Arkansas is on the verge of missing postseason play for the second straight season after its 35-17 loss to Auburn last Saturday.
The loss meant the Razorbacks (3-6, 0-5 in Southeastern Conference) must close the regular season with wins against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU to reach the six-win mark to become bowl eligible. But Arkansas coach Bret Bielema hasn’t told his team there’s no room for error as it prepares for Ole Miss.
“I haven’t talked about bowls,” Bielema said. “The mission is just to try to improve. For us right now as a program we are trying to get better every week. Trying to get younger players to be better, trying to get our better players to play their best ball, trying to correct Saturday’s mistakes and move forward.”
That’s all Arkansas can do as it tries to snap what has grown into one of the longest losing streaks in school history. The Hogs have dropped six straight and will equal the school record for consecutive losses with another disappointment at Ole Miss.
Arkansas lost seven straight twice, with the latest coming in 1990 under former coach Jack Crowe. The Razorbacks also lost their final six games in 1952 under coach Otis Douglas and the first game of the 1953 season under Bowden Wyatt.
It’s a dubious record Arkansas wants to avoid, which is one reason why Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze called the Razorbacks a “scary football team” this week.
“If they ever convert drives, they would be very, very dangerous because they control the time of possession, and they run the ball extremely well,” Freeze said. “They have two of the finer running backs that we’ve seen, and again, just for whatever reasons have not finished drives the amount of times they’ve had chances to. And if they ever did that, it would be a very, very scary game.”
Bielema said after Saturday’s game the program wants to sprint. But in reality, the growth is coming at a much slower pace. He alluded to four basic areas he evaluates every week — preparation, commitment to academics, social behavior and football — and said the “arrow was up” in each spot during the Auburn week.
It wasn’t enough for the program to win its first game since Sept. 14 last Saturday.
But Bielema said he and the staff remain optimistic that success is close.
“If we weren’t doing things right, if we didn’t have kids believing, if we didn’t have kids believing in what we were saying, we’d be having problems right now,” Bielema said. “We’d have kids erupting on the sideline. We’d have kids that are being problems in the classroom or doing some things that are just really disruptive to what’s going on. And everybody just keeps humming, everybody just keeps sawing wood, everybody just keeps moving themselves in the right path.”
Hacked about Hocker
Arkansas senior Zach Hocker was not one of 20 kickers selected as semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award on Monday. Bielema wasn’t happy with Hocker’s absence.
“You know what, that irritates me,” Bielema said. “I’m not saying he should be in the top five. I’m not saying he should be in the top 10. But he should be in the top 20.”
Hocker has been perfect on extra points (20 of 20) and near perfect on field goal attempts (9 of 10) this season. His only field goal blemish came at Alabama, when a 41-yard attempt was blocked by the Crimson Tide.
Bielema lobbied for Hocker as a Groza Award candidate during last Thursday’s press conference. Bielema said he called the Groza Award representatives three weeks ago as well, believing that Hocker should receiver serious consideration even though Arkansas didn’t have as many opportunities because of a struggling offense.
“Everything we ask him to do, he delivers,” Bielema said about Hocker, who holds the Arkansas record for career points (334).
The Razorbacks were disappointed about their execution on two goal-line plays late in the first half Saturday. But Bielema didn’t regret the calls, which led to Jonathan Williams being stuffed on consecutive plays to help Auburn preserve a 14-3 lead.
“The reason I went for it — obviously I wanted to win the game and everything — but I wanted to set a mentality there for our guys, not just of this team, but teams of the future about what we’re going to be able to do there,” Bielema said.
Bielema is trying to turn Arkansas into a hard-nosed team with an offense built around the power run game. He said the Razorbacks failed to get to an outside linebacker on both plays last Saturday, which led to bad results. Offensive line coach Sam Pittman said Sunday night the Tigers simply “whipped” the Arkansas front.
“It’s something we’ll get better on,” Bielema said about the goal line plays. “Not just this year, but also in the years to come.”
Bielema said Arkansas got through the Auburn game without any significant injuries outside of quarterback Brandon Allen’s leg wound.
“That gash was pretty deep and pretty sore on Sunday, but should be good for Tuesday’s practice,” Bielema said. “Nobody else from the game should be limited. Just some guys banged up, but nothing that will keep people out Saturday.”
Ole Miss, which is coming off a bye week, is expected to get defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche back from injury. The freshman — who was one of the best high school players in the nation — has 15 tackles in six games.
“I think Robert coming back obviously gives us better depth and some flexibility to move some people around,” Freeze said.
Freeze added that leading rusher Jeff Scott (434 yards, 2 touchdowns) and defensive back Charles Sawyer are questionable. But Freeze also expects both to play.