Well before defensive end Jordan Domineck, the former Razorback, helped snuff out any last remaining hope for a TCU win against Colorado by forcing Chandler Morris into a hurried pass, the parallels between Kendal Briles’ new gig and his old one at Arkansas were unmistakable.
They were especially clear on TCU football’s drive early in the third quarter, down 24-21 to Deion Sanders’ upstart Buffaloes. Briles, the Horned Frogs’ new offensive coordinator, called a series of runs that got TCU all the way to Colorado’s 13-yard line.
Then, the skies darkened. On first down, Morris attempted some sort of jump pass that ended as badly as it looked.
On second down, he completed a 9-yard pass to Jack Bech. Following that, on third down and one yard, Morris tried to throw a swing pass to Major Everhart but Colorado’s Travis Hunter sniffed it out and made a spectacular diving interception.
It was the second red zone interception that Morris, who finished with 279 yards, threw on the day.
Perplexing Calls for TCU Football
That Kendal Briles would call three straight passes after having so much success running the ball left fans and commentators like Locked on Horned Frogs’ Simon Simcox perplexed.
Referring to the swing pass, “I don’t know if this was an RPO, and Chandler made a bad read, or if this was just a straight pass, but either way, an infuriating play called by Kendal Briles,” Simcox said on his podcast.
“And one thing Garrett Riley got criticized for last year was being too cute in the red zone. Well, this was the exact definition of being too cute in the red zone.”
Arkansas football fans well know the feeling.
Especially during a close loss to Texas A&M last year after Arkansas got out to a 14-0 lead. Following a fourth straight three-and-out forced by their defense, the Razorbacks were — seemingly — on their way to delivering a knock-out blow.
In his first game of the season, Dominique Johnson had just ripped off carries of 12, 8 and 7 yards to get Arkansas into Texas A&M territory.
Rather than continuing to pound the ground game, Sam Pittman and Briles dialed up the Malik Hornsby package, as Best of Arkansas Sports’ Andrew Hutchinson wrote. Three plays later, Arkansas had to punt it away because a pass to Hornsby fell incomplete, another pass to Hornsby resulted in a loss of 1 yard and a fumble on a double reverse to Hornsby resulted in no gain.
Some TCU football fans, of course, already knew about Briles’ head-scratching decisions during his time from Arkansas and that likely fueled their immediate anger with the coordinator. Practically as the final whistle blew on a performance that saw TCU commit 10 penalties for 76 yards, with at least four false starts, one exasperated frog fanatic started a “Fire Kendal Briles” thread on the Killer Frogs message board.
“From the start I was willing to give him a chance but today [Briles’] performance was terrible and I’m not liking what I see from him as a play caller,” another fan wrote. “Bad decisions and situational ignorance on his part. I could elaborate more but most of you saw the same as I did. C. Morris better adjust and play better soon or it will be a long, long season.”
Arkansas Football Flashbacks
TCU’s in-game inconsistency featuring explosive plays mixed with “too cute” playcalling was a microcosm of the up-and-down nature of Arkansas’ offense over the last three seasons.
A couple of major issues flared here and there for Arkansas and cost TCU a win against Colorado.
First, subpar red zone offense: Arkansas finished the 2022 season 10th in the SEC when it came to red zone efficiency and eighth in red zone-touchdown-percentage (55th in the FBS).
So, it’s not like they were the worst in the land, as was the case with the pass defense, but man did some of those failures play a role in Arkansas football becoming college football’s King of Close Losses from 2020 through 2022.
In a 2-point loss to Liberty, KJ Jefferson was stopped just short of the goal line on a potential game-tying two-point conversion. Then, in a 3-point loss to LSU, the Razorbacks turned it over on downs at the 3-yard line instead of kicking a field goal.
Finally, in the fourth quarter of a 29-27 loss at Missouri, Arkansas again failed to punch it in from extremely close – this time from only 2 yards away.
Jefferson didn’t get anything on a keeper up the middle on first down and before setting up a Kendal Briles special on second down: Tight end Trey Knox motioned behind Ricky Stromberg, took a snap under center and was stopped for no gain on a keeper.
“That one there we should have went to something else,” Pittman said afterward. “It was a surprise thing we felt like we could sneak it in, but it just wasn’t there.”
On third down, Jefferson’s pass into the end zone fell incomplete. This time around, unlike against LSU, Arkansas took the field goal to pull within two points.
Taking the field goal proved to be the right decision because Arkansas got two more possessions with a chance to take the lead. Unfortunately, despite needing only a field goal to do so, the Razorbacks couldn’t get it done.
They gained only eight total yards and went three-and-out on both possessions.
Just as TCU fell behind early against Colorado, digging a hole early was a common theme for the Razorbacks in 2022.
Arkansas finished that regular season with only one opening drive resulting in points. That was a significant step back from the 2021 season, when it had seven scoring drives to open a game (three touchdowns and four field goals) to enter the 2022 season as a darkhorse favorite with many of the best online high roller casinos.
Making that stat even worse is that half of the Razorbacks’ 12 regular season games in 2022 started with a three-and-out, including the last five such games.
When asked about why his offense struggled with opening drives after the late November loss to Missouri, Sam Pittman simply said: “I don’t know. I wish I did now.”
Echoes of such exasperation from the head coach were heard at halftime of Colorado-TCU. According to Fox sideline reporter Jenny Taft, Sonny Dykes said “I just don’t know what we were doing in the first half because that was not TCU football. We didn’t execute. We had seven penalties, a missed field goal. We kind of shot ourselves in the foot.”
In Kendal Briles’ Defense
What makes Briles such a lightning rod for controversy, beyond his Baylor ties, is that for every criticism you can fire his way, there’s an equally strong counterpoint.
Working with only three returning starters on offense, his Horned Frogs did put up 42 points and 541 yards in the season opener. Is it fair to pin the lion’s share of blame on him? Surely, in this case, TCU’s bend-but-don’t-break defense (Barry Odom flashback alert) played a big role in the loss.
That’s certainly what one of the more pro-Briles commentators on the aforementioned Killer Frogs message board thought: “This isn’t on Briles at all and those saying otherwise are just looking for a reason to be dismissive because they hate him and it’s a convenient excuse,” TCU football fan PurpleSouthPaw wrote. “It’s disingenuous, over-reactionary, and just plain dumb. For a first game with a brand new offense, they did better than last’s years game in Colorado.”
“The defense is a whole different story and more concerning considering the returning talent we have and no signs of improvement from last year.”
At Arkansas, Kendal Briles orchestrated offenses that made the Razorbacks bowl-eligible for three straight seasons with some of the most prolific and efficient offenses in school history, while helping develop KJ Jefferson into arguably the SEC”s best quarterback. If in 2022 Arkansas wins just two of those four close ones vs Texas A&M, Liberty, LSU and Missouri, then Briles’ legacy with the Hogs would feel very different right now.
How much should Kendal Briles be blamed for an offensive line that failed to play with enough physicality down the line while his star quarterback was often hurt?
It’s not an easy question to answer.
Fortunately, it’s not one that Arkansas fans need to deal with any longer. After a 56-point season opening rout, Arkansas’ offense looks like it’s in very good shape under new offensive coordinator Dan Enos, the one-time head coach for Central Michigan.
How soon Kendal Briles gets his own shot at a head coaching gig (especially at Power 5 school) will boil down to how well he can resolve some of the 2022 season issues that are flaring up once again at his new school.
Kendal Briles and Deion Sanders
As if the above controversy wasn’t enough, an entire Heinz Hot 57 bottle of spiciness was opened and slathered all over the situation when it recently came out that Deion Sanders has a beef with Kendal Briles because of an incident stemming back to the recruitment of his son, Shedeur Sanders.
It happened when Briles was coaching at Florida State, Deion Sander’s alma mater, in the season before he came to Arkansas.
“We went to the camp of a certain school, and a certain coordinator we just played against, offensive coordinator, he was at that school, and we went to this school, a camp, and he didn’t pay him no attention,” Deion Sanders recalled on The Pat McAfee Show. “I don’t think he even spoke to him. He just pushed him off to the side.”
That perceived slight motivated Shedeur to barbecue Briles’ new team, his father added: “He wanted to beat that guy so bad that he just went to work.”
Given this info, it was a good thing for Razorback fans that Arkansas didn’t have Jackson State on the schedule the last couple of years.
More on Kendal Briles from BoAS here: