There was plenty for Razorbacks fans to like about Arkansas’ season opener against Lousiana-Lafayette on Saturday.
In what proved to be a pretty comfortable win against a quality opponent some picked to upset Arkansas, the questions asked over the last nine months are beginning to be answered:
- Bret Bielema delivered on his hiring day promise to produce, yardage-wise, a very balanced offense.
- Brandon Allen displayed a level of poise and skill fans hoped to see when he signed with the Hogs out of high school, but was lacking in his appearances in 2012.
- Alex Collins and Hunter Henry are going to be instant-impact freshmen.
- Bielema can, in fact, wear a long-sleeve windbreaker jacket and khaki pants for several hours on a 120-degree field and appear to be fine.
- The Razorback defense managed to hold ULL to 14 points, which is better than anyone at this site predicted, through a combination of skill (four sacks, two turnovers and holding ULL to 85 net rushing yards) and even a little bit of luck in the form of a few opportune dropped or inaccurate passes (how long since anything, even as simple as the direction of the wind, seemed to go the Arkansas defense’s way?)
- The offensive line allowed just one sack and one rushing attempt lost a measurable distance. There were a few attempts for no gain but almost all rushing attempts gained yards. It’s a performance from the offensive line Arkansas hasn’t seen in a while.
Of course, one of the biggest offseason questions was how would Bielema, he of the on-the-ground-and-proud power running Big 10 pedigree, would mesh with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s Drew Brees and Tyler Bray resume.
The two drives that bookended the first half may serve as our answer. The game-opening drive and the two minute drill before halftime offer a stark dichotomy of football styles, and while the Razorback offense didn’t score a touchdown before halftime as they did on the first drive, they were still successful.
Arkansas began the game doing exactly what they wanted to do. They established a running game that moved down the field in relative ease, going 85 yards (counting to two penalties) in 11 plays, eight of which – and the first seven – were running plays. And they did it without even showing a great variety in playcalling. Every running play was either around the right side or up the middle. The only time the Hogs went left was on Allen’s six yard scoring pass. It was almost as if they weren’t even concerned with what Louisiana was doing on defense. They were more nuiscances than opponents, only delaying the inevitable touchdown.
Then, with the Hogs up 17-7, Arkansas called a timeout immediately following a Louisiana timeout (which was weird – and if the one timeout had sufficed the Hogs may have been able to run one more play before attempting the field goal) while they were looking at a 3rd-and-nine from their own five yard line with just 1:16 to go before halftime. At this point, the Razorbacks were in a situation where they needed Brandon Allen to get them down the field quickly. And he did. Louisiana was expecting pass in the two minute drill situation, and it didn’t matter.
Allen, who had already launched a 49-yard touchdown bomb to Javontee Herndon earlier in the game, started ripping passes downfield, first to Jeremy Sprinkle for 17 yards, then after one running play, connected with Hunter Henry on three straight plays for 52 yards – again, all to the right or down the middle. That gave Allen one more shot to throw a touchdown pass, but couldn’t quite connect with Eric Hawkins in the end zone on a difficult cross-body pass while Allen was running to the right. But the drive still put Arkansas in position to kick a field goal and push their lead closer to a comfortable level.
The Razorbacks will have to show more diversity in their play calling to have similar success against better defensive teams (even Jonathan Williams’ big 75-yard touchdown run began going to the right before he cut back to the left) but the team proved what they are capable of doing and likely wanted to show as little as possible this week. The running game was expected to be a strength of the team, and it will be. The hope was that the running game would open up the passing game and play-action would be effective, and it is, but Allen is also capable of being a passing threat on his own without the benefit of play-action.
That should give fans and the team confidence in the offense as the Hogs continue in non conference play. After Southern Miss lost to Texas State this week, it’s probably reasonable to expect the team to be 3-0 when they go to New Jersey in a few weeks. Rutgers, it should be noted, scored 45 points in regulation in a loss to Fresno this week, so Arkansas may have to score quite a few points to pull out that victory. But they can, and don’t have to rely on just one player or one position to do it. They showed that this weekend.