The text message from my friend in Tennessee arrived just after the Hogs’ second touchdown. One word: “Wow.”
The Hogs had an ‘all business’ look to them on the sidelines. Not only were they up 14-0 on #1 LSU, but they had driven the ball 62 yards in 11 plays over five minutes of game time to score first. And…surprise…8 of the 11 were rushing plays.
Then the snowball took off down the hill in a bad direction. A face mask turned a third and six into an LSU first down. The Razorback defensive line begin to play as if it had never occurred to the coaching staff that LSU might run an option play. What should have been a huge sack for a loss turned into a casual throw-away after failing to close the deal by actually tackling the quarterback.
And then, after the LSU score changed the momentum a bit, Tyler Wilson takes a 14-yard sack on a corner blitz, which changed the momentum a lot. Poor execution of a directional punt combined with terrible coverage in general led to a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown. On the play before the punt return, record-setting senior Jarius Wright dropped a bullet into his chest that would have given the Hogs a first down.
On the next possession…surprise…Dennis Johnson doesn’t wrap up the ball with both hands while being tackled and is stripped. Five passing plays later, LSU is in the end zone again.
The Hogs had a chance in the second half to tie the game, but a poor snap to Brandon Mitchell pretty much wasted that. On the next possession, Wilson took another costly eight-yard sack on first down.
Let me give LSU credit — they were the much better team. Yes, they had a few mistakes, but they were solid on just about every play.
Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the ‘play good most of the time, but not all of the time’ habits of the entire year led to appearing to not be able to compete with both Alabama and LSU. The shame is that there were many points in both games where they competed quite well.
You have to question the offensive game plan in both games. The combination of play selection and Wilson holding the ball and taking sacks is not going to get it done against defenses of the quality of Alabama and LSU. Hot reads and check downs appeared to be non-existent in both games. You have to wonder why, after four carries for 21 yards in the first (only) touchdown drive against LSU, Broderick Green touched the ball only one other time.
On defense, gaps, angles and stunts have been issues in every game it seems. The Razorback defenders seemed to be out of position a lot this year. To appear unprepared to play the option or the smash pitch play (both LSU staples) AND to get caught in stunts over and over in the red zone — well, I think scheme has been a serious question mark in many games.
Why the punt coverage failed us in the two biggest games of the year is beyond me.
People can talk about a talent difference between the Hogs and Alabama / LSU, but the bigger difference to me is this: Those teams don’t make a lot of mistakes during the course of a game. They play very fundamentally solid. They play with great patience. They are well prepared for the specific opponent.
The Razorback program under Coach Petrino has definitely stepped it up to become part of the national conversation. Back-to-back 10-win seasons to cap his first recruiting class is amazing progress. Like all Razorback fans, I’m thrilled with the overall results.
But…the Hogs probably have as far to go as they have come. This year has been a great success, no doubt. It has also been a great opportunity to learn what it’s really going to take to win a National Championship.