Arkansas cornerback Henre Toliver / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
If the Arkansas’ 49-7 victory over the Florida A&M Rattlers wasn’t exactly what you expected from the Razorbacks’ season opener, you’re not alone.
I personally expected a crisper performance by Razorbacks quarterback Austin Allen, and perhaps a bit more dominant performance by the Hogs’ offensive line in the early going, but when taken all in, it ended up being the paint-by-the-numbers victory the Razorbacks’ administration envisioned when it inked the contract with Florida A&M.
As one astute gridiron philosopher once surmised, “a win is a win.” I think that guy also came up with the near classic, “ it is what it is.”
Bret Bielema’s Hogs are 1-0, just five wins away from bowl eligibility and about nine victories away from making the Razorbacks fan base truly happy.
Next opponent: TCU Horned Frogs
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
Tickets: Check availability
If the Razorbacks are to reach that goal, they will have to improve drastically over the course of the season. It can be done, but if I were a betting man, I don’t think I’d have the gumption to put money on a 10-win season.
Hog fans might need to regulate their expectations to something like seven, eight or maybe nine wins if they want to enjoy this season. Those figures are more in the program’s wheelhouse based on history, anyway.
The Hogs did not play poorly overall, but then again the opponent was Florida A&M, which fell to 1-1 on the season.
Despite a slow start by the offense, which punted on two of their first four drives and threw an interception on another, the game never was in doubt. However it did take the Hogs until the final two minutes of the first quarter to score a touchdown when sophomore tailback Devwah Whaley did the honors on a five-yard run.
From that point on, the Hogs scored six touchdowns and did not punt. They did run the clock out at the end of each half.
The Hogs offensive front did a nice job of springing running backs to the second level between the tackles, but the downfield blocking by linemen and receivers did not clean up the third level enough to pop open any long runs. Arkansas’ longest run of the night was 17 yards.
The Razorbacks moved the ball better when offensive coordinator Dan Enos opted to run between the tackles than to continue to call outside run plays. Allen and his mostly new receiving corps have some adjustments to make to get on the same path.
Allen already had a tendency to hold the ball too long, but Thursday night Arkansas receivers had a hard time shaking the Rattlers’ coverage. That is a bit concerning considering the talent that populates the defensive backfields in the SEC.
Defensively, the Razorbacks looked much more active in their new 3-4 alignment than a year ago, but then again, the opponent was Florida A&M.
That said, the Rattlers did not sniff the end zone against the first-team defense. The Rattlers’ lone score came in the fourth quarter against a conglomerate of second- and third-team players.
Play of the Game
Razorback outside linebacker Gabe Richardson circled around the backfield from the opposite side of the field like a heat-seeking missile to jar the ball loose from Florida A&M runner Hans Supre by nailing the ball with his helmet early in the third quarter. The hustle play paid off as Razorback cornerback Henre Toliver evaded a Rattlers blocker before scooping up the fumble and zipping 18 yards to score Arkansas’ first touchdown of the second half for a 28-0 lead with 13:57 left in the third quarter. Toliver returned an interception for a touchdown last year against Alcorn State at War Memorial Stadium.
Offensive Player of the Game
You knew freshman running back Chase Hayden (5-10, 191) had to be pretty good after Bielema continued to mention him following practices. The Memphis native had a dynamic debut with the Hogs, rushing for 120 yards on 14 carries and scoring a touchdown.
Defensive Players of the Game
The Razorbacks’ defense spent so little time on the field that their tackle stats were fairly low, but hey, that’s a very good thing. Linebackers De’Jon “Scoota” Harris and Grant Morgan led the way with five tackles apiece. McTelvin “Sosa” Agim had an active night with 4 stops on the defensive front.
Stat of the Game
Six Razorbacks combined to score seven touchdowns against the Rattlers. Toliver’s scoop and score gave the Hogs a defensive touchdown, while senior transfer running back David Williams scored twice for the Hogs. Williams had 23 yards on 7 carries and led the Hogs in reception yardage with two catches for 48 yards. Williams’ backfield running mates Hayden and Devwah Whaley (12 carries, 60 yards) each scored touchdowns.
Allen threw a touchdown to Deon Stewart, and backup quarterback Cole Kelly threw a touchdown to Fayetteville grad, tight end Cheyenne O’Grady for the final score of the game.
Bielema surprised quite a few onlookers when he told the media that freshman offensive guard and Fayetteville graduate Ty Clary (6-4, 296) would help the team this season about two weeks ago, but they didn’t know exactly how much. Clary, who will not go on scholarship until January, started his first game as a true freshman at right guard. Most expected Johnny Gibson Jr. (6-4, 333) to start at right guard, but he moved over to right tackle ahead of Brian Wallace.
Starting cornerback and third-team Preseason All-SEC pick Ryan Pulley injured his pectoral muscle while making a tackle Thursday. Arkansas officials have not reported the extent of Pulley’s injury, yet.
Less than His Best
Perhaps the lone position that most would not have described as a question mark for the Hogs going into the season was quarterback. Returning senior starter Austin Allen is expected to be one of the better quarterbacks not only in the SEC but also in the nation.
However, Allen was not at his best against the Rattlers. He did not play poorly but he struggled behind a suspect offensive line and mostly young running backs for providing pass protection.
Allen completed 14 of 19 passes for 135 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He struggled with finding open receivers which resulting in him holding the ball too long. Although he was just sacked once when Hayden missed on picking up a blitz, he did absorb a number of possibly unnecessary hits.
With two of his top three receivers and his tight end graduating last year, Allen is breaking in a corps of receivers whom he hasn’t counted on before in games with Jared Cornelius limited with a bad back.
It’s way too early to worry about Allen’s performance. He bounced back to have a very solid season last year after playing poorly in the season opener.
Playing on a Thursday night gives the Razorbacks two extra days to prepare for their Sept. 9 opponent, the TCU Horned Frogs. The Hogs play host to their old Southwest Conference opponent at 2:30 p.m. in a nationally televised game on CBS.
Arkansas will have the luxury of scouting the Horned Frogs on TV in their 7 p.m. Saturday season opener against Jackson State that will be televised by Fox Sports Network.
Coach Gary Patterson’s squad is expected to be better than their 6-6 record from a year ago. If the Associate Press Top 25 were extended, the Horned Frogs have the votes to be ranked 26th. The Razorbacks defeated TCU, 41-38, in triple overtime last year.
Patterson’s team are usually salty on defense, but with Kenny Hill back at the helm for his second year at TCU, the Horned Frogs are expected to have one of the most potent offenses.