AMPed Up

Can Bret Bielema rebound from the massacre on the Plains?

Bret Bielema
Bret Bielema talks with an official during the second half on Saturday as the game was sliding from bad to worse at Auburn. (AP photo by Butch Dill)

56-3 loss to Auburn raises doubts about Hog coach’s core tenents

 

Big mouth. Big body. Big-time rebounding ability.

We’re not talking about Bret Bielema here.

On Saturday night in Auburn, before Coach Bielema had an inkling of the beating that was to come, an Auburn great who has also exhibited those qualities took the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Charles Barkley, the Naismith Hall of Famer known in his college days as the “Round Mound of Rebound,” joined fellow Auburn alum Bo Jackson on the field. Barkley is No. 1 in the hearts of all Tiger fans, Mr. Jackson said, and then he announced that Auburn will erect a statue of Mr. Barkley on campus. He will be the school’s first non-football athlete to get one.

No one is talking about building a Bielema statute at the University of Arkansas. Coach Bielema has developed a Barkley-like reputation for outspoken and controversial stances through most of his four years as Arkansas’ head coach. He has not hesitated to mix it up with fellow coaches or to chime in on various controversial topics in football circles. He gets as good as he gives. Like Mr. Barkley, Mr. Bielema has been on the receiving end of plenty of jokes about his rather rotund body.

Expect the heat on Bielema and his staff to reach all-time highs this week.

On Saturday night, two former Arkansas coaches and their Auburn Tigers shredded two tenents on which Mr. Bielema had based his program. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn led Auburn to a 56-3 win, Arkansas’ worst loss since 2005, a year before Malzahn became the Hogs’ offensive coordinator.

Since taking the helm at the UA in December 2012, Coach Bielema has publicly stated multiple times that two main keys will undergird his success:

  1. With strong coaching and recruiting, the offensive and defensive lines will be the core and identity of the program.
  2. The Hogs will finish games strong. The team will take pride in its fourth-quarter performance.

Mr. Bielema has built much of his reputation as a head coach on his ability to churn out top-notch offensive linemen and running backs. The loss at Auburn puts a large dent in that reputation. The Auburn Tigers held the Hogs to a total of 25 yards on 31 rushing attempts. In the fourth quarter, the Hogs produced a grand total of zero yards.

The defense fared no better. Auburn’s running backs, coached by Arkansan Tim Horton, racked up 543 yards on the ground— the most an Arkansas team has ever surrendered. Despite the performance, Arkansas nose guard Taiwan Johnson said in the press conference afterward: “I think we were prepared. We just came out and laid an egg. There’s no other way to put it. There’s no one to blame but ourselves.”

Really, Taiwan?

Kudos to you for trying to take the heat, but I think the coaches also deserve some hard questions here.

Why are Hog defenders repeatedly failing to close the edge against these top-tier SEC teams, whose running backs keep rushing around the end? “When we don’t have an edge, we don’t have a defense,” Mr. Bielema said.

To which Mr. Johnson added: “It’s very frustrating. It’s something we’ve got to get fixed.”

Halfway through the season, why hasn’t this already been fixed — or at least better addressed?

I’m ready to hear from defensive line coach Rory Segrest and defensive coordinator Robb Smith on this. On paper, they shouldn’t have too many excuses outside the fact that starting linebacker Dre Greenlaw was lost for much of the season to injury. Injury has also knocked out defensive back Kevin Richardson.

Both assistant coaches have been with the program at least two and a half years. Both have their recruits in place. Indeed, this year’s defensive line was supposed to be the program’s most talented and deepest in years.

It’s not. Nowhere close.

Indeed, as Matt Jones of Wholehogsports.com points out, it’s now “almost a given the Razorbacks will give up 40 points, 500 yards and a handful of backbreaking plays in every SEC game.”

Robb Smith “is due a $50,000 pay raise next season, just like he was given this year after a poor defensive showing in 2015,” Mr. Jones adds. “At $800,000 per year, he is Arkansas’ highest-paid assistant coach. It would not surprise to see Arkansas invest that in someone new next year.”

The situation looks dire. The Razorbacks disappeared from the Top 25 list this week, falling from No. 17. Edward Aschoff, who covers the SEC for ESPN, sees Arkansas returning to the Liberty Bowl for a consecutive appearance. This would mean the program’s supposedly upward momentum has stagnated, at best. All the same, I’m not willing to write these Hogs off.

In the Bielema Era, after all, the program has proven prone to laying eggs in the early and mid parts of season. In the last of couple seasons, though, Mr. Bielema has also shown that he can help it rebound with the best of them to finish strong.

We’ll see whether the Hogs can do it again after a bye week when they play at home against No. 14 Florida.

If so, it will be a feat even Auburn’s “Round Mound of Rebound” would envy.

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For more exclusive Razorbacks coverage, check out Evin Demirel’s interview with a UA trustee who voted “no” for the largest stadium construction project in state history.

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