Bielema Backs Starting QB Allen Despite Struggles
Bret Bielema has never failed to reach a bowl game in seven seasons as a head coach, a streak that's likely to end in his first year at Arkansas.
It's a streak the former Wisconsin coach has avoided talking about with the Razorbacks (3-6, 0-5 Southeastern Conference), losers of six straight following last week's 35-17 loss to No. 7 Auburn.
Bielema is just focused at this point on finding as much positive as possible as Arkansas winds down what will likely be its second straight losing season, and he's hopeful it can delay its bowl-less certainty for at least a week when it visits Mississippi (5-3, 2-3) on Saturday.
"I haven't talked about bowls or anything like that," Bielema said. "The mission is just to try to improve. For us right now as a program we are trying to get better every week, trying to get younger players to be better, trying to get our better players to play their best ball, trying to correct Saturday's mistakes and move forward."
Arkansas has had plenty of mistakes to go around in Bielema's first season, particularly in a passing game that's last in the SEC with only 144.1 yards per game through the air.
Just don't expect Bielema to put the lion's share of the blame for the passing-game ineptitude on sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen.
The first-year starter has come under heavy criticism on talk radio and Internet message boards in his home state this season, a year in which his passing efficiency rating (103.5) isn't high enough to rank in the top 15 of quarterbacks in the conference.
Allen's struggles continued in last week's loss to the Tigers, with the sophomore finishing 10 of 22 passing for 112 yards.
He's now completed 81 of 180 passes (45 percent) this season and thrown nine touchdowns and seven interceptions -- while often scrambling under pressure behind an inexperienced offensive line and working with a receiving corps that's struggled with dropped passes.
"We see what he goes through," Bielema said. "We know what he's dealing with. In my opinion, he has probably shown me as much to assure me that he is for sure the best player for the job right now. Any criticism he gets is just people that don't have knowledge."
Bielema's "right now" comment was an indication that Allen will face competition for the starting spot following the season, likely from younger brother Austin Allen -- a freshman who has yet to play this season for the Razorbacks.
It was also another indicator of just how much of a gap in talent there is right now for Arkansas between Brandon Allen and backup quarterback AJ Derby, who threw an interception and fumbled to end his brief appearance against Auburn.
Derby's brief action came as a result of a cut Allen suffered to his right leg after an Auburn player stepped on him during the end of a running play.
Allen returned after having the gash stapled shut, but the injury was yet another reminder of how much trouble the quarterback has had staying healthy this season.
His first misfortune came in the third game of the season when he injured his throwing shoulder while diving for a touchdown against Southern Mississippi. Allen missed the remainder of that game as well as the next week against Rutgers, and though he returned the following week against Florida, he's only recently started to feel completely recovered.
Prior to the shoulder injury, Allen completed 26 of 44 passes (59.1 percent) for 388 yards against nonconference competition. Since then -- all against SEC teams -- he's 55 of 136 (40.4 percent) for 679 yards.
Despite the struggles, Bielema believes Allen -- the son of former Arkansas assistant and current staff member Bobby Allen -- won't suffer any long-term setbacks in confidence because of this season.
"I think Brandon is a very tough kid," Bielema said. "He's a coach's son, so he has had to deal with it. To be able to have that background, his dad has been in this business and understands the highs and lows, and he saw it as a young man growing up. So I think that helps him a great deal."