Alternating wins and losses has been the pattern behavior of Arkansas’s 2016 season as it draws to its terminus. So after the Hogs gave their most listless and disappointing home effort in a good while against LSU, why wouldn’t they just explode all over the cowbell-clanging din in Starkville the next time out?
Granted, these Bulldogs are a mere shadow of what they were when current Dallas Cowboy sensation Dak Prescott was at the helm of the offense for most of the last three years. But they still had a quality victory over Texas A&M to draw from, and bowl eligibility in play. And Prescott’s successor, the large and deceptively agile Nick Fitzgerald, is the kind of quarterback who has bedeviled the Razorbacks of late.
He was excellent on this night, too, accounting for more than 400 yards in the aggregate and all six of the Dogs’ touchdowns. But he might have arguably been too efficient, because every time he zinged Robb Smith’s unremarkable front for a long keeper or a quick throw to the boundary, it meant that the beleaguered defense on the other side was going to retake the turf. And that’s where Arkansas saw opportunity.
The Razorbacks never punted and, but for a missed field goal and a couple of arguable calls that went favorably for a change, they were without substantive challenge from the Bulldogs in a 58-42 rout. Amassing 661 yards and doing it with balance and occasional flair, the Hogs nudged their record to 7-4 overall and 3-4 in the SEC, which has them eyeballing another respectable regional bowl game that might well cause 30,000 or 40,000 fans to take a post-Christmas drive beyond the state’s borders. It’s again not the apex of our late summer fever dreams, but with a win over lowly Missouri to close out the regular schedule Arkansas would stay on track to improve its overall record each year under Bret Bielema, and place itself in the seemingly annual “upstart” conversation.
Mississippi State’s defensive decline is more jarring than the one the Hogs have suffered. Going against Dan Enos’ unit the week after it managed only a single touchdown and field goal against LSU might have seemed like a fully ripened chance to atone for a frustrating year (the win over the Aggies was a clear highlight in the same season where South Alabama, Kentucky and BYU all vanquished the Bulldogs). Enos apparently took any criticisms of his unit personally, because from Rawleigh Williams’ 71-yard score on the game’s second play to Devwah Whaley punching it across for a clincher late, this seemed like an offensive line trying to salvage a tattered reputation and a quarterback desperate to demonstrate that his early-season unflappability was the norm.
Austin Allen was indeed resurgent with a 303-yard, two-touchdown effort, which notably also featured his best completion percentage in two months and a big zero in the sack column. The Bulldogs exacted occasional duress on Allen, but he was nimble again and his numbers would’ve even been better had Cheyenne O’Grady hauled in a long touchdown throw in the first quarter.
But this was the night for Williams to make a bid for SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors. The sophomore tailback’s career-long scoring jaunt was part of an eight-carry, 191-yard first half and was the first of his four touchdowns. State tried to close the off-tackle lanes that were splayed open early — and succeeded — but then Williams turned in the real play of the night, a nifty southpaw jump pass on fourth and goal from the one that fell into Austin Cantrell’s hands for a tide-stemming score midway through the third quarter.
Williams’ durability, effort and smarts have made him the conference’s leading rusher only a year after his football future was in serious doubt. He’s accounted for 13 total touchdowns and developed into a competent pass blocker while showing himself to be unwilling to wilt under the demands of 200-plus carries. With Whaley coming in as the most touted skill position recruit of the offseason, Williams simply has put in the work and been too dependable to ignore or discredit. And as he’s gone, so have the Hogs: they’re 6-0 when he crests 100 yards rushing, and 1-4 when he doesn’t hit the century mark.
The workmanlike showing of Allen and Williams is what has enabled this team to excel in spite of its many warts. Both have assumed leadership roles in their first extended action, and both are producing at a rate that belies that inexperience. If for no other reason, Hog fans should relish the 2017 season because the backfield — Whaley will obviously be a major factor as well, what with his late-season flourishing — could rate among the region’s best.