FAYETTEVILLE - Toward the end of the first quarter Saturday night, it appeared that lowly Vanderbilt might throw a frightful turn of events into the University of Arkansas' football season.
But Ryan Mallett threw for a school-record 409 yards and the home team's defense awoke from its zombie-like state en route to a 49-14 win over the Commodores before 70,430 fans at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The pre-Halloween win saw the No. 18-ranked hosts score 43 unanswered points – capped by Jerico Nelson's 39-yard interception return for TD - after falling behind 14-6 early.
"I was happy for our team and we won the game the way we should win it," Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino said.
"Really the number one negative that we had was penalties (13 for 130 yards)," Petrino continued. "We have got to clean that up. We can't have penalties like that. Certainly that is something that we have to look at and be more disciplined and not hurt ourselves. But overall it was a good ballgame for us."
It also made Arkansas (6-2, 3-2) - which had a 555-153 yards total offense advantage - bowl eligible and set up a 6 p.m. game next Saturday at South Carolina that will be key in the SEC's bowl positioning.
With junior wideout Joe Adams out with an ankle injury, Mallett tossed two of his three touchdowns to Jarius Wright while Knile Davis rushed 19 times for 82 yards and a pair of 2-yard TDs.
Wright caught six passes for 87 yards and his first two touchdowns of the season while Greg Childs (5 for 87), Ronnie Wingo (5 for 40) and D.J. Williams - the Crip Hall Award winner for the outstanding senior in the Homecoming game - had four catches for 32 yards and one TD.
Mallett connected with eight different receivers while breaking his own school single-game passing mark and also moving past Barry Lunney, Jr. and into second place on the UA's career list for passing yardage.
"I think he was really focused and really worked hard at executing his progression, reading the defense, taking what was there and mixing the ball around," Petrino said. "We had a whole bunch of guys catch passes. Basically he just did a nice job of reading the defenses and throwing the ball according to his progressions."
Wright was determined to step up this week.
"The coaches depended on me this week with Joe Adams out and Greg Childs limited," Wright said. "I felt like everybody was depending on me and that I needed to go out there and make some plays."
The only negative over the last three quarters was a knee injury to wideout Greg Childs.
Although it looked bad, the severity of the injury was not announced after the game. Also injured during the game was the defensive tackle Byran Jones in the first quarter. Vanderbilt (2-6, 1-4) had only scored two touchdowns in its previous two games, but took a 14-6 lead into the second quarter.
It was all downhill for the Commodores from that point on and that disappointed interim Vanderbilt head coach Robbie Caldwell.
"I'm very disappointed we started the game off like gangbusters, got after them pretty good and made things happen and unfortunately some bad things occur," Caldwell said. "You drop a ball or you don't get rid of the ball and you get a safety – any number of things happen – and we had a lot of them come at the same time and wasn't able to overcome it."
The Razorbacks allowed 130 yards to the visitors in the first quarter, but the Commodores had -13 in the second quarter and only 7 yards total offense in the middle two quarters combined.
It was only 23 yards total offense in the final three quarters for the visitors.
"We tried just about everything and we just shot ourselves in the foot," Caldwell said. "We dropped balls and fumbled and we ran an unbalanced line three times in a row and it just parted like the Red Sea."
Warren Norman's 51-yard dash through some shoddy Arkansas tackling put Vanderbilt in great position to take the lead -- on a quick, three-play, 85-yard drive when Jonathan Krause took a reverse and dashed 21 yards into the end zone. Ryan Fowler's PAT pushed the Commodores up 7-0.
The Razorbacks answered with an eight-play, 78-yard effort with the big plays a 22-yard dash by Davis and a 34-yard pass from Mallett to Chris Gragg.
The pass to Gragg put Arkansas on the 2-yard line and Mallett covered that two plays later on a toss to a wide open D.J. Williams.
A bad snap led to a failed PAT and left Vandy ahead 7-6 with 6:46.
Norman's 45-yard kickoff return put the visitors in great field position again and 10 plays later Smith hit Brandon Barden with an 8-yard scoring toss.
Fowler's PAT gave Vandy – who had only scored two touchdowns in its last 2 games – a stunning 14-6 lead with 2:53 left in the opening quarter.
"The first quarter I thought we did an excellent job moving the ball, but after that we just started going downhill on offense," Smith said.
It was a pretty good start for new Commodores' offensive coordinator Des Kitchings, who took over the position on Monday.
"It wasn't that they were doing a lot of things different," Petrino said. "They were just executing and we were a little bit out of position. Our defensive staff made some adjustments on the sideline and then we shut them down from that point."
It was all Arkansas from that as the Razorbacks put up 23 straight points before halftime with the offense scoring three touchdowns and the defense chipping in a safety.
Those touchdowns were Davis with his first 2-yard scoring run, the first 15-yard TD pass from Mallett to Wright and then the second connection from that duo that made it 29-14.
"Jarius looked very fast," Petrino said. "We knew going into the game we had some special packages for him and he was going to be a guy that had to make plays for us. He did a nice job of executing it, catching it and running after the catch."
Smith said the offense didn't do enough to help the Vandy defense.
"It was hard for our defense to slow them down," Smith said. "Our offense kept going three and out and the defense was on the field constantly and it really took a toll on them. They were tired and just couldn't get anything going."
Before the last score Jerry Franklin hit Smith in the end zone and forced a fumble. Although Vandy recovered, it was a safety.
"I was happy with how we played (defensively)," Petrino said. "We not only knocked them backwards, but we put up nine points. The last two weeks we have scored points on special teams and scored points on defense and that really helps you."
Hocker's 26-yard field goal with 26 seconds left in the half sent Arkansas to intermission with a 32-14 advantage.
He added a 27-yarder for a 35-14 advantage and the only scoring in the third quarter.
The onslaught continued in the fourth quarter with another 2-yard run by Davis, and Nelson's 39-yard interception return that combined with Hocker's PAT to set the final score.
Jerry Franklin hits Vandy quarterback Larry Smith. Smith's fumble was recovered in the end zone for a safety.
Rudell Crim rolls with an interception.
Knile Davis turns the corner.
D. J. Williams runs with one of his four catches.
Jarius Wright celebrates one of his touchown catches.
Jarius Wright had six catches for 87 yards.
Jarius Wright had several celebration chances.
Jerico Nelson hauls in a pass interception.
Julian Horton tries to turn up field with a catch.
Lavunce Askew makes a tackle.
Greg Childs takes a hit near the goal line.
Ronnie Wingo had six carries and five receptions.
Photos by Marc F. Henning, Hawgs Illustrated