View From the Other Side(line): Q&A with Arkansas beat writer Robbie Neiswanger

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 31, 2013 

AUBURN, Ala. — As we do every Thursday evening, the War Eagle Extra blog was able to track down a beat writer for Auburn's opponent this weekend. Robbie Neiswanger (@NWARobbie), who covers Arkansas for the Arkansas News Bureau, took time to answer five questions about the Razorbacks before they host the Tigers on Saturday evening in Fayetteville, Ark.

Ryan Black: I suppose since it's the hot topic of the week, I'll lead with it: Do you believe the film exchange kerfuffle is an actual issue, or just another bit of gamesmanship by Bret Bielema? Or perhaps both?

Robbie Neiswanger: My guess? Pure gamesmanship. It just felt that way with how it came to light during Monday’s press conference. Bielema was asked a question about his rivalry with Malzahn and just dropped it in the middle of his response.

Oh by the way …

There’s no doubt the situation could’ve been handled much more quietly behind closed doors and it wouldn’t have created any headlines this week. Bielema clearly wanted those headlines. Maybe it was simply a head coach finding a way to divert some attention from Arkansas’ ugly losing streak.

Black: Another popular storyline is that of Gus Malzahn returning to face Arkansas for the first time as a head coach. Any idea how he'll be received by the Fayetteville faithful? Overwhelming negativity? A mixed reaction? Muted indifference, perhaps?

Neiswanger: I think you’ll see a mixed reaction from the crowd because Gus has plenty of support still in this state. He’ll hear some cheers Saturday. He’ll probably hear some boos as well. But as we all know, Gus won’t pay attention to any of it.

Black: Quarterback Brandon Allen started out the season well, completing 62 percent (24 of 39) of his attempts for 355 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over Louisiana-Lafayette and Samford. Since then, it's been a struggle, as he's thrown only three touchdowns against seven interceptions. I know Bielema has said Allen "gives us the best option" moving forward, but do you agree with that take? Or is there another signal-caller you believe is better-suited to lead this team?

Neiswanger: I definitely agree. There’s no one more popular on struggling football teams than backup quarterbacks, but Allen is Arkansas’ guy. Backup AJ Derby played when Allen was injured and the Razorbacks didn’t have much success throwing the ball. The other two quarterbacks are true freshmen and the Arkansas staff — to this point — has said they’re not ready. The Razorbacks are hoping the extra practice time and Allen’s return to full strength from a shoulder injury will help resolve the issues for the passing offense. It has been an awful stretch for Allen, for sure, but he’s not alone. There have been issues everywhere. Protection was shoddy at Florida. Receivers have dropped throughout the past three games. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney even pointed to his own play-calling. So the misery has been a group effort.

Black: Arkansas is no stranger to talented running backs. Alex Collins seems well on his way to being the next-in-line in that regard. What makes him so good? And what do you think his ceiling is?

Neiswanger: Collins has definitely lived up to the billing this season and should be one of the SEC’s best throughout his career. Collins doesn’t have the breakaway speed of a guy like Darren McFadden, but he is a really fluid runner with great vision and an impressive knack for making the quick cut to get out in space. He’s had a much harder time finding running room in SEC play, obviously, but much of that has to do with Arkansas’ overall struggles. If Arkansas is going to win games down the stretch, Collins and sophomore Jonathan Williams will have to find running room.

Black: How do you assess the Bielema era thus far? Is 3-5 about what you expected at this point? Have you seen the team make strides in the proper areas to get this turned around in the next year or so? Finally, how do you see the final four games of the Razorbacks' season playing out? Think they can pull an upset or two?

Neiswanger: I’m not surprised by 3-5. I’m very surprised Arkansas has been outscored 104-7 in the past two games, which is the worst back-to-back losses in school history. That has put plenty of fans in a sour mood over here. But no matter what Bielema said before the season (Arkansas wasn’t in rebuilding mode, he planned to win now, etc.) his team’s deficiencies were pretty clear and have been magnified. I don’t see a quick fix for the program as it transitions to this style of play, either. This process is going to take a little time. But Arkansas needs to put a better product on the field as it moves through the final four games. It happened in 2008, when the Razorbacks went through some similar struggles in Bobby Petrino’s first season. That team finished 5-7, but seemed to launch itself into year two by upsetting LSU at the end of the season. Those opportunities are still out there for this group beginning with Auburn. Will they take advantage of it? We’ll find out.

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