Halfway through the Hogs’ 2017 football season, which now will undoubtedly be played out in the memory of J. Frank Broyles, Pearls has the team sitting at 4-2, 1-2 after back-to-back road defeats against South Carolina and Alabama. In theory, the Razorbacks should be reeling, but there’s simply no cushion in this schedule to bemoan circumstance, because Oct. 21 is a day that Bret Bielema assuredly has circled with broad and aggressive red pen strokes on his literal or metaphorical calendar.
Auburn comes to Fayetteville that Saturday, and the Tigers will have no shortage of confidence after drubbing the Hogs by 53 points on The Plains a year earlier. The preseason hubbub around Gus Malzahn’s team has been a little nauseating, frankly, with pundits falling over themselves to celebrate the newly anointed starting quarterback, Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham, as the kind of savior that will resuscitate Malzahn’s stagnant passing offense.
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He’s an impressive physical specimen with a cannon, to be sure, but Stidham had only three starts at Baylor in 2015 and there remain questions about what his receiving corps can do. Auburn’s defense improved mightily under Kevin Steele’s direction, and will be athletic on the back end, but Arkansas players have welcomed this chance to exact retribution for what happened in 2016 for months. That passion will be on display early and often.
Austin Allen clearly takes umbrage with the praise heaped on Stidham, and outshines his counterpart greatly with two passing touchdowns and a rushing score in the first half alone. A trick play allows T.J. Hammonds to run wild for a long third-quarter score as well, and the Hogs’ new 3-4 scheme really shows its mettle with Dre Greenlaw recording a sack, a fumble recovery and a late interception off a deflection. The Hogs don’t quite reverse the 56-3 score that Auburn pinned on them at Jordan-Hare last fall, but it’s still a solid win against a credible foe to get to 5-2, 2-2. Arkansas 34, Auburn 23.
The Hogs go back on the road to square off against Ole Miss in Oxford, and they benefit greatly from the total mess that Matt Luke inherited by way of Hugh Freeze’s arrogance and ignominy. The Rebels still boast a little talent, but the disarray is obvious from the start, as the Rebels commit three silly penalties, lose a fumble and shank a field goal attempt in the first quarter. That allows the Hogs to get their footing.
Devwah Whaley’s career-best 189 yards on the ground allows the Razorbacks to control the clock and frustrate an Ole Miss offense that still wants to churn out play after play in rapid-fire sequence. Whaley’s two touchdowns help the Hogs build a 20-7 halftime lead, which is preserved when Shea Patterson forces a bad throw into the end zone in the last minute of the half, summarily picked by Santos Ramirez.
The bleeding continues from there for the Rebels, who simply lack defensive depth. As Whaley continues to chew up yardage, Allen also finds Cheyenne O’Grady for a nifty touchdown pass on a tight end wheel route, and freshman tailback Chase Hayden cements the Hogs’ fourth straight victory over Ole Miss by barreling down the sideline for a fourth-quarter touchdown run. Arkansas 41, Ole Miss 21.
With the Razorbacks suddenly within range of the top of the SEC West, and hoping that Auburn can beat Alabama to cap off the regular season, they get a needed break after the rather taxing quartet of SEC games, three of which are away from home. Coastal Carolina, a burgeoning FCS power, makes its FBS and Sun Belt Conference debut this fall, and unfortunately the Chanticleers will be doing so with their cerebral head coach Joe Moglia away from the sideline (the TD Ameritrade exec is taking a health-related sabbatical after winning 51 games over the last five seasons).
Even with Moglia around, this game was not going to be pretty, and especially with the Razorbacks surging after two big SEC victories before homecoming. Allen’s output is an impressive 12-14 for 201 yards and two touchdowns before he gives way to Cole Kelley, who is nearly as sharp (9-13, 165 yards, two TDs) in his best performance yet. The running game provides ample balance and the defense forces a season-high five turnovers, three of which are directly attributable to the work of defensive end McTelvin Agim, who has a strip-sack and recovery, a deflection of a low pass leading to a Dwayne Eugene interception, and then a jarring hit on the Chanticleers’ tailback to force another lost fumble. It is, as homecoming should be, a decided rout by the good guys, one that sets their season mark at 7-2, a high-water mark in Bielema’s fifth year on the Hill. Arkansas 52, Coastal Carolina 19.