Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith said during the preseason he wanted three things from his defense this season - stop the run, limit big plays and create turnovers.
With the exception of a couple of misdirection plays, that’s exactly what happened Saturday during the Razorbacks’ 48-13 season-opening win over UTEP before an announced crowd of 67,708 fans at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The Miners had just 204 yards total offense - only 58 of which was on the ground - while Arkansas had 11 tackles for 46 yards in lost yardage, one sack, an interception and two fumble recoveries.
“Offensively, I thought we were going up against one of the better defenses in the nation,” UTEP head coach Sean Kugler said. “That was proven last year.
“…“They looked like the same guys to me. I mean, they can fly around, they’ve got a lot of talent. They’ve got a good scheme, they’re a well-coached team. They’re physical on both sides of the ball.
“I was telling our team, ‘You’ll be seeing these guys at the end of the year, and they might be standing there at the end of the year.’ That’s a good football team we played today, excellent football team.”
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema was pleased with his defense, especially in a second half when the Miners had just five yards rushing.
“We really didn’t play bad in the first half, but there were a couple of third downs where we let them off the field and a couple of missed tackles,” Bielema said. “We didn’t really tackle a lot in the preseason or in the fall camp so I put a lot of that on me. We probably needed to get one more (hitting) day in there.
“But I like the fact that we came out of today healthy and the guys that needed to learn those things did and hopefully we can take that into Toldeo (next week in Little Rock).”
Razorback sophomore cornerback Henre’ Toliver picked off a pass right out of the halftime locker room to end any doubt about the contest, which also included a muffed punt and a botched fake punt by the visitors.
Alex Collins scored on a 7-yard touchdown run on the next play and soon after a muffed punt gave Arkansas the ball at the 3-yard line and Kody Walker scored.
Suddenly a 28-10 Arkansas lead was 42-10 less than three minutes into the third quarter.
“When we came out in the second half, Coach B was like ‘set the tone, set the tone,’ ” Toliver said. “He told us not to come out flat and that’s what we did
“…I would say that we played pretty good. We have to get off the field on third down, but I think the communication was great. We talked really good. We have to get better at tackling, but other than that we did good.”
Toliver picked off UTEP quarterback Mack Leftwich at the 19 on the first play of the second half and returned the ball to the 7-yard line.
He got some grief from Bielema for not scoring on the interception.
“He was like ‘how did you let the quarterback tackle you?’ I was just in the moment and was focused on catching the ball,” Toliver said.
“It was a called blitz and I saw him pull up and saw the throwing hand so I just played it out and caught it.”
It was a solid performance for a defense that lost four players to the NFL, but has guys like defensive ends Jamichael Winston and Deatrich Wise, defensive tackle Taiwan Johnson and linebacker Brooks Ellis stepping up into leadership roles.
“Me, Brooks, Taiwan Johnson and Deatrich all do a great job of collectively respecting each other’s opinion and just gathering together to come together as one,” Winston said. “We find the right solution for things.”
Defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter led the Razorbacks with eight tackles in his first career game for Arkansas while linebackers Williams, Khalia Hackett and Ellis each had seven stops.
True freshman linebacker Dre Greelaw and redshirt safety Santos Ramirez both added five.
“That interception was huge,” Ellis said. “They came out and were trying to get a big play, but we put the fire out and got an interception and that was huge for us.”
Arkansas gave up a few misdirection plays in the first half, including wide receiver Autry Golden’s 10-yard reverse for a score.
It was the first time the Razorbacks had given up a touchdown at home since Oct. 25, 2014 after shutting out both LSU and Ole Miss to end last season.
Arkansas did much better in the second half on those plays as UTEP.
“You have got to have your eyes on the right guy,” Ellis said. “I think we did a good job of doing that and just reacting and coming back to the sideline and coaches telling us what to do and just coming out the next series and doing what we were supposed to do.”
Bielema was very pleased with what he saw from middle linebacker Josh Williams and freshman weak side linebacker Greenlaw.
“Very happy with what Josh is bringing and I think he is the answer there,” Bielema said. “…And I am telling you that number 23 (Greenlaw) is a very special player and we might find a way to get him in there as well because he can make a lot of plays.
“That’s a position that needs to continue to grow, but I liked what I saw out of 21 (Williams) and 23 (Greenlaw).”
Arkansas had a brief scare when Winston stayed down for a minute, but it turned out to involve the rubber pellets that are in the turf.
“Jamichael just had a mouthful of black pellets,” Bielema said. “He got on the bottom of the pile there, but wasn’t injured in any way. We really came out of it pretty clean.”
Arkansas played some 11 defensive linemen during the game.
“I feel like it was effective being able to keep guys fresh,” Winston said. “We were just getting in and out and being able to get after the running back and the quarterback."
Winston loved not having to slow up as Arkansas does in practice to keep from getting its own players hurt.
“It definitely felt good,” Winston said. “You don’t have to stay up and you can run through them. That felt good being able to get back out there and hit somebody and take them to the ground.”