FAYETTEVILLE — Old-fashioned about gambling on fourth down, second-guessing is permissible if announced prior to the ball being snapped.
Equally distributed between South Carolina and Arkansas, the whispered “punt it” call fell on deaf ears Saturday and the Gamecocks won both ways. South Carolina’s success on fourth-and-1 — Mike Davis made 7 yards, 6 after contact — and Arkansas’ failed fake punt were an integral part of the thread that did in the Razorbacks.
Both decisions could be defended — Steve Spurrier’s because the 5-foot-9, 215-pound Davis is a load; Bret Bielema’s because his team needed a lift.
Once again, Arkansas was outmanned. In the first half, South Carolina led 16-4 in first downs, 254-95 on offense, and 24-7 on the scoreboard. The final was 52-7, Arkansas’ fourth straight loss with No. 1 Alabama dead ahead.
Added together, those factors will make it difficult for Bielema and his players to avoid the “Negative Nellie” attitude that he mentioned last week when his theme was about staying positive and making progress.
Risking redundancy, the arduous task is to maintain solidarity with an eye on November when the opponents are less talented than Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama. A press box seatmate cited Keon Hatcher’s fumble at the end of a 50-yard run early in the third quarter as being symbolic of Arkansas’ woes during those four games.
He departed for the dressing room before running back Alex Collins fumbled into the end zone in the fourth quarter.
Three times in the second quarter, when the deficit was only 10, the Razorbacks had possessions without production — PWP for short:
• From the Arkansas 35, a reverse ended with Jadeveon Clowney congratulating the other defensive end for tackling Nate Holmes for a 5-yard loss. It was one of the few times that Clowney did anything noticeable, although he did get some pre-game headlines when ESPN tried to make a funny about Clowney not being on the bus because Spurrier had thrown him underneath.
Back to the action, a good throw by Brandon Allen went for naught when Brison Williams swiped at the ball as he passed by Hatcher. Lining up with four wide receivers did not convince South Carolina to ignore Collins on a third-down screen.
• A 53-yard completion behind Rohan Gaines and Connor Shaw’s 18-yard scramble flipped the field, but Arkansas escaped when Shaw and Davis got in a hurry and fumbled. On third-and-1, Allen stumbled and Kiero Small made nothing.
• From the Arkansas 43, three plays netted 6 yards and Sam Irwin-Hill’s pass that worked well against Rutgers didn’t come close.
Presented an opportunity to put Arkansas away, the Gamecocks pounced or whatever Gamecocks do when on the attack. Shaw completed four passes for 34 yards before the Gamecocks faced fourth-and-2 at the Arkansas 7. South Carolina used its last timeout before sending the offense back on the field.
Bielema saw South Carolina’s personnel and rushed onto the field to call time. A nice fake to Davis — Arkansas is not the only team in the Southeastern Conference with good running backs — suckered most of the defense and Shaw kept for three yards. The TD pass was too easy with 13 seconds left in the half.
For perspective on Arkansas’ 248 yards total offense, remember that 74 came on two plays in the fourth quarter. Combine an inept offense with a defense that could not deal with the blend of Shaw and Davis and a rout is inevitable. Watching Shaw — his correct read and keep for 14 was instrumental in the second touchdown — reminded me of Florida coach Will Muschamp saying last week that game manager is the greatest compliment you can give a quarterback.
For emphasis, he added, “Tom Brady is a great game manager.”
In barely three quarters, Shaw, a senior, was 19-of-28 for 219 yards and three touchdowns and gained 56 rushing before his three sacks.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.