FAYETTEVILLE — The losses don’t sit well with Arkansas coach Bret Bielema.
They don’t feel good to his coaches and players, either.
But Bielema — whose longest losing streak as a head coach was four games at Wisconsin in 2008 — wouldn’t let Arkansas’ current slide ruin his optimism.
“I know this: If I’m down today, the players are going to be down,” Bielema said. “If I’m negative Nellie tomorrow, they’ll be negative Nellie as well. So, the lead that we take as coaches hopefully will drive our players, and to be quite honest, when you get older in life, it’s good to be around the youth. They tend to bring you back a little bit quicker, a little bit stronger, so that’s what we’ll rely on.”
Arkansas reached the halfway point of the 2013 season after the 30-10 loss to Florida. It was another disappointing result for a program certain to face some challenges as it made the transition to a new staff and new philosophy.
The tests won’t get any easier in the coming weeks, either, with two more ranked opponents — No. 14 South Carolina and No. 1 Alabama — lined up next on the schedule. But as the Razorbacks (3-3, 0-2 in Southeastern Conference) prepare to kick off the second half of the season against 14th-ranked South Carolina (4-1, 2-1 in SEC) on Saturday, Bielema remains confident his program is making progress.
“I’m going to say it a thousand times — winning is a process and the process needs to be learned,” Bielema said. “And they understand it, they’re getting it a little bit more each and every day. But again, there wasn’t anything we could fault as coaches or find on tape that you don’t get excited about the direction they’re going.”
Defensive coordinator Chris Ash noticed it in his group’s performance at Florida.
One week earlier, Arkansas was gashed for 262 rushing yards by Texas A&M because of errors. The Razorbacks responded with a much better effort against the Gators, holding Florida nearly 100 yards below its season rushing average.
“I think we’re light years ahead of where we were when we started,” Ash said. “But we’re nowhere near where we need to be. We’ve got a long way to go in a lot of areas. We’re so close on some things. But so far away on some others.”
Improvement may have been more difficult to detect on offense after being held to a season-low for points and yards by the Gators. But offensive coordinator Jim Chaney believes there was growth with Arkansas facing one of the nation’s top defenses.
“We played hard,” Chaney said. “We’ve just got to continue to play smarter. It seems like on about every play in the second half, 9 or 10 guys would be executing the play the way we wanted and one guy would break down or get beat. It’s just kind of who we were in that second half. It was disappointing. But you can’t hide from the video.”
Quarterback Brandon Allen said the recent disappointments, which began with a fourth-quarter collapse at Rutgers on Sept. 21, hasn’t dampened Arkansas’ demeanor after six games. Instead, he said the Razorbacks remain hungry to end the losing skid and pick up their first conference win under Bielema.
“We know it’s a tough road,” Allen said. “Obviously, after the game we’re not excited about losing. That’s something that we’re not taking lightly. We’re doing everything we can to get better every week. We’re on the right track. We’re doing a lot of good things. We’ve just got to bring it on Saturday.”
Before Arkansas moves on to the second half of its schedule, though, it’s time to take a look back at the first six games. Here is a look at Arkansas’ midseason report card and some of the Razorbacks’ most valuable players from the first half:
MIDSEASON REPORT CARD QUARTERBACKS: B-
Brandon Allen has performed like a first-year starter. He has shown promising moments (three touchdown passes in the opener) and discouraging ones (two interceptions returned for touchdowns). Allen also has worked through injury, missing seven quarters because of a shoulder sprain. Arkansas wasn’t a threat through the air with backup AJ Derby under center. Allen has thrown for 834 yards with 8 TDs and 4 interceptions. One thing that must improve: Allen is completing just 49.6 percent of his passes and Arkansas is just 50.6 percent as a team.
RUNNING BACKS: A
The young tandem of Alex Collins (651 yards, 3 TDs) and Jonathan Williams (503 yards, 4 TDs) has been one of the nation’s best. Collins has proven worthy of his recruiting ranking and is on the verge of tying Darren McFadden’s freshman record of 100-yard games. Williams’ toughness and versatility have been vital as well. More impressive: the duo has lost one fumble in 194 carries. Their continued success — along with the play of fullback Kiero Small — will be key to Arkansas’ bowl hopes.
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: C
Javontee Herndon got off to a great start and leads Arkansas with 17 catches and four touchdowns. Hunter Henry has played well in his first year and leads the team in receiving yards (276). But the group, which opened the season short-handed because of injuries, has been inconsistent. It was most apparent in the drop-filled loss at Florida. The good news: Arkansas is back at full strength for the second half after Keon Hatcher, D’Arthur Cowan and Austin Tate missed games with injuries.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B-
Arkansas’ line was dominant in three wins, overpowering opponents that couldn’t match up physically. Then the competition improved. The Razorbacks struggled in the Rutgers loss and made changes. Freshmen Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland have started two straight at guard. Brey Cook has moved back to tackle and is starting over Grady Ollison. Arkansas hopes the retooled unit — which also includes seniors Travis Swanson and tackle David Hurd — makes up for last week’s performance at Florida, when it struggled to open holes and protect Allen in a loss.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
Arkansas knew its front was a strength and the group has lived up to the billing. The Razorbacks lead the SEC with 17 sacks and the line is responsible for 15 1/2. The steady duo of defensive ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers have combined for 10 sacks. Defensive tackle Robert Thomas has had a strong start (28 tackles, 5 for losses) as well as redshirt freshman Darius Philon (14 tackles, 2 sacks) on the interior. The only complaint was in Arkansas’ run woes against Texas A&M. But the Razorbacks responded by shutting down Florida’s ground game last week.
The team’s biggest question mark entering the season appears to have found some answers after six games. Arkansas is convinced Jarrett Lake, Braylon Mitchell and Martrell Spaight form the best trio at the position. Lake, who leads the team with 42 tackles, moved into the middle linebacker role against Texas A&M. Mitchell hasn’t been flashy, but is steady. Spaight is raw, but has big-play potential. Arkansas needs to group to become sound and steady if it hopes to reach bowl eligibility.
Arkansas has struggled to slow passing attacks in its losses, allowing 282.3 yards and 8 touchdowns. There have been good moments from the secondary, but they’ve been overshadowed by bigger mistakes. CB Tevin Mitchel’s “feast or famine” performance at Florida was a prime example. Arkansas was missing one starter - S Rohan Gaines – for much of the first half of the season. They’ll open the second half without another – CB Will Hines – on Saturday. So Arkansas’ depth will be tested.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
Arkansas has been a mixed bag on special teams. The good: Kicker Zach Hocker is a perfect 8-for-8 on field goals; Sam Irwin-Hill is averaging 43.6 yards a punt; Skipper has blocked two field goals; and the Razorbacks executed a little trickery to perfection at Rutgers. The bad: Two big punt returns (one for a touchdown) fueled the collapse at Rutgers, return teams that haven’t produced big plays, and other mental mistakes (KR Korliss Marshall botched two kick returns at Florida).
Arkansas knew 2013 would be filled with challenges, but Bret Bielema and his staff have put the Razorbacks in position to win games. Arkansas has had a solid plan offensively under coordinator Jim Chaney even though execution has been lacking at times. A defense with most of the same players from 2012 is taking steps – some slower than others - under coordinator Chris Ash. There has been no sense the Razorbacks packing it in despite three straight losses, either. Effort and intensity remain high and the staff deserves some credit for keeping players motivated.
OFFENSIVE MVP: RB Alex Collins. Arkansas believed Collins was a perfect fit for its run-first offense and the freshman wasted no time showing it. He became the first freshman in SEC history, and first in the NCAA since Adrian Peterson in 2004, to crack the 100-yard mark in each of his first three games. He has topped 100 yards four times in six games. It has Collins on pace to break Arkansas’ freshman rushing record of 1,113 yards, which was set by McFadden in 2005.
DEFENSIVE MVP: DE Chris Smith. The senior opened the season as the star of the defense and has backed it up with his play through six games. Smith has been a handful for opponents, spearheading a pass rush that has been the SEC’s best to date. Smith also leads the conference with six sacks in six games.
He has moved to fifth on the school’s career sack chart (19) and opens the second half 6 1/2 shy of the Arkansas record, which is held by Wayne Martin (25 ½).
SPECIAL TEAMS MVP: PK Zach Hocker. The senior was disappointed with his performance in 2012, but has been flawless this fall. He’s perfect on 17 extra point attempts and 8-for-8 on field goals. Hocker regularly blasts kickoffs in the end zone, too, with 21 of 30 attempts going for touchbacks. Hocker also averages 45.7 yards on seven punts, although Irwin-Hill may handle those duties the rest of the way.
FRESHMAN MVP: TE Hunter Henry. Collins is the offense’s MVP, but another freshman has been valuable to the 3-3 start. Henry has emerged as a reliable receiver and playmaker, catching 14 passes for 276 yards and a touchdown. He topped the 100-yard mark for the first time in Arkansas’ SEC opener against Texas A&M, catching four passes for 109 yards. The Little Rock native still has plenty to learn, but the staff wants his role to expand was he gains experience.