Photo: Walt Beazley / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Going into last Saturday’s Arkansas-Florida game, Razorbacks fans might have been uncertain of what they were in for.
The Hogs were coming off an open date with their last performance being a 56-3 drubbing at Auburn. The Gators came into the game with a solid 6-1 record and a top-10 ranking, despite earning those credentials against a somewhat suspect schedule.
Conventional wisdom seemed to be that coach Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks might play the Gators tough for a while but then fade away, absorbing another tough loss in what was quickly becoming a disappointing season.
However, what Hog fans got was a strong dose of Bielema Ball, and it proved to be a cure-all for what ailed the Razorbacks in a 31-10 victory over the Gators.
Arkansas (6-3, 2-3 SEC) dominated both lines of scrimmage and ultimately wore down Florida (6-2, 4-2) with a physical brand of football that Bielema became notable for at Wisconsin and Arkansas, but one that fans had not seen much of this season.
It was a noticeable change in attitude and play for the Razorbacks, which had struggled along both lines of scrimmage throughout the season.
The improvement in the play of Arkansas’ defense was stunning after surrendering record-breaking yardage to Auburn in their last game.
The Hogs’ defense gave up just 3 offensive points. The other seven came on a first-quarter interception return for a touchdown. And in terms of yardage, the Hogs limited Florida to just 12 yards rushing and 241 total yards.
Arkansas defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter was instrumental in bottling up the Gators. Bielema moved Ledbetter from tackle to end and shifted second-team end McTelvin “Sosa” Agim to starting tackle. That shift in personnel helped Arkansas to set an edge to the defense, which forced play back inside toward tackles. Setting an edge was something the Razorbacks had struggled at doing that all season until the move.
“This win felt great, said Ledbetter, who had for tackles and a sack in the game. “Our preparation this week and during our bye week helped us execute everything that we needed to do, and it felt great to do it. We knew that we could play well. We knew that we had to come out and execute and show everyone that we can do it. I think that is what we did today.”
Agim was active inside, making four tackles in a contest in which the Hogs dominated the time of possession 39:21 to the Gators 20:39.
The Gators came into the game with a 50 percent conversion rate on third down, but managed to covert only one of 11 third-down attempts against an inspired Razorbacks defense.
Santos Ramirez led the Hogs in tackles with nine from his safety spot and got a pick 6 of his own, off Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio on the Gator’s first offensive play. Dwayne Eugene also made eight and Brooks Ellis recorded seven.
As impressive as the Razorbacks’ defensive play was, it was Arkansas’ offense that turned the game on its head. Florida came into the contest with No. 2-ranked defense in the nation, allowing just 106 yards rushing per game.
After just managing 25 rushing yards against Auburn, the Razorbacks run through, around, and over the Gators for 223 yards rushing and 466 total yards for the game.
Rawleigh Williams III rushed for 148 yards and two touchdowns, breaking the game open with a 41-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown as the Gators’ defense wore down.
Devwah Whaley added 66 rushing yards and caught two screen passes for 69 yards, with a long for 49 yards.
“That is our identity,” Williams said of the Hogs’ rushing attack. “When we cannot run the ball, our team does not click the way that it should. Our run game was what we focused on the last two weeks being able to run the ball. Everything else opens up because of that and that is exactly what happened today.
“This proves that we are a good football team. We have always believed that and we do not really listen to the media. It proves to us that we can do some great things if we really work hard.”
Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen struggled a bit early against Florida’s pressure, but settled in for a solid afternoon after throwing the interception to complete 15 of 26 passes for 241 yards and a touchdown to Drew Morgan. Morgan led Arkansas’ receivers with 7 catches for 95 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkled had three catches for 51 yards.
All in all, the game was the Razorbacks’ best showing of the season. It made them bowl eligible and every victory they can add over the next three weeks will only make their bowl destination that much sweeter. It was the Razorbacks’ first victory over Florida since joining the SEC. Thankfully that factoid can be buried and not brought up again. The victory had to have revived the faith of at least some Razorbacks fans, which understandably wavered after such a poor showing at Auburn.
It would be easy to write that this team has finally found its way after such a strong victory, but if this season has taught Razorbacks onlookers anything, it’s that those type definitive proclamations whether good or ill are misguided. Success one week doesn’t guarantee it for the next in SEC play.
This week’s opponent No. 19 LSU (5-3, 3-2 SEC) went toe to toe with Alabama for three quarters before the Crimson Tide wore the Tigers down enough to stake a 10-0 victory.
Watching that game, it’s hard to imagine how the Razorbacks will be able to move the ball on the Tigers, but my thoughts were similar going into the Florida game, and the Razorbacks proved me wrong.
Based on recruiting rankings and the eye test, LSU has better athletes, but that’s also been the case the past two seasons when Arkansas has whipped LSU in decisive fashion.
Both squads are coming off physical football games, but in Arkansas’ favor, it always seems easier to heal coming off a victory than a loss.
LSU has always been a difficult team to figure. The Tigers’ focus does seem to drift when the stakes aren’t the highest. ESPN figures seven to nine Tigers have a shot to be taken in the NFL Draft next spring. With no championship to play for, one has to wonder how focused the Tigers will be on the Razorbacks?
Can LSU interim head coach Ed Ogeron keep the Tigers and just as importantly the rest of the coaching staff on task, or will the players’ thoughts drift more toward a future in the NFL, and the assistant coaches be more concerned about lining up a job for next year than preparing the team for this week’s game?
As for the Hogs, one has to question whether last Saturday’s performance was a one-game high point or if the Razorbacks can maintain that quality of play for the rest of the season?
Those questions are impossible to answer at the moment, but Hog fans certainly can dote on the Razorbacks’ victory over Florida for at least this week. It was a return to Bielema Ball, and it was a sight for sore eyes.
The Arkansas-LSU game kicks off a 6 p.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium, and it will be televised by ESPN. It’s the Hogs’ final home game of the season.