FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Brandon Allen avoided most of the criticism over the last two seasons, whether it was on talk radio, in print or on online message boards.
The Arkansas quarterback, however, did make time for one conduit to the outside world — the notifications on his Twitter feed.
Allen says he sought out the opinions of his critics largely for their humor value, even if the scathing messages weren’t intended for laughs, and his smiles were a brief escape from the internalized frustration that had led to a dotting of gray hairs for the 23-year-old.
That smile is back for real for Allen, who was carried off the field by his teammates last week after the Razorbacks beat Ole Miss in overtime.
The moment was the culmination of much more than Allen’s career-best day, a 33-of-45 passing effort that led to 442 yards though the air and school-record six touchdown passes.
It was a show of respect for a player who has shouldered the burden of the post-Bobby Petrino transition more than any other.
“It was obviously a great experience, a great game,” Allen said. “I wasn’t happy about getting carried off the field; it wasn’t my choice. But those guys were pumped, and we were all just pumped to win the game.”
Just a month before Allen’s remarkable performance, coach Bret Bielema fought back tears at his weekly news conference while defending Allen in the wake of three straight losses.
Bielema’s message then and throughout the growing pains of his first two years was the same: Arkansas’ inability to win games was not a reflection of the play or ability of Allen, Bielema’s starting quarterback in each of his three seasons.
It was a message many fans in Arkansas refused to accept as they called for Allen to be benched.
Allen’s critics have gone silent over the last month as Arkansas has won four of its last five games. Allen has led the way, ranking ninth in the country in passing efficiency this season while completing 64.9 percent of his passes with 21 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
Overall, he has 41 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions over the last two seasons.
“It’s something that’s been growing in him and is so much of a blessing, to see him finally come through and have so many people have to eat a little crow,” Bielema said. “It’s things we saw coming all along.”
What Bielema has also seen with Allen is a case study on how damaging it can be to play a quarterback too early.
Allen’s first extended playing time in college came in his redshirt freshman season, the year following Petrino’s firing with interim coach John L. Smith leading the way. Allen was forced to make his first start because of an injury to starter Tyler Wilson in the Razorbacks’ third game that season — against Alabama.
Arkansas lost that game 52-0, and its fortunes didn’t improve a year later with a nine-game losing skid to end the season in Bielema’s first year. Allen’s truck was egged following an overtime loss to Mississippi State. It was burned less than a year later, though police said it was never clear if the fire was related to Allen’s position on the football team.
Allen’s high school coach at Fayetteville, Daryl Patton, had to bite his tongue more than once to keep from responding to Allen’s critics.
“Brandon knows that when you’re the quarterback at the flagship program in the state, when you win you’re the hero,” Patton said. “And when you lose, everybody is going to point at you.”
It was under Patton that Allen first showed his ability to improve each season, lowering his interception totals from 20 as a sophomore to five as a junior and none during the regular season of his senior year.
The trajectory is similar to what Allen has done in college, raising his touchdown totals from 13 as a sophomore to 20 last season and 21 so far this year. Also, his yards per attempt have climbed dramatically this season, up to 9.2 from 6.7 a year ago.
The improvement has been noticed by more than just those around Arkansas, with Patton saying he’s answered several questionnaires from NFL teams.
Arkansas’ first-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos has thought Allen had professional ability since his arrival on campus last year.
“The more I’ve been around him, the more I’ve been even more (inclined) to say he has that chance,” Enos said.