FAYETTEVILLE — Nothing in Bret Bielema’s 10 months at Arkansas has offered any glimpse of a first-year coach that will back down from a challenge.
He boldly proclaimed his goal of delivering a Southeastern Conference championship to Arkansas when he arrived. He went toe-to-toe with naysayers on social media over the long offseason. He hasn’t been shy about voicing his opinion on hot topics, stirring debate between no-huddle teams and his traditional style.
So now that Arkansas has a five-game losing streak — which is the longest of Bielema’s career — it should be no surprise the coach is following an important mantra to deflect any criticism that has come with mounting losses: Don’t flinch.
“You’ve got a fog around Arkansas that has been around us for a little bit of time that I’m trying to fight off,” Bielema said last Thursday, during an animated bye week press conference. “Those things can wear you down. But if you flinch or if you try to react in a way that you’re not accustomed to doing, you’re going to have failure.”
Bielema and his staff have stood firm by the philosophy as they search for solutions through one of the worst stretches in the program’s recent history. Sure, the Razorbacks have endured plenty of problems on both sides of the ball in lopsided losses, but they’ve refused to stray from their core values and beliefs this week.
So don’t expect an Arkansas team that takes on a new identity from the hard-nosed, physical style Bielema has been determined to implement since arriving. The Razorbacks (3-5, 0-4 in SEC) insist they’ll stay the course as they prepare for next Saturday’s game against BCS No. 11 Auburn (7-1, 3-1 in SEC) in Razorback Stadium.
“I love it when I see coaches have failure and what are they going to do right away? They’re going to change,” Bielema said. “They’re going to go from the Pro to the Spread. They’re going to go from this to this. I’m made up of what I’m made up of. I know it’ll win. I know it’ll have success. If I flinch anywhere along the way, then my kids are going to be able to see it and they’ll start doing it. We just can’t have that.”
The stance comes with a growing rumble from frustrated fans after 52-7 and 52-0 losses in consecutive games. There’s good reason for the disappointment, too, because the 97-point margin was the largest in back-to-back games in school history. Arkansas’s previous low point was consecutive losses by a combined 90 points against Missouri School of Mines (44-0) and Oklahoma A&M (46-0) in 1914.
But that’s just the start of the historical woes Arkansas is achieving. The Razorbacks have surrendered 50 or more points in consecutive games for the first time in school history. Its 52-point loss to Alabama equaled the program’s seventh-worst defeat. Arkansas’ eight-game SEC losing streak — which coincidentally began with a 30-27 loss to Ole Miss on Oct. 27 last season — also is the program’s longest.
A five-game losing streak is Arkansas’ longest since 1997. Only seven other Arkansas teams have lost five or more games in a row, including the 1990 group that holds the school record with seven straight losses.
“The last five weeks have been pretty rough,” Arkansas fullback Kiero Small said.
Arkansas can credit some of the woes to obvious personnel issues at key positions like linebacker, defensive back and wide receiver.
The Arkansas staff acknowledged the talent and depth shortcomings at some of those positions. They plan to address it on the recruiting trail. But Bielema was adamant earlier this month he would never use it as an excuse for the struggles.
In fact, he’s more disappointed by mistakes they view as careless and correctable.
For instance: Arkansas has committed nine turnovers in its past four games and the mistakes have been crippling for a group that has been shut out for seven straight quarters. One of the main problems has been with Arkansas’ execution in the passing game. It has been nothing short of a disaster with quarterback Brandon Allen missing his target, receivers dropping passes and protection issues.
“Obviously not where we want to be,” said Allen, who is completing just 44.9 percent of his passes this season. “Didn’t expect it.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said the breakdowns have been “a little bit everywhere” and added he has struggled to get in a rhythm as a play-caller. But Chaney said being more “detail-oriented” is the goal. Not mass changes.
“Throwing the baby out of the bath water is not the best way to go,” Chaney said. “So we’ll sit there, we’ll stay the course, we’ll continue to try to improve things. We’re smart enough to maybe manipulate some calls. Maybe I need to change some of the things that I’m doing a little bit more and that’s easy enough to do. But I don’t want to lose the foundation and what we’re trying to get done here also.”
The same can be said for a defensive unit that has been gashed repeatedly since Arkansas opened conference play on Sept. 28.
Tackling trouble, assignment errors and an inability to get off the field have been the biggest problems for the unit, which has watched South Carolina and Alabama combine to score on 16 of 20 possessions. The defensive woes have knocked Arkansas to 12th in the SEC and 90th in the NCAA in points allowed (30.6 a game).
“We knew this wasn’t going to be an easy job,” Ash said. “We understand where we’re at. Nobody has to tell me that we’re struggling. I know that. I see that. That’s the first part of building a plan for success, realizing where you are at and being honest and realistic about it and start finding solutions and that’s where we’re at right now. Nobody said this was going to be easy. Nobody said this was going to be an overnight turnaround just because a new staff walked in the door.”
Dari Nowkhah, who is a college football analyst for ESPNU, believes there was added difficulty because of who was previously in charge of the program.
He said former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino brought a brilliant offensive mind to Fayetteville, but in many other ways has forced a “complete rebuild” since his firing.
“You have to change a culture,” Nowkhah said after addressing the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club last week. “You have kids that, in many cases, are not taking care of responsibilities off the field. That was the case at Louisville, and I know that’s been the case here. Some guys that a coach would have to chase off, some guys that just may not want to play in a more disciplined system.
“So now you’re dealing with that from a personal standpoint. You’re dealing with that from kind of a feel-good standpoint within a program. He leaves and he takes his offensive mind with him. And now you’re left with, in many cases I think, and it’s kind of been borne out, a mess of a roster.”
An even bigger obstacle is the fact Arkansas is repairing itself in an unforgiving SEC West, which boasts traditional powers (Alabama and LSU) as well as teams on the rise (Texas A&M, Auburn and Ole Miss). Bielema and the Razorbacks are trying to rebuild the foundation of the program during one of the toughest schedules in school history, playing four straight games against ranked opponents.
Auburn will be Arkansas’ fifth straight ranked opponent when it comes to Razorback Stadium on Saturday. It will be the first time Arkansas has played five consecutive ranked teams and all were No. 18 or higher when facing the Hogs.
But Bielema insisted he was ready for the daunting schedule.
“I didn’t prepare for this in just seven years as a head coach,” Bielema said of the task ahead of him. “I went through this as a 1-10 assistant at Iowa. I went through difficulty during times as an assistant during my career and as a coordinator. I know what the plan is. I know how to get there. It takes a little bit of time that anybody that has any type of impatience, which I’m the biggest violator of, it’s never fun to get there in the process. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun when you get there.”
How and when a turnaround would begin is unknown, although CBS Sports College football analyst Bruce Feldman said Arkansas has a long climb ahead during his appearance at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club two weeks ago.
“I mean, who’s going to be bad in that division?” Feldman said about the SEC West, which features three programs (Alabama, Auburn, LSU) that have won five national championships in the past seven seasons. “Somebody’s got to lose. …
“For the next probably year-and-a-half I think it’s going to be Arkansas.”
Bielema said it’s critical that his fragile team, which has shown the effects of two long seasons since former coach Petrino’s motorcycle accident in April 2012, doesn’t agree and further slip into what he described as a “woe’s me” attitude.
The 2013 season has been a sour one no doubt, but Bielema stressed bowl eligibility remains on the radar with four games left. He’s even more confident in the big picture, refusing to “flinch” despite Arkansas’ record-setting struggles this season.
“I wanted to come to an opportunity that had never given this fan base what they want, which is an SEC championship,” Bielema said. “That has been my driving force from day one, and that hasn’t changed.
“It may be silly to talk about when you’re an 0-4 SEC team and a 3-5 football team overall. … But I know where we’re going to be. I know what’s going to happen.”