FAYETTEVILLE – It didn’t take long for Arkansas’ 2017 football season to reach a crossroads. Almost two weeks after suffering an embarrassing 28-7 home loss to TCU, the Hogs are fresh off a bye week and preparing for a crucial SEC showdown with Texas A&M this Saturday at 11 a.m. at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. The game will be televised by ESPN.
It’s a must-win for the Razorbacks (1-1), who haven’t beaten the Aggies (2-1) since 2011 when Bobby Petrino was still in charge.
It’s also a must-win for current head coach Bret Bielema, whose seat got even hotter following a lackluster performance against TCU. The fifth-year head coach has dropped three straight to Power-5 opponents while being outscored 70-0 in the second half of those games.
But how do the Razorbacks go about ending a five-year losing streak to the Aggies and getting their current season back on the right track?
Giving their best players a chance to play would be a nice place to start. That may sound simple, but for some reason the Hogs haven’t been doing it. Not enough, anyway.
Tailback Chase Hayden was named SEC Freshman of the Week after rushing for 120 yards and a touchdown in the Hogs’ 49-7 season-opening win over Florida A&M. The staff praised his performance and told reporters that Hayden was just scratching the surface of what he’s capable of.
He then received two carries against TCU.
Fellow running back/wide receiver T.J. Hammonds, who has averaged 6.9 yards-per-touch in his young career, never touched the ball against the Frogs. Tight ends Cheyenne O’Grady and Jeremy Patton were underutilized, too.
O’Grady caught a 19-yard pass and Patton had a 32-yard reception on the same drive in the first quarter, but the two were never targeted again throughout the remainder of the game.
On the offensive line, the Razorbacks continue to struggle in short-yardage running situations after finishing 114th and 128th in the nation in that department over the last two seasons, respectively.
Most can’t get over Arkansas’ two missed field goal attempts of 20 and 23 yards, but the offense stalling twice inside the TCU 5-yard line is the bigger issue.
That’s why it’s hard to understand why fourth-year junior Brian Wallace – arguably the team’s second-most physically gifted offensive lineman behind All-American Frank Ragnow – continues to stay on the bench as a backup.
Standing beside Wallace on the sideline is redshirt-sophomore Jalen Merrick, who could have attended any program in the nation out of high school but still hasn’t been given a meaningful in-game opportunity to play at Arkansas.
True freshman walk-on Ty Clary continues to start at right guard while former walk-on Johnny Gibson starts at right tackle. Both are considered serviceable players, and, who knows, maybe Arkansas is better off with them starting over guys like Wallace and Merrick, but that certainly hasn’t been proven in the first two games this season.
Defensively, Briston Guidry has shown enough in the first two contests to warrant more playing time. The redshirt-freshman recovered a fumble against TCU but Arkansas’ offense couldn’t capitalize on the potential game-changing play.
What’s the common denominator between Hayden, Hammonds, O’Grady, Patton, Wallace, Merrick and Guidry? They’re all former four-star recruits according to Rivals.com. Granted, the recruiting services aren’t perfect in their evaluations, but they’re right more than they’re wrong.
Bielema said last Wedneday that his staff would use the week off to take a “long, hard look” at the personnel within each position group.
For the sake of the team’s season, the result of those long, hard looks needs to be Arkansas giving its best players a chance to help against Texas A&M.