Bret Bielema called Saturday's 16-12 loss to Toledo an "embarrassment" and said there would be plenty taking shots at the Arkansas football program after the upset. The Razorbacks were favored by 21 points in Little Rock.
Bielema said in coming weeks, the team needs to "dig ourselves into a fox hole." The question, when will the Hogs be able to come out.
Right now, they are looking in the mirror to see who they are. By that, are these Razorbacks a physical, power football team that Bielema said he'd built when he came from Wisconsin. That wasn't what they looked like against Toledo.
Defensively, the strength was supposed to be the line, particularly numbers. But being fresh on what was a mild day didn't appear to do anything for the pass rush. The Hogs could not get a single bit of pressure on Toledo quarterback Phillip Ely. What appeared to be a strength turned out to be a downfall for the Hogs against a team that threw 38 times, completing 21.
Offensviely, there was time to pass, something I worried about in preseason. And, quarterback Brandon Allen threw and threw and threw. I was stunned. He tied the school record with 32 completions, but none were for touchdowns.
The big issue was that there was no run game. There was an counter pitch that fooled Toledo's slanting defense for the lone Arkansas touchdown, a 21-yard run by Alex Collins.
The issue was that there just wasn't much of a running game. There were 31 runs for 103 yards. The question remains, could the Hogs have gotten more rushing yards with more running plays from new offensive coordinator Dan Enos? Or would that just have produced a less effective attack?
It's always dangerous to look at a scrimmage and try to judge how a team is going to do against someone beside themselves. It's even more dangerous when there are only two scrimmages, one that was good on good and the other ones against twos.
There were solid hints of a running game in both those scrimmages. But it just hasn't happened so far. Bielema was asked about his offensive line afterwards. He said depth was a problem there, but he's convinced that he's got the right five players on the field.
But are they playing the right positions? Three are in new spots this season, or at least new sides of the line. Denver Kirkland moved from right guard to left tackle. Dan Skipper moved from left tackle to right tackle. Frank Ragnow, a backup last year at center, moved to right guard. Right guard Sebastian Tretola and center Mitch Smothers are playing the the same spots as last year.
Without question, the issue comes down to blocking a slanting defense. It's clear that movement up front discombobulates this offensive line. And that's not new. Movement and stunts bothered them last year. So everyone has those tapes. If a defense doesn't slant against others, it sure is going to put those movement, stunts and twists in for Arkansas. Certainly, Toledo did.
How do you beat those moves? You attack, Mitch Smothers said. Attack vertically. He's talking about blocking technique, not passing down the field.
The thing that is confusing is that those stunts or slants don't seem to cause problems in the passing game protections, but more in the run blocks. Is it a mesh thing, with players working at new positions? Is it just a matter of time?
That could be. It surely shouldn't be a case of this offensive line not being strong enough or physical enough. That would be a true nightmare if they just don't have the force or physicality to handle the job. It would point to a much bigger issue and I don't think that's it.
Of course, the Hogs might be shuffling personnel again this week. Kirkland left the field holding his elbow after an injury late in the game. The likely fix for that loss involves Dan Skipper flipping to left tackle, his position last year and redshirt freshman Brian Wallace stepping in at right tackle. He's the best of the five backups right now and that speaks to Bielema's thoughts after the game that the depth in the offensive line is shaky.
There were other injuries.
Middle linebacker Josh Williams left the field with a leg injury. He walked off on his own power, but gingerly. There was no revelation on the nature or the seriousness. The substitution there speaks to the lack of depth at middle linebacker. Brooks Ellis moved from weakside to middle for the rest of the game with true freshman Dre Greenlaw stepping in at weakside.
Safety Josh Liddell sustained what appeared to be a minor knee injury. He was moving around fine at the end of the game, but did not return to play after his fourth-quarter injury in a pileup. Rohan Gaines moved to free safety from strong and Santos Ramirez played at strong. Kevin Richardson is also a solid backup at safety.
Can the Hogs get back on track? I would say right now that Toledo was better than I thought and it doesn't appear that Arkansas is what I thought, a big, physical team that can rely on pure size and strength. The running backs miss Jonathan Williams. Alex Collins is a good back, but was better as a change of pace after Williams opened the game with some pounding. Kody Walker has been okay, but not a high quality player as he appeared to be in the scrimmages.
Here is the bottom line on this Arkansas team right now, the offensive and defensive lines do not appear capable of dominating the opponent. That was going to be the rock of the Bielema program and I didn't see it against Toledo. Remember, Toledo was supposed to be retooling the offensive line with five new starters. The Rockets retooled pretty good, or the Hogs are just not what we expected.
The obvious thing that some are missing is that Toledo did everything almost perfectly. There were no turnovers, no killer mistakes in the kicking game (since the punt return TD was nullified by a holding call), only 25 yards of lost yardage and nothing given easy to the Hogs. The Toledo quarterback was superb. The Rockets looked good on both lines. There was size and ability.
Bielema owns a marketing degree. He marketed his linemen pretty well in the last eight months. Now, he has to get them playing to at least come close to the marketing. It's his DNA we are talking about, the physical nature of his team. There is no one except him taking a pounding in games right now. It surely isn't the opposition.
Yes, the passing game is improved. Perhaps that was where the time was spent in the last few months since Enos took the reigns of the offense. Give him credit for finding some more rhythm in the throwing and catching. But now it's time to see if he can find the team's real heart and soul, that hit 'em in the face mentality that they think is them -- but is not so far.
It has not been a downhill running game so far. It's been down and into the fox hole. That's Bielema's words, not mine. Everyone has been a believer for the last 10 months since victories over LSU, Ole Miss and Texas. Everyone wanted to believe because things had been so shaky for three years. But the one thing that I thought was being built -- that downhill running game -- has been a no-show for two games.
I couldn't help but wonder on the long drive home Saturday night if skipping two-a-days was a bright move. Bielema beamed about that move in July and held forth throughout August that it was a great idea, that no one in the NFL uses two-a-days. Basically, that eliminated four more times to practice. Bielema said that if the Hogs played well, that would be what everyone would eventually do. Well, they haven't played well so far in the running game and haven't shown a physical nature in the trenches.
What are coaches elsewhere saying now? I'm guessing most are glad they didn't skip those practices. It was a risky move and Bielema knew it. He talked out loud about how making that move had some peril because poor play would cause many to point to the decision on two-a-days. Now that will happen.
Last week, Dan Enos was praised for an aggressive slant to play-calling, a quick twitch towards the pass. Yes, he's going to pass. That excited some, but is it a match for this team. Maybe it is, because there doesn't appear to be a way to run the ball. But now, he's got to call some runs -- that work. And, the Hogs must begin to win the line of scrimmage a lot more than they did against Toledo.