Jamie Varnell recaps a sluggish season opening win for Arkansas
9:07 PM, Sep 5, 2016
9:13 PM, Sep 5, 2016
“Well, we managed to keep everyone in their seats for four quarters.” Those were the words that Coach Bret Bielema mumbled in jest as he took the podium for the post game press conference Saturday after a closer-than-expected win over Louisiana Tech. The Razorbacks started slow and had a miserable third quarter before putting together a solid drive and going back to their roots in ball control in the fourth to seal the close win.
Quarterback Austin Allen had mixed results as a leader of a team all too familiar with the Allen name. No doubt the trials that elder brother Brandon faced as the newcomer were weighing heavy as Austin led an anxious fan base to the line of scrimmage Saturday. Expectations of a solid season abound, with some projecting 9 wins. To win, this team cannot afford to start the way the the last two Razorback squads have. It wasn't long ago we were trying to explain losses to Toledo and Texas Tech. This team needs a solid early season to prepare them for a favorable but grueling mid season slate.
The Hogs were two score favorites coming in, a large number considering Louisiana Tech is coming off of consecutive nine win seasons and have a coach with Arkansas connections in Skip Holtz. With is dad, the legendary Lou Holtz on the sidelines, he put together a game plan to nurse his freshman quarterback through the game and keep the ball moving faster than the Razorbacks would prefer. His plan was solid, and Tech took the early lead after Austin Allen threw an interception trying to press the ball into coverage on his first third down attempt. The Razorbacks would answer with an 8 play 75 yard drive that looked more like the team we know. It was capped by a 6 yard touchdown run by Rawleigh Williams III with just under three minutes left in the opening quarter.
They would take the lead on another solid 9 play 63 yard drive that ended with a sensational pass from Allen to Jared Cornelius for 13 yards. Cornelius played out parallel to the goal line, and controlled the laser pass from Allen while laying out through two defenders. The lead wouldn't last long, as Allen would throw his second interception of the game, though this time is was a receiver who didn’t get free on the route, as Coach Bielema would note in the post game. The defense gave up gashing plays and allowed Louisiana Tech to pull even just before the half.
The third quarter was one to incite fear into Razorback fans, as thoughts of Toledo began to swarm. The Hogs had no sense of clarity and direction, making mistakes on both sides of the ball. Tech would take the opening drive of the second half deep into Razorback territory before hitting a 43 yard field goal. Following a three and our from the Hogs, Tech would connect on another field goal from 20 yards out. With the Razorbacks still muddled in inconsistency, Tech put together another drive, but had the 39 yard field goal bounce off of the left upright.
Given new life in the fourth quarter, the razorbacks responded. Keon Hatcher, who is the vocal leader of this team at this point in the season, implored his teammates to focus and do what they know to do. His energy and second effort plays served as key motivation down the stretch. He would have catches of 18 and 13 yards on the final scoring drive, making sensational effort plays noted by the head Coach in the Postgame. His last catch was a spin move, narrowly keeping his knee off the the ground to get the Hogs to the 4 yard line for the game changing play.
The Razorbacks, down six, decided to go for it on fourth and three. Austin Allen would again come up big, selling out run to the right before dropping back to allow time for tight end Jeremy Sprinkle to get free in the left corner of the end zone for the game tying touchdown. The pass floated perfectly over the defender and landed in Sprinkle’s chest, as the entire offense gathered to celebrate the effort. The PAT would give the Razorbacks the lead, but with time on the clock, the defense would have to make the plays, and they did.
On third and ten from the Tech 48, Dietrich Wise came through with a thundering sack on J’mar Smith, dislodging his helmet and forcing a punt. From there, the Hogs did what they do best. They poured the ball and ran the clock, including the decision not to punt on fourth and one on their own 37 yard line. They instead gave the ball to 6th year Senior Kody Walker who barreled through the stacked Tech defensive front for 3 yards to seal the game.
With almost 70,000 in attendance for the opener, the Hogs came through. Austin Allen was efficient after his slow start, going 20/29 for 191 yards and two touchdowns. The two interceptions hurt, and as several would say in the press afterward, he was able to move on and be the leader they needed late in the game.
Keon Hatcher was a bright spot on the day. With a stacked receiving corp, many wondered who the true leader would be. The is no doubt at this point. He was the vocal and emotional leader, as well as leading on the stat sheet. His 6 catches for 86 yards led the team, but it m=was more about the extra effort for yardage and his willingness to throw hard blocks on the edges that made the day.
The running game was solid, and led by Rawleigh Williams III, who had 24 carries for 96 yards and one touchdown. Kody Walker contributed, but beyond the two veterans, touches were greatly limited. The game would come down to control and efficiency. The yardage totals were similar, with Arkansas edging out a 297 to 291 advantage. The story is defined by the dominance in time of possession (36:41 to 23:19) and first downs (21-16), as the Hogs did what they do best, control the line of scrimmage and the pace of play.
Louisiana Tech was prepared for the game, and as Coach Bielema referenced in the post game, presented many new looks on defense that they had not seen or prepared for. He strongly complimented Coach Holtz and the scheme they used to keep Arkansas off balance most of the day. Tech never truly allowed the dominant Arkansas pass rush time to get pressure on freshman Quarterback J’mar Smith by using sprint passes and quick release plays. Though the Razorbacks may have taken the best shot Tech has to offer on the season, there is no doubt Holtz has recruited the talent to run his system and has the trust of his team.
The Razorbacks will now turn to a game they have likely been planning on already. They will travel south to Ft. Worth to take on Gary Patterson and the TCU Horned Frogs next Saturday. TCU, a daily heavy favorite going in, struggled in their opener, giving up a lot of points and yardage to FCS South Dakota State. The game is scheduled for a 6 PM kickoff on ESPN, drawing a national television audience for two well known coaches and two programs with a lot of history, dating back to the Southwest Conference. This should be the game where two hopeful programs learn where they are currently and what they will need to improve if they hope to compete for conference championships.