesday. He's already had surgery. Walker won't be back this season. The Hogs will have to play walk-on Morgan Linton there, or move someone else.
The game program lay in front of me in the War Memorial press box. The pictures on the cover were of Small and Mitchel. The only thing that could have been more ironic would have been if Wilson's picture had been there, too.
I've seen Arkansas teams without a fullback before. It was never pretty. I can remember the pain when many asked about Marsh White -- over and over -- in the 1970s when no one else was able to play the position. I remember when Frank Broyles moved a quarterback there, the tough and gritty Scott Bull. That was a bad sign. Bull actually played decent there, but it wasn't a good situation.
One thing is for sure, there will be no more hints that John L. Smith could stay as coach. That isn't going to happen and there will be no more discussions that include it as a possibility.
I picked the season at 10-2. That was based on a veteran defensive line that could dominate against weaker teams and turn all but perhaps Alabama and LSU into one dimensional passing teams. That's still the strength of the defense, but that's not saying much based on the way the linebackers and secondary have tackled to this point.
Linebackers had a tough time against ULM and that was after the visitors lost their good back early in the game. They didn't have to play against Jacksonville State's top back the weak before because he left early, too. Alabama will have good backs. Several. Depth won't be an issue for the Tide at running back.
And I'm guessing the Tide will have a fullback. I am not at all sure what Arkansas has right now based on the first two games -- beyond quarterback. Tyler Wilson was and is the real deal. There are other playmakers on this team, too. Dennis Johnson impressed me and probably should have gotten a few more touches in the fourth quarter when clock needed to be erased, not preserved with incomplete passes. He's ready if the ball will be placed in his hands.
I thought Alabama would be a different kind of test with more smashmouth after two weeks of dink passing. That still may be the case, but after the way Arkansas covered underneath it would probably not surprise if the Tide went first to that area, too. But the Tide is too good at smashmouth for that not to be a worry.
Someone asked if I had ever seen anything like Saturday night. It may have been around 2 a.m. Sunday when my phone rang for the fifth time -- after midnight. Most who know me understood I was driving home and they weren't able to sleep and knew I wasn't sleeping.
No, not really. There's never been a situation like this anywhere, a No. 8 team without the coach that built the team. And then a loss to a Sun Belt team. Never has there been anything like it.
I was in the stadium when Arkansas, then No. 7 lost 21-20 to Tulsa in 1971. The Hogs led 20-0 heading into the fourth quarter.
That Tulsa game was awful, too. It was 20-0 when it became obvious that Arkansas could not run the ball. Fullbacks Skipper DeBoarde and Russ Garber were hurt during the game. Jon Richardson broke his leg, too. That was a pretty good sign that Arkansas had lost its edge from the 1960s. Until that point, it was thought that Frank Broyles would continue to roll. Not after that game.
I remember what my father told me on the way back from Fayetteville as an explanation for the loss. A great passing team without a decent threat of the run will have huge swings. There will be great highs from the passing, but great lows when the passes fall incomplete -- because you can't then turn to the run. That still rings true.
It's not over yet. The running game may improve. There are weapons and the offensive line should improve. We've seen that every year, the run game getting better.
But this team is like 1971 in that I don't see a fullback now. Someone may move there to fill that void, but it is a void right now. I don't imagine third-and-1 is going to get easier. And it's sad when third-and-1 becomes a passing down.
Yes, I feel pain right now. I hurt for Arkansas fans that have bought all of those tickets in Fayetteville, more than ever. They spent a lot of money. Tickets and parking passes aren't cheap. Sacrifices were made like never before in a tough economic condition.
What I will remind fans is that this team is working hard. The coaches are working hard. These players aren't perfect and there are some missing links, but they didn't ask for any of this. They will fight Alabama. They are glad Alabama is coming to town this week. They want to take out some frustration and it might as well be against No. 1.
I still maintain that this Arkansas team has a chance every week as long as it has Tyler Wilson. He's the best combination of talent, experience and leadership the Hogs have had at quarterback since Quinn Grovey.
The Hogs just have to keep him in the game. They have to protect him, both with good blocking and smart calls. The running game has to be more of a threat. They have to give him some help with the running game, fullback or no fullback.
There will be some more pain the rest of this year. As I mentioned earlier, losing to Louisiana-Monroe signals the season is likely to be tough. This is probably not what Tyler Wilson imagined when he passed up millions to return for his senior season.
That's why I think there is still hope. I know Tyler Wilson wants to be a Razorback. I know he believes in the mission in front of him with all of his heart. I know Knile Davis does, too. So do those other senior leaders. They will continue to grind.
In the meantime, the Hogs must find a fullback. I'm not suggesting Brandon Mitchell make another position move but he does have the same build as Scott Bull. If not Mitchell, find someone to fill that void and do it quickly. I've felt too much pain already and I don't think I can stand 10 more games without a fullback. Where are you Marsh White?
State of the Hogs: Pain
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