LITTLE ROCK — Based on the plethora of talking points, deadline for Rutgers rehash is extended until noon today.
Self-imposed, discussion of the why and wherefore of the previous Saturday’s result normally ends 24 hours earlier. Courtesy of Johnny Manziel, there was no window for a post-Piscataway funk for Arkansas players or coaches.
For fans, Arkansas 24, Rutgers 7 with 23 1-2 minutes to play drives the second-guessing and the far-flung expeditions for explanations. If Rutgers had led 28-10 and Arkansas had rallied with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the vibe for fans would be much different.
Many are quick to forget that many things went Arkansas’ way during the first 36-plus minutes. Those Arkansas-up arrows included:
• Rutgers’ first-quarter drives of 61 and 65 yards that yielded no points, once because of a miscommunication on the read option.
• Arkansas’ trick plays for a touchdown and a first down that led to a field goal. The Razorbacks’ longest completions of the game belonged to a running back and a punter.
• A defensive touchdown.
Looking for answers, we might be trying too hard. Simply, there were critical breakdowns in every phase — defense, kicking game, and offense — down the stretch.
The Scarlet Knights’ fourth-quarter possessions began on the Rutgers’ 2, the Razorbacks’ 33, and the home team’s 17. Arkansas has not stopped them yet.
Needing to throw, Nova completed passes of 25, 42, and 33 yards on the first possession and was 3-of-5 for 17, 12, and 4 on the second possession. Only the 12-yarder was particularly difficult. Needing to run for one first down on the third possession, Savon Huggins made 2, 7, and 11.
The odd thing about Janarion Grant’s two big punt returns is that there was nothing to indicate they were in the offing, no juke that says the returner only needs one more block. In fact, until Sam Irwin-Hill punted to one side of the field and his coverage ganged up on the other side, the kicking game was tilted heavily in Arkansas’ favor.
During the first three quarters, the Razorbacks were one-up in field goals, got a 77-yard punt and an 84-yard kickoff from Zach Hocker, and three 40-plus yard punts by Irwin that resulted in Rutgers starting inside its 10.
After 24-7, Arkansas had possessions of three plays for nine yards, three plays for eight yards, five plays for 22 yards, three plays for eight yards, five plays for 14 yards, and seven plays for 13 yards. Breaking down the sequence, I was surprised to find that Arkansas called more passes than runs during that time. Part of the problem was the number of plays that either lost yardage or gained nothing. Twice, Alex Collins was caught behind the line. Once, AJ Derby was sacked. Jonathan Williams made zero on one run, a pass to Kiero Small netted the same, and a completion to Williams went five yards in the wrong direction.
At this point, note a brutally honest quote from offensive line coach Sam Pittman: "They just whipped us. Their D-line vs. our O-line, they whipped us."
As the quarterback, AJ Derby is getting much of the blame. Sure, he misfired on some passes, but so did winning quarterback Gary Nova. If you had said that Derby would complete 14-of-26 and that Arkansas would have five sacks and a 3-0 edge in turnovers, I would have anticipated an Arkansas victory. All-in-all, said offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, Derby wasn’t the issue in the ball game.
There is an unprovable theory that Arkansas would have won if Brandon Allen had been the quarterback. Even if Brandon misses this week, the redshirt is likely to remain on little brother Austin. If, at mid-week, the doctors say big brother is out for another month or so, all bets are off.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.