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The Underdog Masterpiece: What's Next For Arkansas And UL Monroe?

In the face of a monstrous upset bid, UL Monroe head coach Todd Berry smiled, and Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino raged. Guess who won.

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On fourth-and-11 from the Arkansas 40, with time winding down in the third quarter, UL Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning twirled out of the pocket, somehow escaped a couple of closing Arkansas pass rushers, and found Tavarese Maye near the sideline. Maye caught Browning's pass and plunged ahead for the first down near the sideline, and Todd Berry's Warhawks lived to see another down. Seven plays later, on fourth down again, Browning found Kevin Steed for a one-yard touchdown to bring ULM to within 28-21 with 14:08 remaining.

Bomani Jones on Arkansas and John L. Smith.

Browning's escape act was one of many on the night, but it perfectly encapsulated Arkansas' miserable evening in Little Rock, which eventually ended in a devastating 34-31 overtime loss.

1. Todd Berry called the perfect underdog game. I have made it known for a while that I am an enormous fan of ULM head coach Todd Berry. So many times, a coach at a small, disadvantaged school fails to fully acknowledge the hand his program has been dealt. But since he took over in Monroe in 2010, Berry has done everything he can to approach the game in a different way. From my 2011 preview of the Warhawks:

ULM is one of the biggest 'Davids' in college football. The resources at the two Directional Louisiana State schools (UL-Monroe, UL-Lafayette) are, like the money, minimal, and to win at a program like ULM means taking anything but a direct approach. Former coach Charlie Weatherbie tried his best, run-run-running his way to reasonable success -- the Warhawks won between four and six games in each of his last six seasons -- but could never quite break into the contending class in the Sun Belt (the nation's most David-like conference). He gave way to Todd Berry in 2010; Berry's last head coaching stint: a failed four years at fellow underdog Army.

In 2010, Berry did his best to do things a bit off-kilter -- running when opponents expected the pass, passing when opponents expected the run, keeping things fast-paced (possibly not the best idea for an underdog), employing the underdog-friendly 3-3-5 defense, etc. -- and the results were decent; despite low overall quality, ULM won five games, three by a touchdown or less, and came within a one-point loss to UL-Lafayette of finishing bowl-eligible.

And from this year's preview:

Berry enters year three professing that he has the program right where he wants it. His defenses have been salty, and his offenses creative, but in an improving Sun Belt, however, the bar is a little higher than it used to be.

I am rooting for Berry to succeed for one simple reason: I want creativity and aggression to be rewarded. Nothing is more depressing to watch than a David trying to win games like Goliath would. Taking risks occasionally leads to calamity, but if they pay off enough, it might encourage other coaches to take similar risks.

Coaches outside of the SEC, anyway.

On Saturday night, Berry painted his masterpiece. ULM went for it on fourth down an incredible seven times and converted an even more incredible six of them. In the second half, the Warhawks converted on fourth-and-10 (19-yard run by Browning), fourth-and-11 (the aforementioned pass to Maye), fourth-and-goal (1-yard touchdown pass), fourth-and-10 (23-yard touchdown pass to Brent Leonard with 47 seconds remaining) and fourth-and-1 (game-winning 16-yard touchdown run by Browning). That's not supposed to happen. If the teams lined up and played again this coming Saturday, it almost certainly wouldn't happen again. But Berry knew it was the only way ULM was going to win this game, and unlike so many college coaches, he said "Screw it," and rolled the dice.

Related: The Key Drive: UL Monroe 34, Arkansas 31.

Within reason, ULM's game plan was beautifully aggressive. Attack Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson (and when Wilson gets hurt, attack his backup, too) as much as possible, even if it means you risk some long gains. Sticking to your strengths ("We can't run the ball? Fine. We'll have our quarterback throw it 67 times, then rip off some perfect scrambles when the defensive line over-pursues."), we'll be preternaturally aggressive in our play-calling, pursuing fourth-down conversions every time we think we have a chance to score. Arkansas will either stiffen or blink.

2. Arkansas blinked. In the fourth quarter, during one of the many times the camera caught Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino yelling at his offensive line, his quarterback, and anybody near him, all I could think of was the Miracle On Ice. The USSR coach, flipping out because his dominant team was trailing, subbed out his all-world goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, after a goal that wasn't entirely Tretiak's fault. In the face of a determined underdog, he briefly lost his mind, and it hurt his team significantly.

Why this analogy? Because when ULM scored to cut the lead to 28-14, Petrino completely lost the plot.

On Arkansas' first series with Allen behind center, Arkansas ran the ball on three of four first downs; Allen completed some big-time passes on second-and-14 and first-and-15, and the Hogs scored to go up, 28-7. That was enough for Petrino to attempt to turn Allen loose despite the circumstances. Arkansas passed on seven of its last nine first downs; those seven passes netted this passing line: 2-for-7 for 17 yards and an interception. Arkansas' last seven possessions ended in five punts, a pick, and an overtime field goal. The line was by no means blocking particularly well for running back Knile Davis and company, but instead of milking a lead, Petrino called plays like his team was trailing. Petrino clammed up, interim head coach John L. Smith looked sad and worried, the defense just barely missed on quite a few stops, and Arkansas first lost confidence, then lost control of the game. Among other things, the incompletions Allen threw kept extra seconds on the clock, and when ULM got the ball at their 10 near the end of regulation, they had enough time to drive 90 yards for the tying score.

During a timeout before what ended up being the game's final play, a 16-yard, fourth-down touchdown run by Browning, Todd Berry said some quick words to his team, and as the players began firing each other up, Berry simply grinned. This was a masterpiece almost three years in the making. UL-Monroe, a program that has never finished with a winning record or attended a bowl game since joining FBS, was about to knock off a Top 10 team. His team was about to dogpile in the end zone. His fans were about to start weeping in the Little Rock stands. And the look on his face suggested Berry knew it. It was a wonderful moment before an even more wonderful moment.

So what's next? For ULM, the underdog quest continues. The Warhawks visit Auburn this coming Saturday, then host Baylor the following Friday night before conference play begins. With both Arkansas State and Florida International looking iffy, it does look like a run at a Sun Belt title could be in the cards if Berry can manifest this moment into three months of solid play. But there is still not much margin for error.

As for Arkansas, in my 2012 preview of the Hogs, I couldn't hide my creeping skepticism.

There will be drama, but will there be another 11 (or more) wins? I'm not sure I see it. The Nitro button is notoriously fickle, and if the Hogs toe the line again this year, they will slip up -- the road slate is just too difficult. And even if they beat either Alabama or LSU, I can't see them beating both. The Hogs will field another strong, entertaining, occasionally devastating team this fall, and they will be bigger and stronger than they were a year ago, but I'm struggling with the hype a bit here.

The defense still seemed shaky to me heading into 2012, and a late surge couldn't mask the fact that Arkansas was only average to above average for most of the 2011 season's first two months. I didn't expect the Hogs to live up to Top 10 hype … but I also didn't see them losing to UL-Monroe.

The narrative has shifted, to say the least. Heading into Saturday afternoon, the Hogs simply needed to take out a big underdog, then prepare for an enormous battle with No. 1 Alabama. They were going to be lavished with a week's worth of ultra-friendly media coverage, and some experts were inevitably going to tell you why they were perfectly built to beat the Tide.

Instead, their quarterback got hurt (he is day-to-day), they lost a game they had no business losing, and the reality show that is the John L. Smith Experiment is threatening to run off the rails in mid-September. Perhaps Arkansas rallies; perhaps the Hogs throw a serious scare (or more) into Alabama and redeem their season. Perhaps a visit from Nick Saban and company is the best way to snap out of a Fayetteville funk. Or perhaps the coming weeks will feature a story line so much more negative than anybody expected to encounter in 2012.

For more on Hogs football, visit Arkansas blog Arkansas Expats, plus SEC blog Team Speed Kills.

While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel:

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