Knowing the switch to a three-man front was not an immediate cure-all for Arkansas’ defense, losses to former Southwest Conference opponents were not a shock, but it is unsettling that the repackaging has had little effect on critical numbers produced by opponents.
At the end of 2016, Arkansas was No. 93 in rushing defense, giving up more than 209 yards per game and a national high of 6.2 yards per attempt.
Three games deep in the season, the Razorbacks are No. 75, allowing almost 187 yards per game and 4.9 yards per attempt — a decent improvement on the surface.
In the losses to TCU and Texas A&M, Arkansas allowed a total of 480 rushing yards and an average of more than 5.7 yards per attempt — numbers that doom most teams.
The absence of defensive personnel on a couple of A&M’s touchdowns was stunning. For instance, nobody touched Keith Ford on a 44-yard run for 33-28. Earlier, McTelvin Agim and Bijhon Jackson slanted away from the action and redshirt freshman Jonathan Marshall looping behind them had no chance to make the tackle. Nary a linebacker threatened either ball carrier. The same goes for Kellen Mond’s 79-yard run that would have been 10 yards longer and a touchdown if not for an official’s whistle.
Arkansas’ personnel is better suited to the 3-4 than the 4-3, head coach Bret Bielema said last year when he announced the move and put Paul Rhoads in charge of the makeover. Bielema knows his players better than the media, but the alignment is immaterial if defenders can’t run and tackle.
Interestingly, no UA defensive players were available to the media for post-game interviews in Arlington.
All that said, there is plenty of blame to go around for the 50-43 loss.
To many, the outcome comes down to Mond making a perfect pass into the end zone in OT and Austin Allen throwing an interception. Personally, that assessment is insufficient.
Defensive shortcomings have been cited.
Plus, in Allen’s defense, experienced wide receiver Jared Cornelius played only one quarter and the quarterback was sacked six times as the Razorbacks continued to experiment with the offensive line, including extensive playing time for junior college transfer Paul Ramirez.
For someone emotionally detached, it seems Arkansas fans should be encouraged by touchdowns to take leads of 28-24, 36-33, and 43-40 after recent second-half failures. More creativity on offense and the emergence of receiver Jonathan Nance are other pluses with carryover.
Understandably, those points are of no consolation to those obsessed with the bottom line.
To some, the easy fix is to bench Allen and/or fire some or all of the group that includes athletics director Jeff Long, Bielema, Rhoads, and offensive line coach Kurt Anderson.
Cooler heads will prevail and those in charge will go about convincing players that all is not lost.
What Arkansas did lose Saturday was the opportunity to join speculation concerning contenders in the SEC West.
The division landscape changed Sept. 16 when Mississippi State crushed LSU 37-7. Until then, LSU and Auburn were identified as those with the best chance to challenge Alabama while Arkansas and the others were supposed to compete for fourth. Those of us who have been around for a while should have known the preseason perception was too tidy to be accurate.
Anyway, Auburn’s loss to Clemson, its struggles with Mercer, and the revelation that transfer Jarrett Stidhm is not the option threat necessary for Gus Malzahn’s offense to operate at maximum efficiency increased speculation about the division race.
At 1-0 in the SEC, Arkansas would get much love in light of Mississippi State’s 28-point loss to Georgia Saturday night and TCU’s 13-point victory over then-No. 6 Oklahoma State. A&M in the role of contender is a tough sell considering the loss to UCLA and the Bruins’ subsequent losses to Memphis and Stanford.
For Arkansas, the immediate goal is to take care of business Saturday and work to achieve a 2-2 record in October.
Sports Columnist Harry King can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org