Highs and Lows of 2015
There’s little doubt about the best in the 8-5 season. It may go down as one of the all-time best — and most improbable — plays in Arkansas history.
Call it what you like, but the Swine Intervention will be the official version for Hawgs Illustrated because it was on the cover of the magazine that week. Hunter Henry’s pass back to Alex Collins to erase fourth-and-25 is a once-in-a-generation play that ESPN’s “Sport Science” feature gave a conservative probability of 1 in 30 of working.
Many will forget there were two more big plays in the 53-52 overtime victory over Ole Miss that day. Maybe three. First, there was Brandon Allen’s 9-yard pass to Drew Morgan for a touchdown. Then, there was a face mask penalty on Allen’s first try for the two-point conversion. Allen, from inside the 2, then dashed in outside right tackle for the winning conversion to set off a wild celebration — both in the stadium and all across Arkansas.
Allen got a victory ride off the field by teammates, the first like that for an Arkansas player since the Hogs’ first big victory in the SEC, an upset of Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in 1992. Kicker Todd Wright got that ride.
That was the biggest of Henry’s 51 catches in a season that earned him the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. He likely would have gotten that award without that play, but it certainly got him some national publicity that helped.
The play still has teammates shaking their heads in amazement. Morgan, the team leader with 63 catches and 10 touchdowns, produced one of the best quotes of the year in his praise for Henry in the post-game interviews after the Ole Miss game.
“I have been around a lot of great plays in my football days and a lot of smart plays,” Morgan said. “But I’ve never been around anything that smart. No one in the huddle said throw it back if you don’t get the first down. Hunter came up with that all by himself.”
Asked if finally getting a good bounce meant there was good karma, Morgan said, “I don’t believe in karma. I don’t believe in luck. I believe in God.”
But there can be Swine Intervention, too?
The Early Storyline
It was injuries on top of injuries. First it was Jonathan Williams, then Keon Hatcher, then Cody Hollister and then Jared Cornelius were lost to injuries requiring surgeries. Williams and Hatcher did not return. Hollister and Cornelius did return to help the Hogs in their November hot streak. Hatcher will come back for another try of his senior year with a medical hardship.
The Cornelius injury was scary. He broke both bones in the lower area of his arm. Teammates were stunned when he was at practice two weeks after plates and screws were needed to fix the gruesome injury. He returned to play in six weeks and was a factor in several victories.
Rawleigh Williams also scared everyone when he suffered a neck injury against Auburn, requiring surgery. He was carried off the field on a stretcher after coach Bret Bielema went into the stands to find his parents and take them to their son’s side.
Other key players missing time because of injuries were Josh Williams, Dwayne Eugene, DJ Dean, Jared Collins, Morgan and Kody Walker. Williams is having a hard time with the rehabilitation and may not return in time for spring drills. Eugene and Collins fought through broken bones in their hands. Dean missed games with turf toe. Morgan played through shoulder issues. Mitchell Loewen went out with a broken foot in November.
Every team has injuries, but the Hogs seemed to have more than their share. It made the late-season drive to a 7-5 record and the Liberty Bowl berth even more remarkable. Bielema deserves credit for holding the team together throughout the bad breaks, and some of them were really bad breaks.
It was just the overall way new offensive coordinator Dan Enos elevated Allen’s quarterback play to new heights. Allen was good as a junior with 2,285 yards passing with 20 touchdowns against just five interceptions. But with more weapons at wide receiver, two great tight ends and spectacular play from Collins and a good offensive line, Allen blossomed into a great quarterback.
Allen went from a 56 percent passer to 65.9 percent. He came within an eyelash of Kevin Scanlon’s school record for completion percentage, 66.2. He claimed the second spot ahead of Ryan Mallett’s 64.7. He threw for 3,440 yards and 30 touchdowns. He passed Ryan Mallett as the school record holder with 64 career touchdowns.
Often criticized by fans and media, Allen was especially good in his final seven games and helped the Hogs to win seven of their last 11 SEC games of his career, including a 3-1 on the road this season.
Bielema supported Allen all the way. Bielema had noted that the quarterback gets too much blame in losses and too much credit in wins, then said Allen deserved much credit in the brilliant stretch run.
Sebastian Tretola, the all-American guard, noted that Allen had been “drug through the mud” and that bothered teammates. Bielema was criticized for not letting Allen finish the drive with passing after an attempt at a winning field goal was blocked against Mississippi State.
“We went from people wanting me to bench him at one point of the season,” Bielema said, “to now where people are mad that I wouldn’t let him keep throwing.”
As it played out, Arkansas fans were upset that Allen was snubbed as Dak Prescott and Chad Kelly took the two spots on the coaches all-SEC squad. Bielema lobbied for his quarterback after the Missouri game declaring him the best in the league.
Enos thought his quarterback was brilliant all year. He missed some key throws in losses to Toledo, Texas A&M and Texas Tech, but often was playing with a short deck because of injuries.
“Brandon did so much to help us,” Enos said. “He was so good at influencing safeties with his fakes. I don’t think people realize how good his ball handling was and how that affected the game. He takes a lot of pride in his fakes, putting that ball on the backs hip the same way on runs as he did on play-action passes. You can’t tell the difference. Not everyone does it the same.”
Some will argue it was Henry, a unanimous first team All-America. Henry caught 51 passes for 739 yards, second to Morgan (63-843). Opposing coaches took turn explaining the matchup problems presented by trying to game plan to stop Henry, along with his running mate at tight end Jeremy Sprinkle. Henry dazzled down the stretch, a mismatch for linebackers and safeties alike. Ultimately, he declared early for the draft after a junior season in which he did not drop one pass.
Dominique Reed had some amazing plays after scoring his first touchdown against Tennessee. The 6-foot-4 junior transfer also had a 71-yard touchdown catch against Mississippi State, scored on a 54-yard catch and run against Alabama and contributed an amazing block on a 69-yard touchdown run by Cornelius against LSU.
His best — with an awesome display of speed — came early in the 31-14 victory over LSU. He caught a button hook pass from Allen for what looked like decent gain for a first down, but cutback to escape two LSU defensive backs and outran them the final 50 yards on a 52-yard touchdown play. He was never touched.
Take your pick from any number of Alex Collins touchdown runs. The junior back had 20 touchdowns to break Bill Burnett’s school record, but the most dazzling probably came against LSU when he raced 80 yards. It was the big one in a 1,577-yard season, his third straight time to top 1,000. Only Herschel Walker and Darren McFadden had done that before. Collins had a 14-yard TD run in the Liberty Bowl in which he broke five tackles and clinched the victory.
Sadly, this goes to the diminutive Morgan. Tretola, the massive left guard, could win this award with an all-America season, but it was the desperate nature of the moment. Morgan took out two Auburn defenders on a tying two-point run by Walker in the third overtime.
“Drew took his defensive back inside and blocked him, then threw his hips open to get the linebacker, too,” Bielema said.
The reward came on the next play to start the fourth overtime. Allen whipped a short pass to Morgan on an out pattern. He turned and slapped off an arm tackle by the defensive back and sprinted the last 20 yards on a 25-yard touchdown play. The Hogs added a two-point conversion for the final points in what was a 54-46 victory.
Morgan’s block trumps Reed’s block from the LSU game, just because he took care of two, not one.
Best Defensive Stand
It came in the fourth overtime against Auburn. It started with a gutsy call by defensive coordinator Robb Smith. The Tigers were gashing the Hogs with inside runs, often with defenders over running the holes. Smith put the Hogs in a goal line defense, with an extra lineman. JaMichael Winston stuffed Peyton Barber for a 1-yard gain. Auburn then was incomplete on three straight passes, the last broken up by safety Josh Liddell with tight coverage against Ricardo Lewis.
“I recognized the formation,” Liddell said. “They had (three) receivers to the left, Lewis to the right. In that look, they almost always go to Lewis. I was free. So I came up on him right away and that’s where the pass went. It was a huge play.”
Liddell had been benched earlier in the year but worked his way back into the starting lineup during the bye week ahead of the Auburn game. Bielema said that Liddell had approached him at the start of the bye week with thoughts of moving to offense. Bielema used that meeting as a chance to rebuild the sophomore’s confidence, perhaps just what was needed to set the stage for a game-ending play.
From all places, it came from the official Oxford police account. A clever staffer tweeted during the game, “Asking us to kick the Arkansas QB out of the stadium is not a legit reason to dial 911.”
Allen delivered a wonderful performance in his duel with Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly. Allen completed 33 of 45 passes for 442 yards. He threw for six touchdowns and ran for a two-point conversion. Kelly was 24 of 34 for 368 with three TD passes. Kelley also ran for 110 yards and three scores.
The police department sent follow-up tweets for Allen’s games against LSU and Mississippi State.
It had to come from the Ole Miss game. Some credit goes to Kelly, a nimble and strong runner. Arkansas seemed to have him dead to rights on what could have been six third down passing plays only to have him elude sack attempts and roll to first downs. The Hogs rarely forced third down plays, but all six of the Ole Miss conversions came on plays that Kelly stayed alive in the pocket, often scrambling down the boundary for long runs. Deatrich Wise did sack Kelly once, but missed him on two other plays. Thanks to those big conversions, the Rebels amassed 590 yards total offense, 478 from Kelly.
The Arkansas defensive line responded from the whiffs on Kelly at Ole Miss with superb pressure the following week at Baton Rouge. Sparked by Wise’s 2.5 sacks, the Hogs sacked LSU quarterback Brandon Harris five times. The Hogs had entered the game with just eight sacks in their first nine games. They got 10 in the last three, mostly by Wise. The junior from Carrolton, Texas led the SEC with eight sacks in league play. He had seven in the last four games.
There was an explanation for the start of that turnaround after the LSU game, that could be the most entertaining quote of the year. The always confident Wise said, “It’s a matter of a guy with the talent of me listening to what the coaches tell me to do.”
The next week, Smith added with tongue in cheek, “I wished he’d listened a little sooner.”
Freshman linebacker Dre Greenlaw was quotable all year. He dueled with Brooks Ellis atop the tackle charts before Ellis took the regular season title, 101-93. Greenlaw led with 12 against LSU, but it was Wise that Greenlaw wanted to discuss. Asked about the defensive end making 2.5 sacks, Greenlaw said, “He ate something he shouldn’t have ate and I want some of it.”
There was plenty. Bielema is never at a loss for words. Apparently, Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury can hold court, too. After Tech won a 35-24 victory in Fayetteville, Kingsbury brought up a Bielema talk from the previous summer at the Texas coaches clinic and the differences in spread and pro-style schemes. Kingsbury’s version had Bielema saying “if you play without a fullback, we are going to kick your (butt). Well, we just kicked their (butt).”
Bielema didn’t have a chance to respond until Monday. He didn’t back down. The Arkansas coach first asked Kingsbury not to take everything “so personal.” Then, he wondered, “If that was a (butt) whipping, what was that last year?” The Hogs beat Tech, 49-28, running for 438 yards and seven touchdowns, mostly using the same play over and over.
There was more classic Bielema on Monday after the victory at LSU when Tiger Stadium began to empty early in the fourth quarter and only Razorback fans were left by the conclusion. On Monday, Bielema said it he was glad the score stayed the same at the end when the Tigers had a chance for a touchdown in the closing seconds.
“What I’m really excited about is to be 3-1 on the road in the SEC from where we were in my first year to where we are now,” Bielema said. “I was kinda of glad the score stayed 31-14 so someone that didn’t watch the game would know that was a pretty good whoop. It wasn’t just a win, we handled ourselves pretty good against a team that was among the nation’s best.”
Of course, there was another classic Bielema line, a slip after the Ole Miss game. Asked how he long he’d celebrate, Bielema meant to talk about the plane ride home and the fun time with players and coaches before turning his attention to LSU. Instead, of saying he was looking forward to “hopping” on the plane, he said wife. He immediately apologized and noted he was staring to the back of the room at Jen, his wife. He said, “I can’t believe I just said that.” After walking outside, he said again, “I can’t believe I just said that.”
Defensive Highs and Lows
There were some good defensive performances. After Tennessee returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown on the way to a 14-0 lead, the Arkansas defense came alive to put the clamps on quarterback Josh Dobbs. The Hogs won the last three quarters by 24-3 for only their second victory ever in Neyland Stadium (when kicker Todd Wright got the victory ride).
Tennessee was stuffed down the stretch. After Jalen Hurd ran for 11 yards to set up a Tennessee field goal with 6:41 to go in the third quarter, the Vols made just 41 total yards the rest of the way. UT made 133 yards rushing after entering with a 265-yard average.
There were obviously lows. The Hogs did not see the Texas Tech punter and forced only one punt by Mississippi State. They gave up 3,414 yards passing. Surprisingly, they gave up only 17 passing touchdowns. But they were decent against the run, allowing an average run of just 3.8.
The pass defense gave up too many big plays in the passing game. There was a 63-yard bomb when Santos Ramirez and Greenlaw got confused on coverage in the final three minutes of the loss to Texas A&M when the Hogs were one stop away from victory. Alabama hit an 81-yard touchdown with 1:39 left in the third quarter to erase a 7-3 Arkansas lead. Ramirez bit on a double move to give up that play.
Special Teams Highs and Lows
There have been some bright moments on special teams. Particularly, the play of Josh Harris has been wonderful late in the season. He splattered the Mississippi State kick returner, causing a fumble to start the second half to spark an Arkansas comeback bid. He also blew up a few other kick returners with form tackles that should make the school’s highlight tape.
There were other special team stars. Cornelius made a splash with some punt returners, although the best was wiped out by an Eric Hawkins hold in the Toledo game. Sprinkle generally blows someone up on kickoff teams. Along with Harris, if you want to see something exciting, follow Sprinkle. It’s apparent teams have scouted the Hogs when opponents run away from Sprinkle early on those kicks.
But there were lows. There was a failed fake field goal against Tennessee, a failed fake punt that sealed the Hogs’ fate at Alabama and three blocked field goals, the most notable that ended the chances against Mississippi State after a wonderful drive. Tennessee returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
There was another blocked field goal against K-State in the bowl game to give the Hogs four on the season. K-State return specialist Morgan Burns provided such a threat in the bowl game that the Hogs went with pooch kickoffs and squibs and the Wildcats ended up with an average starting field position of their own 39-yard line despite gaining only 249 total yards.