FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ hopes of becoming bowl eligible during its first season under Bret Bielema are fading fast because of six straight losses.
Arkansas’ support for quarterback Brandon Allen is not following the same path.
The sophomore’s first season as Arkansas’ starting quarterback hasn’t gone the way he or anyone else expected back in the preseason, when Allen appeared poised to run the new offense. But the struggles haven’t quieted the Razorbacks’ belief in their offensive leader, who continues to earn respect despite Arkansas’ issues.
“You know the only criticism is probably coming from our fan base and the media,” Bielema said about Allen. “There is no criticism coming from the coaches. We see what he goes through. We know what he’s dealing with. In my opinion, he has probably shown me as much to assure me that he is for sure the best player for the job right now. Any criticism he gets is just people that don’t have knowledge.”
Bielema said Arkansas (3-6, 0-5 in Southeastern Conference) will continue to move forward with Allen in hopes of breaking its six-game losing streak at Ole Miss (5-3, 2-3 in SEC) on Saturday. There’s no doubt to Bielema — or offensive coordinator Jim Chaney — the Razorbacks need him to end the streak, even though Allen is averaging just 133.4 passing yards and has completed just 45.0 percent this season.
That’s because Allen’s importance hasn’t been defined by statistics alone.
“I think Brandon has demonstrated his toughness throughout this season,” Chaney said. “He’s been knocked down and picked back up several times. I’m really proud of that and he continues to work on his development as a quarterback. We’re right where we need to be with that. … We need to throw the ball down the field a little bit better I thought throughout the (Auburn) ballgame. But boy, I’ll tell you, can’t question the kid’s courage or his toughness right now. I love that aspect of that kid.”
Allen proved it against Auburn, when he had to leave the field after suffering a gash on his right leg. It happened when the quarterback was stepped on by an Auburn playing while sliding after a scramble. Bielema said the gash made him turn his head when he saw it, but it didn’t signal the end of Allen’s day.
He was carted to the locker room and had the wound stapled. Allen returned after missing eight snaps and resumed his role in trying to end Arkansas’ frustrations.
“That shows his toughness and his maturity and that he cares about this team,” Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. “He wants to be out on the field helping us.”
It’s part of a season in which Allen has suffered his share of dings and dents.
The most notable was the sprained throwing shoulder, which sidelined Allen for seven quarters against Southern Miss and Rutgers. He returned ahead of schedule and played well against Texas A&M, but struggled against Florida, South Carolina and Alabama before the bye week.
Allen also had his hand stepped on at Florida, which planted the quarterback on his back again and again because of its overpowering pressure.
“All the guys that critique him and stuff like that, I don’t think they understand how tough that kid is,” Arkansas fullback Kiero Small said. “He went in and got and stapled up, and playing with a bad shoulder and stuff like that. … You never hear him complain. He’s been out there at practice every day. I think he’s a really tough guy.”
Allen may not be looking for any tough guy awards, but said he appreciates the sentiment from teammates. He chalked the injuries up to the sport and said “everything happens for a reason.”
The most important thing to Allen is helping Arkansas turn the corner.
So he gets up. Again and again.
“That’s something that I think any player kind of prides themselves on, not being the guy to be knocked down,” Allen said. “Not being the guy to go down when your team needs you. I’ve tried to just be like that and not let little injuries hold me back at all.”
Swanson said Allen’s toughness has shown in other ways, too.
The quarterback has been able to shrug off the criticism that seems to mount with every mistake the offense makes this season. They’re not all his fault, of course, but Allen shoulders a lion’s share of the blame because of the position he plays.
“He takes criticism and stuff like that, but he doesn’t take it necessarily to heart,” Swanson said. “It’s not going to affect him outside these walls or outside of that stadium. He knows he’s a great quarterback. He knows what he has to work on to get better. … He’s one of the most mentally tough people I know.”
Swanson believes it’s a vital trait for a quarterback on a struggling team.
Arkansas is hoping Allen can be rewarded for those efforts as the final three-game stretch begins at Ole Miss. The Razorbacks must beat the Rebels, Mississippi State and LSU to remain in contention for a bowl game.
It’s a difficult task, but Bielema maintained after the Auburn loss Allen “definitely gives us our best chance of winning.” Bielema also has added the caveat “right now” at other times as well this season, a sign that 2014 could be open for discussion.
Allen was asked about the future after Tuesday’s practice and acknowledged nothing is guaranteed. But he’s more concerned with the present at the moment, working to help the Razorbacks snap their losing streak Saturday.
“There’s always a lot of competition at every position, especially at quarterback when you’re not doing the job you need to be doing,” Allen said when asked about 2014. “It’s tough. It’s definitely tough. I’m striving every day to get better, every day to correct things I’ve done wrong in the past. I’m going to be moving up from here.”