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State of the Hogs:
Arkansas didn't play well in any area Friday at Baton Rouge. I thought the special teams, offense and defense all made enough critical mistakes to get you beat against a good team. Certainly, LSU is not just good, but an outstanding team, perhaps one of the nation's top two or three right now and probably the SEC's best.
My only explanation is that we had no motivation and had nothing to play for in this game. We were going to Shreveport no matter what. But that's not good enough. Good teams find something to get excited about. They play on pride in a season finale on national television.
I asked Houston Nutt on Sunday what would be the motivation for this team, if there was any hope for something aside from Shreveport. He said there was and when I asked what that might be, he didn't have an answer. There really wasn't an answer.
I asked after the game what was the motivation. No one really had an explanation. Shawn Andrews told me that they wanted to prove that they could play with LSU. That was about the only answer I heard.
Tony Bua was distraught. He pointed to countless mental busts on defense. He said the coaches asked if the game plan was too complex, too complicated two days before the game and the players said they could handle it. Bua said they were obviously wrong because they had more mental busts than in any game this season. I would agree. It wasn't so much that LSU outran our secondary. We weren't even covering some of them. Those are mental mistakes, not physical mistakes.
The only time that I can remember that one of our DBs was just outplayed came on the short TD pass to Michael Clayton. Lawrence Richardson was beaten on the cut and the pass was perfect. Lawrence was just not fast enough to keep up with Clayton in that one-on-one play. Otherwise, it was a mental mistake that left the LSU guy open. Our strong safeties, Jimmy Beasley and Bo Mosley, missed some assignments and didn't play as well as was needed. Our defensive line didn't wrap up Mauck when they had clean shots at the LSU quarterback. Too often Mauck had too much time, really all day.
Offensively, Matt Jones had no time to go through the reads that he was given. He tried to buy time to get to the second option, but never had it. Houston Nutt said after the game that Matt should have just stuck with his first option each time and either thrown to the receiver or thrown it away. He said he didn't have time to go through the reads. That's the fault of the blocking. Of course, perhaps they should have known that and coached Matt to throw on his decision on the first read and not try to buy any time as he's done all year.
Cedric Cobbs should be commended for his effort in rushing for 169 yards, but he also made enough mistakes to cost us the game. He went the wrong way on the fumble that cost us 7 points at the start. He was also so-so on pass protection as far as his blocking. That had been a strength all year, but he had some trouble in this game.
Special teams made three horrible mistakes. The botched punt cost us 7 points. Apparently, the fullback asked for the gunner to return to the TE position when the cover man came off the gunner to rush. Batman was in the process of doing this and the count had been halted for that to be completed when the Brett Goode snapped it. Jacob Skinner wasn't prepared for it and dropped a perfect snap. Both players are at fault. The center shouldn't have snapped the ball, but the punter should always be ready for a snap at any time. That's his job. The other bust came on a 22-yard punt return by Skyler Green. Both gunners were in position and missed the tackle. That should not happen because the punt had plenty of hang time and was perfect. And then there was DeCori Birmingham muffed a punt. That didn't cost us any points because the Tigers decided to sit on the ball at that point, up 55-17. They were kind at that point.
This team doesn't have much to hang its hat on for this season. The victories at Texas and Alabama are highlights. I was also pleased with how hard we played against South Carolina and Kentucky, two teams that played extremely hard trying to salvage their seasons. Those were solid efforts by the Hogs.
Aside from that, this season was too many mental mistakes, too many penalties, too much sloppy play.
However, having sad all of that, the final record was about what I expected at the season's start. I figured they would go 8-4, but never did I think that two of the victories would be at Texas and Alabama. I figured those as losses, and I figured the LSU game as a loss. In between, I figured they'd lose once during the Auburn, Florida, Ole Miss, Kentucky stretch.
All in all, it's hard to know what to say about this team. There were times it played extremely hard. There were fun times. There were times that weren't so fun. Among those were more embarrassing off-the-field problems. There were too many personal fouls. There were too many crucial penalties. There were too many losses.
What lies ahead is hard to discern. It's hard to imagine the Hogs being better next season. Losing 25 seniors along with what most think will be a move to the NFL by several key juniors and it's hard to believe that the Hogs will be able to match its 8-4 overall record and its 4-4 SEC mark for the 2004 season.
Recruiting seems to be going well, but it's too early to really know. Several top in-state players have either shunned the Hogs or are still uncommitted. The Hogs need to reclaim the key linemen that are attending Hargrave Military Academy and also pick up blue chip running back Peyton Hillis of Conway.
More than ever, the Hogs need a victory in a bowl game. That's a must. The effort in last year's Music City Bowl was so pitiful that the Hogs need to make a positive statement in the Independence Bowl. They need to win a bowl game just to say it can win a bowl game. They need it for momentum for next season. They need it to boost recruiting. They need it for the legacy of these seniors so they can say they did more than just beat Texas.