Bret Bielema has said time and again he would do everything possible in his first year at Arkansas to win for the veteran players.
That approach might be nearing an end.
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After opening with eight straight games, Arkansas (3-5, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) enters its first bye this weekend mired in a five-game losing streak – the longest of Bielema’s career as a head coach.
The skid began with a nonconference defeat at Rutgers, and it was punctuated with last week’s 52-0 drubbing at No. 1 Alabama. It was the second straight week the Razorbacks had given up more than 50 points – following a 52-7 defeat to South Carolina – and led Bielema to say afterward that ”this is getting a little old.”
With four games remaining, the former Wisconsin coach said he’s not prepared to take on a ”full-scale youth movement” quite yet. That said, Bielema knows something has to change over the final month of the season – beginning next week when Arkansas hosts Auburn and coach Gus Malzahn in his return to his native state.
”There comes a day when Groundhog Day isn’t entertaining,” Bielema said. ”You have to begin to move forward. You have to make decisions as coaches that you know are going to be in position to get yourself better.”
Following Auburn, Arkansas closes out its season with games against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU.
The Razorbacks still have a chance to earn bowl eligibility – something Bielema did in each of his previous seven seasons with the Badgers – but they would have to win three of their final four games to do so.
It’s an unlikely scenario for a team that was picked to finish last in the SEC West before the season, one that is now 7-13 over the last two seasons following the firing of coach Bobby Petrino.
As good as the Razorbacks were during Petrino’s final two seasons, finishing a combined 21-5 in 2010-11, the fallout from his scandalous exit – and last year’s disaster with interim coach John L. Smith – is still hanging over the program.
”You’ve got a fog around Arkansas that has been around us for a little bit of time that I’m trying to fight off,” Bielema said.
Bielema said before the season that he owed it to the Razorbacks’ 17 seniors to try and win in his first year with the school. He met with that group earlier this week, telling them that if they were a player who hasn’t ”progressed the way that we would like,” they could expect a younger player to get an opportunity over the final four games.
Very little has gone as Bielema had hoped in his first season. Arkansas is 13th in the SEC in scoring (20.4 points per game) and 12th in points allowed (30.6).
The offensive concerns have been especially pronounced in the passing game, where the Razorbacks are last in the conference in yards per game (146.6) and leading receiver Javontee Herndon has just 20 catches for 330 yards. Sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen has struggled mightily in his first season as the starter, completing 71 of 158 passes (45 percent) for eight touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Whether the cause is a lack of talent or a hangover from last season’s 4-8 record, Bielema appears ready to turn the corner and embrace the future.
It’s a future he hopes includes the school’s first SEC championship.
”That has been my driving force from Day 1, and that hasn’t changed,” Bielema said. ”It may be silly to talk about when you’re an 0-4 SEC team and a 3-5 football team overall. … I know where we’re going to be. I know what’s going to happen.”