LITTLE ROCK — When Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson did not come out for the second half on Saturday night, I couldn’t imagine a more important storyline to the Louisiana-Monroe game and the week ahead.
Was I ever wrong. There was still a game to be decided and ULM won. There was nothing fluky about the 34-31 decision in overtime. Kolton Browning, a left-handed quarterback who befuddled Arkansas all evening with his floaters and his footwork, covered the final 16 yards on fourth-and-1, ducking through a hole after it looked like he might be trapped.
Long before that, ULM looked like the poised and capable team and the Razorbacks appeared frozen by panic. Twice, the Razorbacks, from the most powerful of all conferences and No. 8 in the country, led by 14 and could not do enough on offense to consume any clock.
The Warhawks, Arkansas coach John L. Smith said, “outplayed us and outcoached us.” No arguments here.
In the fourth quarter, Arkansas managed only two first downs and 53 yards of total offense. No wonder ULM had opportunity after opportunity.
In the second 30 minutes, ULM manufactured 17 first downs and 272 yards; Arkansas had six and 108 yards. Arkansas threw 10 passes in the fourth quarter and ran the ball five times.
Blame play calling if you want, but the pass-pass-pass approach said in capital letters that the coaches did not believe the offensive line could block a middle-of-the-pack team from the Sun Belt Conference. One three-down possession lasted 16 seconds.
Maybe the confidence started slipping away early in the fourth quarter when UA had third-and-1 at its own 23 and a pitch sweep into the boundary with Knile Davis did not even merit a measurement.
Redshirt freshman Brandon Allen, playing in place of Wilson, was 3-of-5 through three quarters and finished 6-of-20. In overtime, after a penalty gave the Razorbacks a first down at the ULM 15, three passes were incomplete and Zach Hocker provided a three-point lead.
On fourth down, ULM coach Todd Berry passed up trying for a second overtime, maybe because kicker Justin Manton was only 6-of-14 on field goal attempts last year. It was Browning’s 23-yard pass down the middle of the field to Brent Leonard that tied the score at 28 with 47 seconds to play. Despite lacking a strong arm, Browning was good on 42-of-67 attempts for 412 yards.
No one can say for certain that Arkansas would have won if Wilson had been available for the second half, but I would be willing to wager on the Wilson-led Razorbacks.
During the game, we were told that Wilson – the Razorbacks’ rudder in troubled water — had an injury above the shoulders. That could be most anything, including a collarbone. Last week, the vague diagnosis was the same for wide receiver Cobi Hamilton. A few days later, Hamilton was said to have a neck injury.
Having played at Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge last year, Wilson does not get rattled by what the opponent does or what he fails to do. For instance, at the end of the first quarter against ULM, Wilson was 4-of-10 for 54 yards with an interception on a ball badly underthrown into a brisk breeze.
From there, he did what you would expect of a talented, unflappable senior — he completed five straight for 75 of the 80 yards on a drive that put Arkansas ahead 14-7.
Fans and media alike have come to expect so much from him that somebody in the pressbox said the first half was not what he was accustomed to from Wilson. From many quarterbacks, his 11-of-20 for 196 and two touchowns would be embraced.
With his status up in the air and No. 1 Alabama dead ahead, the Arkansas season that was supposed to be so glorious is on a slippery slope.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.