It doesn't take much of an expert to know Arkansas should have won handily against an opponent from the Football Championship Series. An SEC team is supposed to waltz.
If you watched the first and last quarter of Arkansas' 31-21 victory over Samford, that's what it looked like. Arkansas scored four touchdowns and was impressive in the process. In between, it was enough to make Hog fans think it was the second coming of Louisiana-Monroe, the game that derailed a 4-8 season.
But there was good news. Arkansas didn't get its quarterback knocked around. In fact, Brandon Allen was rarely touched and he didn't have to throw a pass in a dominating fourth quarter.
The bad news, Arkansas had to play without three defensive starters and it showed. Since the start of training camp, they've lost seven players to injury, although all but Demetrius Wilson is expected to return. Rohan Gaines and Trey Flowers, both with sore knees, will come back this week against Southern Miss.
New coach Bret Bielema was correct in his post-game assessment that the way the Hogs played would have meant losses for many teams. They lost the turnover battle, committed silly penalties, including personal fouls that halted two drives and helped a Samford scoring march.
It was encouraging that the Hogs could turn on the juice as soon as Samford took the lead, dominating over the final 20 minutes, forcing two three-and-out series for the Bulldogs. But young players that needed to get some seasoning didn't get in the game because the Hogs let the visitors hang around.
Overall, it was a shaky Little Rock debut for Bielema. The coach made for some interesting debate earlier in the week when he talked about the need to fly home after Little Rock games because it would be among the team's longest travel days of the season if they rode buses. For the record, Arkansas has flown home from Little Rock games many times in the long history of the program, including back in the days of Frank Broyles as coach. The Hogs dropped that practice the last time in Houston Nutt days because of long security checks at the airport after the 9/11 tragedy.
1, Quarterback - Brandon Allen didn't have a great day, but it wasn't horrific. He didn't throw an interception and has 39 attempts without a pick this season. Bielema said afterwards Allen was good in his checks as Arkansas picked the side to run its toss sweep based on defensive alignment. Allen seemed to go to the wrong receiver on the only gadget play the Hogs have called on the season, a flea flicker in the third quarter when Julian Horton popped free on the left side and Javontee Herndon, his choice, had a little tighter coverage down the middle. The worst throw of the night came on a third-down early in the second half when he went into coverage trying for Mitch Loewen and that pass that was batted around. Allen plays with poise and seems competent. He's done exactly what coaches have asked, stay away from bad plays. The Hogs have seldom had lost yardage plays this year. He's been sacked twice in two games and there has been only one other lost yardage play on the season.
2, Turnovers - Bret Bielema didn't like ball security. Javontee Herndon lost a fumble on a punt return. Jonathan Williams lost one early in the third quarter. Both times, Samford linebacker Justin Shade knocked it loose. Samford did not lose a turnover and wasn't really too close. So the Hogs lost the turnover battle, 2-0. That means the Hogs are behind, 3-2 on the season.
3, Physical Dominance - There was an ebb and flow to the physical dominance. Arkansas was good in the first half, but a couple of penalties thwarted two drives. It will be interesting to see if the Hogs maintained the pad level from week one when line coaches Sam Pittman and Charlie Partridge were pleased.
4, Numbers - There were some fascinating numbers, the obvious keys from the running backs. Alex Collins (172) and Jonathan Williams (126) both went over the century mark for the second straight game as the Hogs outrushed the Bulldogs, 333 to 114. The most interesting numbers of the night, total plays in the fourth quarter: Arkansas 21, Samford 6. It was actually, 31-6 over the last 20 minutes, after Samford scored to take a 21-17 lead. Samford ran 53 plays for 231 yards, an average of 4.4 yards. That compares to Louisiana's total offense of 63 snaps for 274 yards in the opener, a 4.3 average per play.
5, Loaded Box - Samford played eight in the box, but the Hogs still stayed with the ground for most of the game. In fact, the Hogs did not throw a pass in the fourth quarter when they ran out the last 7:35 of the clock. The bootleg pass still produced nice plays against the overloaded front. And, the big play was the toss sweep with Kiero Small and Travis Swanson out front.
6, Linebackers - The Hogs had to retool here after Jarrett Lake sat out with a suspension. Braylon Mitchell, out because the Hogs played nickel in the opener, switched from strong to weak linebacker to take Lake's spot. Juco transfer Martrell Spaight, who had seven tackles, started at strong. None were outstanding, but Mitchell led in tackles with 11. He also missed some assignments in coverage, as noted by Bielema afterwards. Middle linebacker Austin Jones made only four tackles. His lack of speed left him short on some wide plays. Lake should be back this week. Plus, Otha Peters, out since camp with a broken arm, might be close to returning. Bielema said Peters might be back as soon as the Rutgers game.
7, Special Teams - Zach Hocker provided the big highlights, a 53-yard field goal and a kickoff for a touchback after an Alex Collins penalty after a touchdown made him kickoff deep in his territory. It wasn't a bad night for special teams, but Javontee Herndon lost a fumble on a 16-yard punt return. The defense erased that mistake. Eric Hawkins returned two kickoffs for 50 yards. Coverage was solid, except when Sam Irwin-Hill outkicked his coverage on one of his two punts. Samford got a 16-yard return from Fabian Truss thanks to that low punt.
8, Tight ends - Mitchell Loewen got his first catch of his career and it went for the game's first touchdown, a 24-yard bootleg pass from Brandon Allen. Freshman tight end Hunter Henry had one catch for 13 yards one week after leading the Hogs in receptions. He contributed one of the big plays of the game, a pass interference penalty that stalled the only no-points possession of the first half. That call was questionable after Henry turned in and ran into a safety. It wiped out a big pass play to Jonathan Williams. Allen and Loewen could not connect on a failed third down, an ill-advised throw into coverage. It just wasn't the big day that Bielema likes for his tight ends in the passing game, but they did a nice job in their run game blocking for most of the night. The Hogs made big plays on the perimeter, sometimes scheming the edge with movement at tight end.
9, Freshman Tackles - Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper both played, but mostly on special teams. They were not major factors in the game because of the close nature in the second half. That's one of the disappointments of not putting the Bulldogs away, that more young players didn't see action.
10, The Crowd - It wasn't great, as most realized by midweek. Attendance was announced at 47,358 and that seemed about right. There were empty spots in both end zones and it was also clear that the students didn't fill their normal area. It doesn't help when you play an FCS team that doesn't have much of a following, but that's part of the deal of paying for a game. It was the lightest crowd since Troy in Little Rock. There was a smattering of boos during the third quarter when the Hogs allowed Samford to take the lead. Afterwards, Bret Bielema referenced the tailgating when the team did a morning walk through and the Hog walk into the stadium from the buses. He said the crowd helped the team respond in the fourth quarter and mentioned that he told the team that they deserved a boos with their performance.
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