Well, this is awkward. Pearls is gonna be pretty complaint-free this week.
The most hellish opening-game conditions imaginable for Bret Bielema’s debut — a friend fired off a text around halftime saying he had left Reynolds Razorback Stadium due to fears of skin cancer — could not disrupt the most businesslike and steady Hog opener in decades. Serenity now, as Frank Costanza might observe.
Beating Louisiana-Lafayette 34-14 looks “about right” when sizing up a mid-level SEC team against the presumptive class of the Sun Belt, but as is commonly the case, the stat sheet reveals only half-truths about the proceedings. Arkansas so thoroughly exacted control that once the fourth quarter began, it felt like those early-season games in the Nutt or Petrino years where the postgame wrap-up could be written long before the final horn.
Except, oddly, this was much smoother. You might recall that even as Bielema’s predecessors piled up gaudy stats in cupcake games, there was generally cause for concern. Last year, the ignominy of the John L. Smith era commenced in earnest from the very first game — yes, it was a thorough rout of Jacksonville State, but it also teased issues that became prevalent immediately thereafter. Tyler Wilson made bad decisions, Knile Davis lacked explosiveness, the defense gave up some extended drives and whiffed on tackles, and the special teams didn’t distinguish themselves. The thematic pillars of a wasted season were already apparent even in victory.
So what can you say about the way Bielema’s unheralded bunch performed in the afternoon deep fryer? Notably, you can call attention to how a young team soldiered on like NFL-level veterans. On-field discipline and adherence to fundamentals was in full bloom from commencement to conclusion. The Hogs battered the Cajuns at the start with seven straight runs, then Brandon Allen calmly tossed three completions, including a well-designed scoring throw to an uncovered Javontee Herndon. The offensive line’s transition to road-grading looked stunningly complete as the relatively untested Grady Ollison and Brey Cook just ably knocked the ULL line onto its heels play after play.
And it all held up well from there. By the time the Hogs finished, Allen had demonstrated plenty of wherewithal in the passing game, efficiently connecting on 15 of 22 throws for 230 yards and three scores. He got sacked but once, and none of his throws were in danger of being corralled by anyone but his own target. One of his incompletions, in fact, drew the attention of commentator Tim Couch, who pointed out that one Allen shot to the end zone was in that coveted niche where only his man could snatch it.
Not enough laudatory verbiage can be directed toward the tailback duo of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, either. On a day that was endurance killing by default, two guys with fresh legs alternated bellcow duties impeccably. Collins turned out to be the grinder, logging 21 carries in his collegiate debut and popping off 8 to 12 yards with fiendish regularity. And Williams, who got off to a fine start and then was waylaid in the second quarter, essentially cemented the win with a 75-yard score in the third quarter. That jaunt looked much like the one Knile Davis employed against Ole Miss in 2010 as his breakout moment, as Williams cut against the grain and outpaced linebackers and defensive backs laterally.
But the game turned, early in fact, on Arkansas making quick and emphatic defensive adjustments. What dogged Willy Robinson in 2010-11 is that his units seemingly had to spend an entire half or more in a complete fog before they’d offer modest resistance. Granted, ULL is allegedly of a lesser caliber on the whole, but at the start Saturday, its offense was predictably efficient behind Terrance Broadway and muscular receiver Jamal Robinson. Corner Tevin Mitchel slipped a couple of times on the turf, and Broadway got some opportunities to improvise.
How did the Hogs respond? ULL logged 136 yards on its first two drives, ending in a shanked short field goal and Alonzo Harris TD run, respectively. The Cajuns’ remaining nine possessions yielded only 138 yards in the aggregate. Arkansas’s offense was buoyed by the defense applying terrific pressure on Broadway (Trey Flowers turned in a conference Defensive Player of the Week effort, and Chris Smith and Deatrich Wise were in the running as well), and ULL’s cagey quarterback lost any semblance of rhythm and accuracy as a result.
Were it not for Hunter Henry getting his pocket picked for an arguable fumble call in the third period, and then backup John Henson whiffing a 34-yard field goal attempt late, I’d have to pin this one with as close to a perfect grade as possible. The penalties (4 for 30 yards) were neither numerous nor crippling, and the offense’s maniacal execution of Jim Chaney’s game plan meant that Arkansas won the time of possession battle by an unqualified landslide. Hell, even Bielema absorbed accountability for Henry’s fumble, which by the way didn’t sully an outstanding five-catch, 75-yard debut.
For all the unknowns that accompanied this opener, the entire Razorback fan base was tweaking its expectations about this team in short order. Bielema won’t concern himself with that, as he’s got to prep the squad for Samford in Little Rock as if the Bulldogs are upstarts (three FCS schools did beat FBS teams in the opening weekend), but he may have to work overtime to remind his players that their successes are measured over months, not hours.