FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema wants his best players on the field.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a sophomore or a senior. It doesn’t matter if it’s a freshman Arkansas intended to redshirt. Bielema intends to win – and win now - so he’ll do what is necessary to make sure his best players are playing.
But Bielema made it clear there’s no debate at quarterback Monday.
“There is no doubt in my mind that he gives us the best option, 100 percent, to move forward,” Bielema said. “I think Brandon Allen is going to be a good football player and we have to have patience.”
Arkansas (3-4, 0-3 in Southeastern Conference) is standing firmly behind its starting quarterback as the Razorbacks move on to play top-ranked Alabama (6-0, 3-0 in SEC) on Saturday night. There’s no doubt the sophomore has struggled in the past two games, completing just 39.6 percent of his passes for 194 yards with two interceptions and a fumble in losses to Florida and South Carolina. And it was particularly ugly against the Gamecocks, when Allen registered one of the worst passing performances in recent history by going 4-for-12 for 30 yards.
But Bielema said handing the offense over to backups AJ Derby, Austin Allen or Damon Mitchell isn’t the solution because Allen hasn’t been alone in the problems.
“Obviously Florida’s and South Carolina’s defenses made him look a certain way and we just have got to get up to the level,” Bielema said. “It’s not him. Our throwing game — one of our three offensive goals last week was to be better in our execution. Protections, reads, routes, delivery and catch, all those things factor into it.”
Allen hasn’t skirted his share of the responsibility for Arkansas’ offensive struggles the past two weeks, though. He knows his biggest issue in conference play has been throwing back-breaking interceptions that have led to touchdowns.
Allen — who was adept at avoiding turnovers while winning the starting job last spring — had interceptions returned for touchdowns against Texas A&M and Florida. The Razorbacks hoped it would end against South Carolina, but it nearly happened again. A first quarter pass was intercepted and nearly returned for a touchdown, setting up South Carolina’s go-ahead touchdown run one play later.
Each play served as the turning point in the game.
“That’s something I’m working on,” Allen said. “Something I can’t accept.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has been trying to get Allen to work on something else as well. Shake off the mistake. Allen and the Hogs haven’t been able to handle the adversity well, unraveling after the turnovers in each of the past three games.
“I thought going into the (South Carolina) game he was fine, but I thought after the one he threw, he got a little shaky again,” Chaney said. “It’s part of the development, man. You have to learn that when you make a mistake, so what? You have to go clean slate at quarterback. After every play, even the good ones, you have to clean it off and go back out there and play the next play. And we’re learning out there.”
Arkansas enters Saturday’s game against Alabama ranked last in the SEC in passing yards a game (154.6) and completion percentage (49.1). They’re 113th and 115th in the NCAA in both categories, respectively.
The Razorbacks also are 13th in the conference and 93rd in the nation in passing efficiency (115.7 rating). Allen ranks 96th in the NCAA individually (115.0).
“You know, those don’t bug me as much as the losses do, for sure,” Allen said about the statistics. “Sure you see them and you want to do better than that, but the biggest thing that bugs me is the losses, not the passing efficiency.”
Bielema said Allen’s lack of practice time because of his sore shoulder the past few weeks has had an affect on his performance and the timing of Arkansas’ passing game. He hasn’t been able to log a complete week of practice since returning, according to the coaches. But Allen said he’s getting healthier every day.
Making sure his confidence does the same has been another concern for the Hogs. Allen said Chaney spoke with him extensively after the South Carolina loss and said the conversation was “real helpful.” Allen also said friends, family and teammates have provided plenty of support, too, as he shakes off the disappointment.
“Brandon’s hard on himself as it is,” Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. “I think with that, you’ve got to enthuse him a little bit and he’ll get it.”
Allen will start against Alabama for the second straight year after teaming with former Hog Brandon Mitchell to fill in for injured start Tyler Wilson last season. The game — much like Saturday’s loss to South Carolina — had disastrous results with a 52-0 loss in Razorback Stadium.
Allen, who completed 10 of 18 passes for 60 yards with two interceptions in the loss, said the disappointing day provided a valuable learning experience, though. One he’s confident will carry over to his second chance against the Crimson Tide.
“I’ve already seen them and the different things that they like to do,” Allen said.
Success won’t be easy against a defense that has surrendered only one touchdown in the past four games. Then again, Chaney said it hasn’t been an easy two weeks for the quarterback, who is learning about life at a “polarizing position.”
“When you’re winning, everybody tells you how good you are and it’s all because of you,” Chaney said. “When you’re losing, they tell you how bad you are and it’s all because of you. And young guys that haven’t been in that spotlight before, they struggle with those emotions. Hopefully he’s getting out of that thing right now.
“I know he felt bad about the way he played, but he’ll bounce right back. He’s a young, resilient, confident kid that wants to do good.”
Chaney believes Allen has the tools to be successful, but said “words are words” and the quarterback has to prove it on the field.
Allen said he has no doubt he’ll work through the recent struggles.
“I’m fine, mentally,” Allen said. “I’m ready to go. We’ve had a few tough games, obviously, and you know, that’s the kind of thing about this game. You have to have a short memory. You have to be able to move on, week to week, whether it’s a bad loss or a good win. You have to be able to erase it and move on to the next game.”