Arkansas Review: The Arkansas Buzzsaw

After the first 13 minutes of Saturday night's game in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the Vanderbilt Commodores had reason to think that they had found some legitimate answers on the offensive side of the ball. Instead, they ran into an Arkansas buzzsaw. Losing always stings, but the way in which the VU crew got so abruptly cut down by the homestanding Razorbacks is what has to be addressed this week.

It all started so brightly and beautifully for Robbie Caldwell's club on a pristine Saturday evening in the Ozarks. In Des Kitchings's first game as offensive coordinator in place of Jimmy Kiser, the Dores dominated – legitimately – in the first 13 minutes. Two drives produced 140 total yards and 14 points, as the good guys took a 14-6 lead on a shellshocked gathering of Hog fans at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Everyone in the ballpark knew that Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett would continue to pile up points, but after the big, bold opening stanza, it also seemed that Vandy was in position to make a fight out of this thing for at least two and a half to three quarters. This was, after all, the same Arkansas defense that gave up 51 points to Auburn (with Auburn scoring 14 points through a combination of defense and its special-teams unit); Vandy isn't going to hang "half-a-hundred" against anyone other than Eastern Michigan, but when VU posted those 14 quick points, it seemed reasonable to think Vandy could hit 30 against the Hogs' defense and force Mallett to work hard for the victory.

Therefore, in light of the second-quarter collapse and VU's complete inability to push the Razorbacks, what's worrisome is not the loss - Arkansas was almost certain to play better after the groggy first quarter – but the fact that a team went from playing so well to dropping off the map in a heartbeat.

Rhythm and confidence don't automatically appear on a football field or, for that matter, in any other sporting endeavor. Those qualities are the products of focus, preparation, intensity, attitude, and the other facets of athletic competition. It was clear on VU's first two drives that Mr. Kitchings cooked up something special in his offensive kitchen over the past week, and that the Dores were ready to execute the plan given to them by their new coordinator. No one would dare get caught saying that Vandy has elite-level offensive talent, but since the Commodores had established the right tempo and an even better playcalling mixture, it was genuinely reasonable to think that Vanderbilt would continue to win at least some battles and, before the night was over, score in the high 20s at the very least.

Nope. The VU crew tallied just 13 more yards after those glorious first 13 minutes of play. That's a very bitter pill to swallow. What's also difficult to stomach for Vandy fans is that the coaching staff played a role in the unraveling.

It just can't be denied that the turning point in this game came when Larry Smith – the architect of VU's two scoring drives – was taken out of the game so that backup signal caller Jared Funk could perform in a pre-planned series. Vanderbilt was up 14-13 when Funk got picked off by Arkansas' Rudell Crim, paving the way for the home team's Hog-wild 26-0 avalanche in the second quarter.

It's quite understandable and, moreover, logical for a backup quarterback to receive meaningful playing time and mentoring in a gameday situation. There's nothing wrong with giving Jared Funk a fair share of snaps on Saturdays in and of itself. The pre-planned series is a perfectly normal thing to do for a team that needs to cultivate depth at quarterback, grow the position, and develop players in general. All of that is sound and solid.

The problem with the installation of Jared Funk was – as is the case with so many other things in life – the timing of it all. When Smith led Vandy on two touchdown drives – and on the road, no less, WITH A NEW OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR – there was no good reason to interrupt that rhythm. There was no need to disrupt the flow and feel Smith had found within a natural and organic progression of events. Smith worked hard in practice to implement Des Kitchings' game plan, and when that chalkboard vision spilled out in full flower on a gridiron canvas, the VU coaching staff needed to junk its pre-planned series and resist the urge to get Funk-y. Smith had found his own coveted groove and was playing some sweet Music City melodies against Arkansas's tentative defense. Once Smith's rhythm evaporated; once Smith's joyride ended; once Smith ran into difficulty, THEN Jared Funk's deserved moment of opportunity should have emerged.

The Scriptures – specifically, through the Book of Ecclesiastes – tell us that there is a time to every purpose under heaven. There was a time to let Larry Smith continue to do his thing on Saturday night, and there was a time to give Jared Funk his chance. Commodore Caldwell didn't have to cancel Jared Funk's big series; he only needed to postpone it for a later point in this encounter with Arkansas. The fact that he couldn't do so is disappointing; the fact that the consequences were so severe is even more of a punch to the gut.

It's worth mentioning, as a postscript to all of this, that Vanderbilt gave away a net of 16 points to Arkansas, as two Funk interceptions were turned into Razorback touchdowns while a Smith fumble led to a second-quarter safety for the Hogs. If you take away those gift-wrapped Arkansas points, the Razorbacks would have scored 33 points. Had Vandy's momentum not been interrupted by the reasonably-conceived but ill-timed quarterback shuffle involving Funk and Smith, the Dores might not have run into an Arkansas buzzsaw. The Hogs still would have figured to win the game, but the score could have ended up 33-27 or something very similar. Yes, this game ended with a 35-point margin, but with a few better decisions, it truly could have been close. That's the realization a team and coaching staff need to arrive at.

If VU can score 14 points in the first quarter against Florida on Nov. 6, you can bet that the Gators will be sweating bullets. You can also bet that Robbie Caldwell won't make the same mistake twice. This Arkansas game, if it leads to a more enlightened approach against Florida, could produce markedly better results for a team that, for all its losses, owns a path to victory each and every week it takes the field.

The (not-so) secret is to sustain what works for more than a little while. With a few more nudges and (non-)interventions at the right times, the VU crew can find a winning formula in the SEC.

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