Hogs can, will play better

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

My most recent column in this space focused on a certain presidential candidate, and it drew a significant amount of criticism on social media.

That doesn't bother me one bit, but I thought this week it might be a good idea to get away from politics and focus on something really important.

Of course, I'm talking about football.

I could watch football 12 hours a day and be perfectly content. Whether it's high school, college or pro football, I love it all.

I didn't get to catch the Berryville Bobcats' season-opening victory over Decatur, but I will be at the Carroll County Super Bowl in a couple of weeks. Green Forest took its lumps in a season-opening loss at Huntsville, but I'm sure the Tigers will bounce back strong.

Today, though, I'd like to focus on the Arkansas Razorbacks and their season-opening victory against Louisiana Tech. The Razorbacks scored a fourth-down touchdown in the fourth quarter to escape with a 21-20 victory over the Bulldogs, and the immediate reaction from some Razorback fans was skepticism about the rest of the season.

Based on what I saw, though, this team can play better and I believe it will. Remember last season, when Arkansas lost its second game of the season to Toledo in Little Rock. That was the first of three consecutive losses for the 2015 Razorbacks, yet they rallied to win six of their final seven games and finish 8-5.

This year's Razorbacks weren't particularly sharp on Saturday, especially on the offensive line. And anyone who really knows football will tell you that, although the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers get all the glory, it's the big guys up front that make an offense go. Bret Bielema has made the offensive live a top priority at Arkansas, and that strategy has worked for the Razorbacks. On Saturday, though, the Arkansas offensive line had its share of struggles. Most of the problems came in pass protection, to the point that as the afternoon wore on, the Hogs often kept a running back in the backfield to help protect junior quarterback Austin Allen. There were some issues with run blocking as well, although they weren't as frequent.

Allen had some difficulties as well -- some of which resulted from the blocking issues and some of which did not. Allen was sacked four times and intercepted twice. At least one of the interceptions resulted from the first-time starter locking his eyes onto his intended receiver almost immediately after the snap. But Allen also completed 20 of 29 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns. His second TD throw, to senior tight end Jeremy Sprinkle (a proud graduate of my alma mater, White Hall High School) turned out to be the game winner.

Defensively, Arkansas returned nine starters from last season's team, and the Razorbacks defense did not play badly against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs started a redshirt freshman, J'Mar Smith, at quarterback after the presumed starter was arrested on DWI and speeding charges in the off-season. Smith had some success, passing for 212 yards and running for a touchdown before he was knocked out of the game with a possible concussion in the fourth quarter. But the Hogs defense forced Louisiana Tech into four field-goal attempts and the Bulldogs missed two of those. Had one of those kicks gone through the uprights, the final outcome likely would have been a Louisiana Tech victory.

Things won't get any easier for Arkansas this week as it travels to Fort Worth to face TCU. The Horned Frogs have become one of the nation's top programs over the past several years but struggled in their opener against South Dakota State. This could be a high-scoring game, and if Arkansas can do a better job of pass blocking, the Hogs have the talent to win.

My guess is that we will see an improvement in the offensive line, and that Allen will get better incrementally as the Hogs' starting quarterback. Arkansas' running game was solid but not spectacular against Louisiana Tech, but Rawleigh Williams and Devwah Whaley both have plenty of talent to make big plays. The Hogs have a deep receiving corps with Keon Hatcher, Drew Morgan, Jared Cornelius and Dominique Reed, and Sprinkle might be the best tight end in the country. The offense will be fine.

In recent years, the Arkansas defense has struggled to defend quick, athletic quarterbacks and that will continue to be an issue, but overall the Razorbacks' defense should be better than it was last year.

It's wise not to read too much into any team's first game. This Arkansas team is better than it showed against Louisiana Tech.

Now, please excuse me as I return to my recliner.

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com.