Hogs made themselves at home in Death Valley

Arkansas won the Golden Boot trophy for the second year in a row after defeating LSU 31-14 in Baton Rouge on Saturday.

Photo: Walt Beazley / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Talk about taking momentum and making it work for you. That’s exactly what the Arkansas Razorbacks did last Saturday night in Death Valley.

Bret Bielema’s Hogs performed their own unique cover of the 1980 Mel McDaniel’s foot-stomper “Louisiana Saturday Night,” and just owned the evening against a team many considered among the best in college football a short two weeks ago. Just like the lyrics of that old country song, the Razorbacks made their selves at home in the Tigers’ den.

Honestly, Siegfried and Roy or even Tarzan could have taken some notes from the way the Hogs worked over Les Miles’ Bayou Bengals.

Going into the game, I thought the matchup was a favorable one for the Hogs to a degree. I felt an upset was very possible, but I never considered a 31-14 rout, at least not by the Razorbacks.

However, it was Arkansas that looked like the No. 9 team in the nation rather than LSU, as the Razorback defense held certain All-American Leonard Fournette 80 yards under his average, and the offense exploded with chunk plays to dominate a talented but one-dimensional LSU squad.

Fournette tallied 91 yards on 19 carries, but the sack-happy Hogs (5 sacks for 37 yards in losses) forced the Tigers into 54 yards in losses for a net of just 59 total rushing yards. Fournette alone had been averaging 173 yards coming into the game.

Credit the Hogs for coming up with a dominating defensive performance in one of the most hostile and even feared venues in the college football landscape.

Without a doubt Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith and his assistants Rory Segrest, Vernon Hargreaves and Clay Jennings formulated a great plan and coached their players up, but it was the players that executed it against one of the more talented collections of college players in the country, based on projections by recruiting analysts. They performed on a big stage, and the confidence they gained should pay off in the Hogs’ final two regular-season games and the postseason.

Yes, there will be a postseason this year. The victory, the 700th in Razorback history, made the Hogs bowl eligible, something that was in serious doubt when Arkansas opened the season 1-3. However, the Razorbacks are now among the hottest teams in the nation with a four-game winning streak and victories in five of their last six games.

While the Hogs’ defense rose to the occasion Saturday night, it’s the development of the Arkansas’ offense into a force that has been the impetus behind their winning streak. The Razorbacks literally had to outscore Auburn and Ole Miss in overtime games to reach this point, and it was an avalanche of big plays by the Hogs that forced the Tigers out of their own offensive rhythm and comfort zone.

Explosive plays by wide receiver Dominique Reed and running back Alex Collins early in the ballgame rattled the Tigers. Reed, who has been a big-play machine since midseason, took a simple pass in the flats from Brandon Allen the distance for a 52-yard touchdown on the Hogs’ second possession for a 7-0 lead.

Collins upped the ante early in the second quarter with an 80-yard touchdown burst for a 14-0 cushion. In the fourth quarter, wide receive Jared Cornelius sealed the victory with a 69-yard touchdown run on a superbly executed end around for a 34-14 lead.

Characteristically, the Razorbacks have pounded their way to scoring drives this season in an attempt to play keep-away from high-octane, no-huddle opponents this season, but facing a speedy but more traditional opponent, the Razorbacks wisely used a good bit of misdirection and flare in their sets and formations to confuse the Tigers.

It paid off with those big plays. Allen’s nifty ball handling that included a fake to Collins was key in opening the gate for Cornelius’ touchdown. Likewise pre-snap motion by a wide receiver was pulled a defender away from the point of attack on Collins’ 80-yard run.

Hats have to come off for the job of blocking done by the Razorbacks linemen, receivers and backs. Certainly, speed and skill are a necessity for big plays, but none of it happens without fine blocking. Cornelius screened off a possible tackler on Reed’s 52-yard touchdown. Later Reed returned the favor to Cornelius on his 69-yard run, keeping a defender busy with a block that allowed his teammate to find the end zone rather than be stopped short.

On his 80-touchdown run, Collins got a crease from his big men up front, shook off an arm tackle at the line of scrimmage and went the distance for the longest run LSU has given up since Darren McFadden also went for an 80-yard TD against them in 2006.

Give credit to tackles Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper, guards Sebastian Tretola and Dan Ragnow and center Mitch Smothers for continuing to improve and melding together as a unit. They were expected to be one of the better offensive lines in the nation going into the season, but that was not the case during the month of September. However, they have improved week by week, and their work in the trenches keyed a dominating offensive performance.

There is no doubt last Saturday night’s victory at LSU was a standout victory for Bielema’s program as it fights its way toward national relevance. It’s the type of win the program and its fans can hang their hat on. It completed a 3-1 SEC road record for the Hogs for the first time since 2010.

However, the job is not done. There are two games left to play at home and neither Mississippi State nor Missouri will roll over just because the Hogs whipped LSU.

Bielema, his assistants and the players have to be credited for remaining resilient after a totally unexpected start to the season; however, the program will ultimately be judged in how these last two games play out. A loss to the Bulldogs, whom the Hogs host for a 6 p.m. Saturday contest, would take a lot of the gloss off the improvement the Hogs have made since their overtime loss to Texas A&M.

We know the Razorbacks have improved as a football team, but the next two weeks will show us just how much they have matured as a program. A mature program would take advantage of closing out its season with two home games. An immature one might fritter away the opportunity.

Should the Razorbacks win their next two games, they will be very attractive team come bowl-selection time. While the SEC office does determine the ultimate destination for teams in the second-tier bowl games, the preferences of the bowls and the teams are taken no doubt into consideration.

If the Hogs win out, they could move up as high as third in the SEC’s bowl pecking order, which could put them in line for a Christmas trip to Florida. That thought alone should give the Razorbacks plenty of incentive to play their best over the next two weeks.