After nine rounds of a grueling 12-round 2017 fight, Pearls has the Arkansas Razorbacks sitting at 7-2, the best record the team has boasted at this point in a season since 2011, when Bobby Petrino’s bunch only lost at Alabama and LSU the entire year en route to a Cotton Bowl victory. Petrino’s embarrassing, forced exodus followed months later.
Bret Bielema presumably has better judgment and sounder discretion, and he’s also crafted a more complete team up and down than the ones that Petrino built. While the Hogs aren’t nearly as dynamic at receiver, the Dan Enos offense is chugging along beautifully under Austin Allen’s prudent and unflappable guidance three-fourth of the way through 2017, and most impressively, the overhauled 3-4 defense that new coordinator Paul Rhoads is employing has benefited from a resurgent Dre Greenlaw and a rapidly excelling McTelvin Agim.
The whole unit gets put to a pretty difficult test Nov. 11, though, when the Hogs are dispatched down to Baton Rouge to gauge just how prepared they are to contain Derrius Guice. Last year, in Fayetteville and coming off a rout of eventual SEC East champ Florida, Arkansas was simply throttled by a Tigers team that was still stewing over losing badly to the Razorbacks in 2014 and 2015. The 38-10 fleecing was Guice’s coming-out party, as the understudy to Leonard Fournette got the chance to take over when the latter stud was derailed by an injury. Guice went for 252 rushing yards for a then-career-best mark (he had a school-record 285 two weeks later in the season finale against Texas A&M) and Arkansas simply looked slow as he darted repeatedly into the second level.
Accordingly, Rhoads’ focus will be clearly on snuffing out Guice, and on a rainy night in Death Valley he’ll get some help from the conditions at hand. This will, quite honestly, be the best defensive game Arkansas will have played since the consecutive shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss back in November 2014, and the Razorback defense was aided by wind and rain then, too. LSU’s smart but decidedly unspectacular quarterback, Danny Etling, will connect with Guice on a short touchdown out of the backfield early, then march the Tigers downfield for a field goal to give the hosts a 10-7 halftime lead.
Allen’s first half struggles and a couple of bell-ringing hits will usher in Cole Kelley, who simply is not up to the task. Kelley hits his first three, short throws, but gets picked off on a downfield strike to Jared Cornelius that would have given the Hogs a narrow lead. The Tigers answer with another Etling touchdown pass, and the Hogs stall twice in the late third and early fourth quarter, settling for field goals. Desperate to stay within a possession, the Hogs ultimately cede the game when LSU barely punches home a field goal to cement an 11-point, hard-fought victory. LSU 24, Arkansas 13.
The disappointment of a third competitive conference road loss aside, Arkansas takes some comfort in knowing the season will finish with back-to-back home games. The first one against Mississippi State has the Hogs struggling at the outset, as Bulldog quarterback Nick Fitzgerald does his best Dak Prescott impression early with a scoring strike to Don Gray and then an escape-act scramble up the near sideline for another touchdown. The Bulldogs have never excelled much inside the state’s borders, but having won in Little Rock in overtime in 2013 and then vanquishing the Hogs in that 2015 classic duel between Brandon Allen and Prescott, they’re sensing a third straight road win in this series after taking an early 17-0 lead.
Enos, of course, does not deviate from his game plan at all, and the Hog offense starts clicking midway through the second quarter courtesy of Devwah Whaley’s long touchdown run and a quick scoring drive thereafter, made possible by Randy Ramsey’s fumble recovery off Agim’s sack of Fitzgerald. The 17-14 halftime deficit vanishes for good on the Hogs’ first possession after halftime, as Whaley again chews up yardage on a 10-play drive, with some help coming on T.J. Hammonds’ big gain on an end-around.
The Bulldogs’ fight isn’t gone — Fitzgerald hooks up with his tight end to give Mississippi State one last reason to wave some phantom cowbells in the no-bell zone of Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Allen, however, is not to be denied in the fourth quarter, hitting 10 consecutive throws and making two of them (one to Cheyenne O’Grady and another to LaMichael Pettway) count for six. The win helps erase the dismal memory of Arkansas’s one-point defeat in the slugfest two years earlier, and has the Hogs in search of a ninth victory to end the year. Arkansas 35, Mississippi State 24.
For that ninth win, Arkansas gets a shot at evening up the Battle Line (Lab-Created) Rivalry against Missouri. It would not only mark a five-season high for wins for Bielema if his Hogs can actually finish this one, but most importantly it would cleanse the palate after last year’s farce in Columbia, where Enos’ playsheet became suddenly stagnant and the Hog defense let a woeful Mizzou offense batter its way to 21 second-half points.
In 2015, having frittered away a lead at the Tigers’ Faurot Field the year before, the Hogs came onto the field for Senior Day and saw a lightly enthused, half-full stadium. This won’t be the case at all in 2017. Arkansas fans are far more dutiful and emboldened to come on campus the day after Thanksgiving, with the conditions being right and the promise of a better bowl with a victory being ample incentive. And Allen runs out of the tunnel last and gives a fiery sideline speech before kickoff, thus writing the script.
The Hogs are sharp from the start. Allen’s long strike to Cornelius puts the Hogs on the board three plays into the game, and this time the Razorbacks stay full-throttle all the way. Whaley’s 200-yard game on the ground is backed by great performances from Austin Cantrell, Pettway and Cornelius in the passing game. Arkansas’s defense barely has to exert much, as the Hog offense dominates so thoroughly in time of possession and first downs; but when called upon,GREE Santos Ramirez, Ryan Pulley, and Dwayne Eugene all force key turnovers. It ends as a rout, and Arkansas closes out what began as a critical campaign for its coach’s long-term future with a ninth victory, fifth in SEC play. Arkansas 38, Missouri 9.