FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema couldn’t go to sleep after his team’s 45-33 loss to Texas A&M last Saturday.
He wasn’t exactly lamenting the missed opportunities and mistakes that led to his team’s second straight loss, though. Bielema was thinking about something else.
“The thing that I found myself going to is just all the positive things,” Bielema said. “I see a group that gets better every day.”
Arkansas has no interest in moral victories. Bielema and his coaching staff have expressed it numerous times the past two weeks. But Arkansas’ coach admitted to looking at the loss to the Aggies with an optimistic eye Monday.
Bielema noticed a team that took an important step a week after collapsing in the fourth quarter of its loss at Rutgers. He’s hoping the Razorbacks will take a few more when they go back on the road Saturday to play at No. 18 Florida.
Arkansas (3-2, 0-1 in Southeastern Conference) has had no success against the Gators (3-1, 2-0 in SEC) since joining the conference in 1992, losing eight straight games. But Bielema said the Razorbacks carry confidence into the week.
“I think our kids are very, very excited to go to the Swamp,” Bielema said. “Obviously we haven’t beaten them in SEC play. So an opportunity to do something that’s never been done before here is exciting for our guys.
“I think they got some mojo out of last week. Obviously we didn’t win, but I think the guys felt like they competed and played with a very, very good football team.”
Bielema believes one key change came last Sunday, when he addressed the team after the Rutgers loss and pointed out every detail that went into the collapse.
Plenty of X’s and O’s were discussed. But Bielema said the conversation also included a few minor off-the-field issues that needed to be addressed.
“Some things that I really needed to send a strong message and hold them accountable for,” Bielema said Monday. “I’m a big, big believer in what happens off the field carries over directly to what happens on the field.
“I spoke to the guys pretty strongly about that and get everything cleaned up because I know it works and we had to get on board there.”
Bielema pointed out two examples. He said one player was late for a Thursday session in the weight room. Another was late Friday before the trip to Rutgers.
Bielema didn’t mention specific players, but said Arkansas made some adjustments because some “weren’t able to handle their business away from the field.” The Razorbacks did present a few different looks against the Aggies on Saturday.
Linebacker Austin Jones — who Bielema said has been dealing with a hip injury — also didn’t play after starting the first four games at middle linebacker. Wide receiver Keon Hatcher moved into the starting lineup for the first time and caught two passes for 27 yards and a touchdown, replacing senior Julian Horton.
Freshmen Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper started at guard in place of Mitch Smothers and Brey Cook. Smothers did not play after starting the first four games, while Cook impressed the coaches by backing up Grady Ollison at tackle.
“Sometimes those little things can not only serve as a wake up call to (Cook), but all the other guys in his same position,” Bielema said. “We made some changes at wide receiver and that for the most part worked as well. Defensively, the same thing.”
The improvement was particularly evident on offense thanks largely to starting quarterback Brandon Allen’s return from a shoulder injury.
The Razorbacks eclipsed the 200-yard mark in rushing (201) and passing (282) for the second time this season. They nearly equaled their season-high in points (34 against Louisiana-Lafayette) and Texas A&M’s big plays until the fourth quarter.
“Did we show improvement from the previous week? Yes,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “And we’re happy with that. But ultimately we’re judged by getting those W’s and that’s what we continue to strive for.”
Florida is the second opponent in Arkansas’ four-game stretch against ranked teams. So picking up a win won’t exactly be easy Saturday as the Razorbacks try to avoid their fifth 0-2 start in conference play in the past seven years.
But Bielema — whose longest losing streak as a head coach is four games — is optimistic Arkansas’ breakthrough will come soon.
“I told our guys after the game, I said, ‘We’re not there yet, but this climb up the mountain has been a lot of fun and when we get to the top it’s going to be really fun to know what you did,’” Bielema said. “I’m not saying it’s going to come this week, but I have a strong belief that they’re going to play better.”