If Bret Bielema was terribly dejected by his Arkansas team’s second-half showing against Auburn in the 2014 season opener, the ensuing three weeks of football prowess have likely done much to change his disposition.
The Hogs have gone from sputtering clunker to lean muscle car in a matter of days, concededly dusting competitors that don’t race at quite the same circuit that we’ll see in October and November, but they are doing it with such casual efficiency that it’s become impossible to dismiss. After a triumphant and thoroughly dominant showing in Lubbock against presumed Big 12 upstart Texas Tech, the Razorbacks returned home to deal with what could have shaped up as the ultimate trap game. Northern Illinois has been the pride of the Mid-American Conference for many years, and still seems poised to win a number of games with its hurry-up brand, but looked completely out of place from the first swing of its kicker’s leg Saturday night in Fayetteville.
Korliss Marshall raced 97 yards untouched after receiving that boot, and Arkansas didn’t budge from the throttle the rest of the night in a 52-14 dismantling of a Huskies squad that might well find itself in the Top 25 by year’s end. The sole unknown from the drubbing of the Red Raiders was whether Brandon Allen could round out the offense, and that question got emphatically answered in the affirmative as the junior quarterback was on point the entire night. He tossed two beautiful scores, rolled up 199 yards through the air and again scrambled for a score.
The degree of Allen’s maturation from dinged-up, uneasy thrower to self-assured leader is rather astounding. Yes, he has advanced as a player — his first scoring throw to Jared Cornelius against the Huskies was the acme of mobile marksmanship, an on-the-run dart to where only the freshman could snare it — but the real beauty of this progress is the effect it has had on the surrounding cast. The running game was not as dynamic in the rout of the Huskies as it had been the prior two weeks, but Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Marshall all had highlight-worthy runs and amassed 188 yards on the ground. Balance was the order of the day this weekend, and with 215 passing yards and 212 rushing, it was well met.
Sidebar time: Keon Hatcher has rather nicely shaken off that dropped certain score from the Auburn game, hasn’t he? The junior wideout was highly coveted by the Petrino staff for his blend of size and speed but had largely underperformed until now. After his first career 100-yard game against the Huskies, capped with him safely cradling a 44-yard bomb from Allen for six, Hatcher truly looks the part of a top target.
The untold story thus far has been a reinvigorated defense putting in yeoman work. In this up-tempo age of college football, ebbing the likes of Texas Tech and Northern Illinois isn’t easy, but Arkansas has commendably checked both of those speed-driven units and lived by the credo “keep everything in front of you.” The Hogs have yet to be beaten by the deep ball or been badly out of position against the run, the tackling has been substantially better at all levels and Darius Philon, who scooped up Drew Hare’s fumble and dived across the plane early Saturday evening for his first career touchdown, has been nothing short of dynamic.
Now what will all of this mean as the Hogs traipse confidently down to Arlington, Texas, to take on Texas A&M there for the first time since a splendid comeback win in 2011? The smart money says that the Aggies are still too powerful for Arkansas to overcome, but it’s worth noting that the initial betting line that heavily tilted maroon began coming back toward cardinal fairly hard and quickly. In short, there’s recognition outside the state that Bret Bielema’s methodology is working, and that’s evident even when stacked up against presumably lesser competition.
The recruits are seeing it, too, and recent verbal commitments from the state’s upper-echelon prospects have breathed more life into the program as a result. Texas A&M looks like the better team right now, and may well assert that position on the JerryWorld turf this Saturday afternoon, but Arkansas can manage a big game this year in ways that simply evaded the program the past two, forgettable autumns.