There was certainly a surreal quality to Bret Bielema’s long-awaited first true SEC road win as Arkansas’s head coach. And, no, it wasn’t just the fact that his maligned charges actually got that win at a place that had bedeviled the program completely since its inaugural year in the Southeastern Conference.
The fourth quarter was a predictable, mind-numbing comedy of errors on both sides. The Hogs, for the fourth time in five games, failed to score a touchdown in the final period, and in fact couldn’t even nudge a slim lead upward because of one blocked field goal and another fake that was horribly ill-timed and ill-conceived. Tennessee, much to the chagrin of a crowd that looked neither interested nor alarmed, managed to be worse.
The Razorbacks fell behind 14-0 on a 96-yard kickoff return and well-orchestrated touchdown drive. This was the kind of start that used to mean a quick death for visitors to Neyland Stadium. (See, e.g., Arkansas at Tennessee in 2000, when the Hogs were down 35-0 within the first 15 minutes of an eventual 63-20 shellacking.)
Newcomers threatened to outdo the established guys. Dominique Reed finally had an impact play at wideout. Rawleigh Williams III finally got loose for some long runs. Jeremiah Ledbetter finally shined in his best defensive effort so far.
The game was viewed as two desperate teams with a practically allergic disposition toward closing ballgames trying to get off the ventilator. In the end, the Volunteers proved to be the one that simply wanted it least. Arkansas eked out the 24-20 win to end its losing streak to “T” teams (Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M) at three, and did it in a manner than was more cathartic than convincing.
On a night that Florida drummed Ole Miss and just after Alabama steamrolled Georgia, the Hogs’ matchup with the Vols was neither sexy nor particularly compelling other than on a neighboring-state basis, but there’s a chance that it wrought as much of an indelible effect on the standings in the SEC as the other two games. Bielema cannot be overly elated to be at the helm of a 2-3, 1-1 ship, given all the expectations that preceded the season, but he’s also much more secure than Butch Jones is right now, and if winning a road game by a whisper-thin margin gives his squad the resolve and roadmap to do it again a few more times, there’s a fleeting chance that all the early failings will have ended up being worth it to some extent.
Alex Collins is running with passion and purpose again after a listless showing — at least as a runner — against Toledo. His third straight game of 150 yards or more was huge, as he ripped off lots of decisive gains of varying lengths, but Williams’ emergence with a 44-yard run early and 100 yards on the nose by night’s end means that Dan Enos can and should rely more on the true freshman going forward. Kody Walker’s back at the top of the fullback depth chart now, too, which should permit a few additional touches for the oft-ailing junior.
Brandon Allen had his least accurate passing performance yet, but he stayed clean behind a resurgent offensive line, and again showed a level of comfort with Drew Morgan that makes the possible return of Keon Hatcher a potential November boon. Morgan snuffed the Vols’ building momentum when he turned a medium-depth completion into the team’s longest pass play since the opener against UTEP, a 52-yard scamper that showed his versatility and breakaway ability. Hunter Henry even got loose for a 51-yarder late that hopefully will restore the tight end’s swagger and big-play tendencies, which had disappeared in recent weeks.
Defensively, it was another hard night on the linebackers, with some early missed tackles and the broken leg for Josh Williams tempering what otherwise would have been an enthusiastically well-received showing. The Hogs surrendered only three field goal attempts, one clanging off the upright and away and another caroming in, over the final three quarters, and really stiffened when the outcome hung in the balance. Josh Dobbs was a strange combination of poised and punchless: The junior quarterback hung in the pocket nicely and threw for 236 yards without turning it over, but also netted only seven yards on seven carries a week after torching Florida for 136 on the ground. Having clearly wrested some momentum from snuffing out Texas A&M for most of the prior week’s game, Robb Smith’s group looked like it had that turning point moment for this fall by holding the Vols to less than 100 total yards after the break.
Arkansas hasn’t won at Tuscaloosa since 2003, or against Bama at all since Nick Saban took the reins of that program in 2007. As bizarre as the first five weeks have been, though, it’s not a fabrication to say that literally anything is possible, and now the Hogs benefit from the primacy and recency effect of away-game satisfaction that simply hasn’t been there in years.