Photo: Walt Beazley / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Just when you think you can count the No. 17 Arkansas Razorbacks out, head coach Bret Bielema and his staff coaxed the most complete performance of the season from the Hogs and thus changed the perception of the season.
The Razorbacks bounced back from a 49-30 whipping from No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 8, to outduel then No. 12 Ole Miss, 34-30, last Saturday in an epic ballgame in front of what sounded like possibly the loudest crowd in school history.
Just last week the forecast for the back half of the Razorbacks’ season looked rather uncertain to many if not down right grim. The defense was leaking chunk plays like a boat made of Swiss cheese, and the Razorbacks’ running game had seemingly taken a vacation in losses to Alabama and Texas A&M.
With the running game A.W.O.L, quarterback Austin Allen fought valiantly, but he was like chum in the water to the Crimson Tide and Aggies and their aggressive pass rushers.
Many wondered if the Razorbacks could withstand another assault from a high-powered, up-tempo offense like the Rebels, not to mention their super-quick edge rushers. Some even wondered if the double-digit losses to Alabama and A&M had broken the Razorbacks’ will.
Clearly nobody’s asking those questions this morning as the Razorbacks turn their attention toward this Saturday’s 5 p.m. contest at No. 21 Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The game will be televised by ESPN.
Last Saturday’s game was as evenly matched as the score indicated, but ultimately the Razorbacks made more plays than the Rebels, and none were bigger than the hit safety Santos Ramirez delivered on Ole Miss star quarterback Chad Kelly on the Rebels’ final offensive play.
Facing fourth-and-16 at the Ole Miss 20, the mobile Kelly eluded the Razorbacks rush and had his eye on the first-down marker, but Ramirez broke down and stuck the future NFL gun-slinger, knocking the ball out of his hands and 10-feet in the air before it hit near the sideline and bounced out of bounds.
It’s a play that every one of the 73,786 in attendance will remember for a very long time, and it’s a play that epitomized the Hogs’ defensive performance all night, just enough at just the right time.
The Razorbacks don’t boast the pure talent to be a dominating defense, but they are talented enough to make plays and most importantly not surrender the chunk yardage that kept the Razorbacks behind the eight ball against Alabama and Texas A&M.
The Hogs did surrender a 35-yard pass to Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram, and Kelly scrambled for a 23-yard run, but Razorbacks played much more disciplined on defense, and they played better together than they had all season against a Power 5 opponent.
It was a winning performance, and one that should give the Razorbacks confidence going into their final five games of the season.
“It feels good, and we’re building momentum,” said Razorback defensive tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter, who came up with a key sack of Kelly on Ole Miss’ final drive. “We got stops during critical times. We knew that we could do it, and we showed everybody we can do it.”
Ledbetter said putting pressure on Kelly was key.
“We knew he was a good player just from last year,” Ledbetter said. “But we knew we could rattle him. We got pressure on him. We focused on the mistakes we made from last year.”
Ledbetter said the defense knew they could play better football than they had in recent weeks, but that they had to prove it.
“Tackling was one of the main things we cleaned up,” Ledbetter said. “Pressure was also big for us. I feel like we did pretty well overall with it. Just us coming in with the mindset that we can do this. Knowing we can actually do it and showing people every game is the goal.”
Offensively, the Razorbacks looked more like the unit most expected them to be this season, with the Hogs churning for 254 yards on the ground. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but Raleigh Williams Jr. dashed for 180 yards on 27 carries behind a solid push from his offensive linemen and lead blocker Hayden Johnson. He also received better downfield blocking by the line and his receivers.
Freshman running back Devwah Whaley added 65 yards on 11 carries, and did a much better job in pass protection than he had in previous games, picking up at least two critical blitzes, as another example of the improvement the Razorbacks showed against the Rebels.
Arkansas offensive line coach Kurt Anderson said prior to the game that he encouraged his lineman to hold their blocks seconds longer than they had against Alabama, asking for six seconds of strain. It paid off. Creases and holes opened for the Hogs’ runners that hadn’t in previous games.
“Coach Bielema and the coaching staff always preach fighting that extra second and things will open up,” Williams said. “That’s what happened today and things opened up like they haven’t all season.
“It was tough last week, and we bounced back. We always say we have a good football team and nobody can take that away from us, because we know what we have in our locker room. We had to work hard this week and it paid off for us.”
The Rebels did sack Austin Allen three times, but overall he faced less pressure than he had in losses to Alabama and A&M. He had another strong game, completing 19 of 32 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns. Receivers Keon Hatcher, Jared Cornelius, Drew Morgan came up big like they have all season, and senior Dominique Reed joined in with his best game of the season, including snaring 51-yard touchdown bomb.
Allen did suffer an interception when he missed seeing Rebel pass rusher Marquis Haynes drop back in coverage. He also bobbled a snap in the red zone that resulted in a 24-yard loss that eventually forced a punt.
However, Allen and the other Razorbacks played well enough to overcome those mistakes, and that proved to be the difference in the game.
The Hogs now stand 5-2 overall and 1-2 in the SEC with both losses to squads currently ranked in the top 10. Overall, that’s not a bad place to be. In fact it’s the best position the Razorbacks have been at this juncture of the season in Bret Bielema’s tenure as coach.
Bowl eligibility is just one victory away, and every victory from there on just elevates the Hogs in the pecking order. But absolutely nothing is guaranteed in SEC play. Three ranked opponents — No. 21 Auburn, No. 15 Florida, and No. 25 LSU — stare the Hogs in the face.
Auburn is the challenge this week with a bruising running game featuring Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson, who have combined for more than 1,000 yards this season. The Tigers also have a stout defense with one of the best defensive fronts in the league.
Florida looked like a different team Saturday with Luke Del Rio back under center after missing two games because of injury, and interim LSU coach Ed Ogeron has the Tigers playing more like what everyone expected at the beginning of the season.
The Razorbacks road trips to Mississippi State and Missouri to close out the regular season may not appear difficult now, but you never know how those teams will be playing a month from now.
The Razorbacks picked themselves up off the ground with a great win over a solid Ole Miss football team last Saturday. Now we get to see if the Hogs can continue that improvement as they forge their way through a very challenging schedule.