Offensive improvement highlights Razorbacks’ victory over Mississippi State

Arkansas sophomore running back Rawleigh Williams III /

It was a welcome but still uneasy victory for the Arkansas Razorbacks last Saturday in Starkville, Miss.

Welcome because the Hogs’ 58-42 victory put Bret Bielema’s squad back on the winning track with its seventh win of the season, but uneasy because his Razorbacks surrendered 42 points to a Mississippi State squad that will not go bowling this season.

On one hand Razorbacks fans should be ecstatic that the Hogs are showing offensive improvement at this late juncture of the season. The Arkansas running game looked potent Saturday night with sophomore Rawleigh Williams ripping and slashing his way to a career night with 205 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 16 carries. That’s a 12.8 yard-per-carry average, my friend, which is outstanding no matter the competition. Williams scored on runs of 72, 42, 7 and 33 yards.

His freshman running mate Devwah Whaley was almost as good with 112 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. The freshman tore off a 50-yard run of his own.

After a string of mediocre performances punctuated with a truly lousy one against LSU, junior quarterback Austin Allen looked sharp again, completing 18 of 25 passes for 303 yards with a touchdown throw to Keon Hatcher.

All of that happened because the Hogs’ much maligned offensive line played perhaps its best game of the season. The unit opened holes for the running game and kept Allen up right for the entire game. That’s right. Allen was not sacked all night, and he probably felt as little pressure as he has all season.

Each season under Bielema, the Razorbacks’ offense has made strides late in the season, and considering the Arkansas’ performance against Florida two games ago and Saturday’s against the Bulldogs, I do believe we have seen progress this season as well.

That bodes well for next year because other than losing two fine receivers in Hatcher and Drew Morgan, a fine tight end in Jeremy Sprinkle, and a solid tackle in Dan Skipper, Arkansas’ offense returns intact next season.

Yes, center Frank Ragnow and receiver Jared Cornelius are testing their NFL draft status, but both have more to gain by returning for senior seasons. Cornelius will be the focal point of the passing game next year, and while Ragnow would likely be drafted, he could help himself a great deal by putting together an All-American-type season next fall.

Going into the final game of the season, things are looking up for the Razorbacks’ offense. The same can’t be said for the defense.

Another porous defensive performance blunted the Hogs first victory over Mississippi State in their last five games against the Bulldogs. The Hogs surrendered 533 total yards —205 on the ground and 328 through the air — as Mississippi State rolled up 42 points on Arkansas. It’s the sixth time the Razorbacks have given up 30 or more points this season, and the fifth time the Hogs have given up at least two rushing touchdowns to an opponent’s quarterback

Bulldog quarterback Nick Fitzgerald rushed for 131 yards and 4 touchdowns and threw for 328 yards and two touchdowns. He is a fine, young quarterback, playing for a great quarterback coach in Dan Mullen. He has given fits to several other SEC opponents and was the primary concern even for teams who held him in check. However, it is hard for a defense to be successful when it routinely allows opposing quarterback to have All-American-type nights.

That being said, the Razorbacks won the game on the road. That’s an accomplishment in the SEC. It moved the Hogs to 7-4 overall with the opportunity to post a .500 record in conference play with a victory at 1:30 p.m. Friday at Missouri.

Obviously, everyone concerned with the Razorbacks football from Bielema and athletics director Jeff Long down to the most casual of Razorbacks observer would prefer the program to be further along at this juncture.

However, football is not played in a vacuum. Every program in the SEC strives mightily every hour of every day to improve, and with the league’s revenue sharing system, each program has the resources to do it.

Some programs, though, have greater resources by virtue of their geography and other demographic factors. Frankly Arkansas falls into the bottom quarter of the SEC in terms of those resources, but it tends to play up to the middle of the SEC most seasons.

That seems to be the case once again this season. Is that where the Razorbacks strive to be?

Absolutely not, but no one ever said competing in the SEC was going to be easy.