Saturday's loss at Auburn wasn't exactly what Arkansas bargained for when it hired Bret Bielema. At Wisconsin, Bielema's teams didn't just hang tough for two quarters; they hung tough for two quarters, then won.
Regardless, even in a 45-21 defeat, Arkansas played the defending SEC champion and national runner-up to a draw after 30 minutes, and in the process it showed something it didn't in Bielema's first season with the team: a genuine pulse.
The Razorbacks did not crumble to the pavement after Auburn's first haymaker, a 49-yard touchdown strike from Jeremy Johnson to Melvin Ray. They didn't fold after falling back 21-7 early in the second quarter. They scrapped and they clawed and they fought back into the game, and even though it didn't hold, it spoke volumes.
The biggest reason for that improvement? It has to be the play of quarterback Brandon Allen. As a sophomore last season, Allen was up and down (but mostly down), in large part because of injuries. But he came back looking stronger and more confident than ever, finishing with 175 yards and two touchdowns on 31 passes.
He did throw a pick-six that essentially sealed the game in the fourth quarter, but before that, Allen was even better than his numbers. If not for an ugly drop by Keon Hatcher on a should-have-been-70-yard-touchdown in the first quarter, his final line would have read even finer (and the score might have been much different).
Greg McElroy of the SEC Network came away impressed with Allen's performance—regardless of the final outcome:
Brandon Allen is a different player this year. Regardless of outcome, you have to be optimistic about the QB situation in Fayetteville.— Greg McElroy (@GVMcElroy) August 30, 2014
Bielema never had (or needed) a dominant quarterback at Wisconsin. What he had (and needed) were efficient ones.
Russell Wilson broke the NCAA's single-season passing efficiency record (191.8) under Bielema in 2011, and he did it in a season where the Badgers rushed almost twice as many times as they passed. The ideal Bielema offense leans on running the ball, then running the ball, then running the ball—then making you pay for expecting the run.
That system broke down a little bit in the second half, and it's hard to tell exactly why. It might have been fatigue, and it might have been a schematic adjustment by Auburn. It might have been a little bit of both. The lightning delay in the fourth quarter definitely did not help (although the game had slipped away long before that).
Still, for at least 30 minutes, Arkansas did to the SEC Champion what Wisconsin did for so many years to teams in the Big Ten. The offensive line had its way with Auburn's front seven, and Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall ran with grit. When Auburn came up to cheat on the run, Allen hit it over the top.
The defensive line looked very good, also. Against what might be the best offensive line in college football, Arkansas held its own. The defense as a whole looked overmatched, but Auburn's offense will make a lot of defenses look that way this season. Whether it's Johnson or Nick Marshall at quarterback—it doesn't matter either way.
With such a difficult schedule this season, it is still unlikely that Arkansas makes a bowl game. But that's not how it should measure its success. Going 6-6 will be difficult, but finishing below .500 would not mean Bielema has made no progress.
This team is slowly starting to mold in his image, and the results down on the Plains—at least for 30 minutes—were assuring. This team can't beat any opponent in the country; but it can hang with them.
"We had two quarters we can live with and two quarters that we can't," said Bielema after the game, per Phil Buck of KTHV in Little Rock. And that seems like a pretty fair assessment.
But on the heels of a season where less than 50 percent of the quarters were good ones…well, two-out-of-four ain't so bad.