FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The old Nike slogan: Just do it. Well, the shoe manufacturer finally “did it” for Alex Collins.
The buzz all week around the Arkansas camp ahead of Tennessee Martin’s arrival had to do with the almost miracle recovery for wide receiver Jared Cornelius, back just five weeks after surgery to repair two broken bones in the same arm. The bionic man with plates and screws everywhere was going to play after just six weeks.
But there was another buzz. And, it was as simple as what Nike had done for running back Alex Collins, plagued for the last month with a sore toe and arch. Some new shoes were on the way.
Simple as it sounds, Collins said it was all about the shoes on the way to five touchdowns in Arkansas’ 63-28 victory before 64,206 on Homecoming at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Collins scored the game’s first three touchdowns on runs of 2, 6 and 5 yards. There was 3-yard TD run late in the first half. Then, there was the punctuation mark that brought on the reserves, a 63-yarder to end the third quarter. It was his longest TD run of the year. The only play longer for the Hogs’ ace runner came at the end of the first half against Texas-El Paso when he ran out of gas to end a 70-yard gallop.
“I’ve got flat feet, no arch,” Collins said. “My toe has been hurting. So they got me a new shoe with wider cleats and more arch. It feels so good.
“They got them in Wednesday night. I put them on for Thursday’s practice and they felt great. I used them again in the walk through Friday. So this was the third time. I love them. They protected my flat feet.”
Collins was so glad to be talking about something that feels good, instead of the two fumbles that everyone brought up the first part of the week. Running backs coach Jemal Singleton wasn’t happy with the two balls that Collins put on the ground against Auburn. There was never a hint of a fumble against UT Martin.
“We are about ball security,” Collins said. “So Coach Singleton wasn’t happy with what I did last week. There’s no excuse for that. You can’t do that here. So I had to prove to him this week that I could take care of the ball.
Collins hasn’t practiced much the last three weeks, perhaps another reason for the ball security issues.
“To be honest, my legs are fresh right now because I hadn’t been able to practice because of the toe,” he said. “But I think I will be able to practice now with these shoes. They are wonderful.”
Head coach Bret Bielema did everything but call Collins wonderful after the UT Martin game. That was a switch from last week when the UA boss said he was “pissed” after Collins was late for breakfast then fumbled twice. He said he got in Collins’ ear. But in truth, Collins has been hobbled.
“He had a little toe, I guess I should say a big toe injury,” Bielema said. “Nike worked great with us and got him some special shoes on Wednesday. He felt good Thursday. I thought that was as fresh as his legs were that he would have a big day today. To get him out of that fourth quarter uninjured and not to reinjure that toe was a big deal.
“It’s good to be going into SEC play to close this out, and to have him at full strength is big.”
The Hogs made it through the game in decent health a week after losing backup runner Rawleigh Williams to season-ending neck surgery. Williams missed class on Monday, but attended all required academic meetings and labs starting on Tuesday.
“I do think our team rallied last week at the end in great part due to what happened to Rawleigh,” Bielema said. “He’s extremely well liked by our entire team. I think everyone knows it. So that had an impact on how we played. And, for everyone to see him around all week was great.
“We got special permission for Rawleigh to be in a booth to watch the game. He’s got the neck brace on and we wanted to take extra care of him. That worked out well for him to come to the game.”
Bielema calls it “major neck surgery” for Williams. It sure seemed like it was major surgery when Cornelius broke both bones in the lower arm against Texas Tech.
“I”ve got plates and screws in my leg,” Bielema said. “I know that on some cold days, you really feel it. We knew he was ready to play and had seen him work back into practice the last couple of weeks.”
It’s been so good that when D.J. Dean had to sit out with a toe injury this week, Bielema was ready to put Cornelius back as the punt returner, too.
“He has been really good,” Bielema said of Cornelius. “You always get concerned when someone comes back after sitting out for so long.”
Quarterback Brandon Allen said the plan was to go to Cornelius early and often to regain some confidence for the sophomore wideout. Allen over threw him on the fourth play of the game, but got him the ball in the red zone for a 10-yard gain to the 7-yard line to help the Hogs score on the opening possession. Cornelius finished with a team-high four catches for 33 yards.
“Amazing, isn’t it,” Allen said. “I saw what happened to him (against Tech). That was a nasty, nasty break. He’s battled back, kind of a medical miracle in my mind.
“The idea today was get him the ball short and let him get hit and get that confidence that he was OK. He did his thing, make people miss. He did a great job.
“It’s a little insane for him to really be back, but we’ve seen him in practice and we knew what he could do tonight.”
Cornelius agrees it was kind of insane. He said he thought he was “done for the season” until three weeks ago.
“The trainers have said that I’ve done a wonderful job,” he said. “We treated it aggressively. Thinking even for a moment that I might not ever play again made me see how much I love the game. I’m just excited to be back.”
The only real disappointment was that the Hogs had trouble against UT Martin’s quick throw offense. They were spread so thin to account for three solid wideouts and athletic plays after the catch that they also gave up 144 on the ground. Quarterback Jarod Neal completed 30 of 43 for 380 yards and was not sacked.
No one was happy about giving up 519 yards. The Sky Hawks made 88 in the first quarter, 175 in the second, 154 in the third and 102 in the fourth. The Hogs were playing reserves in the final quarter, but those middle two quarters it was the front-line UA defense giving up chunk plays.
Coordinator Robb Smith’s defense is designed to limit big plays. His philosophy is that winning football requires you to hold the opposition to three or less chunk plays of 25 yards or more. UT Martin had plays of 31, 28, 27, 26 and 25 yards. There were also long gainers of 21, 21 and 19. (The Hogs countered with their share of chunk plays — 71, 63, 49, 37, 35 and 31. UT Martin averaged 7.7 yards per play while the Hogs averaged 10.6 on just 56 snaps.
“They have a quarterback who is accurate and understands where he wants to go,” Bielema said. “He frustrated our defense. I thought in the second half we were playing some guys who had never played and they racked up some yards.
“We were trying to pressure him and then we lost contain and he made a run and they went right down the field to score. At that point, I thought we were better off just trying to keep him in the pocket because he showed he could escape.
“Next week against Ole Miss — and I watched some of their game today — they have a quarterback who stands in the pocket and is an accurate guy. But I flipped on the TV and saw him throw two picks and so we have to hurry him and make it about intimidation a little.”
Defensive tackle Taiwan Johnson called it a game of mistakes for the defense.
“We have to look at the tape because we did really make some errors today,” Johnson said. “I did think everybody gave effort, but it was not where we were supposed to be on several plays.
“They had a good quarterback and he gave us fits. We just have to be more relentless in our pressure.”
Linebacker Brooks Ellis gave a tip of the cap to the Sky Hawks and offensive coordinator John Bond, a UA grad and Rogers native.
“We wanted to execute, but we didn’t and they did,” Ellis said. “They had a better scheme than what we showed as far as our execution. They played better.
“They were running their routes and we were not getting to the (routes). They were getting to us in the middle. We were not routing our defense to the ball.
“I know Coach (Robb) Smith was happy with the win, but he was not happy with how we played.
“They had a great plan. They worked us. We have to work harder this week and we know we have a great challenge in Ole Miss.”
Safety Rohan Gaines was flattened on a touchdown run and dove and miss on another.
“I am not disappointed in anyone,” he said. “I feel like everyone came out and tried their hardest. We just know we have things to work on. Nobody is perfect, everybody makes mistakes and we know we have to come back against Ole Miss and do something better.”
Ellis did intercept a pass. The Hogs also had some breaks in the special teams to set up easy points. Dre Greenlaw forced a fumble, too. That proved decisive on a night the Hogs had just three penalties and no turnovers.
“No turnovers, a pretty clean game,” Allen said. “That was one thing we really wanted to do, no offensive penalties, no turnovers.
“I know some look at the opponent, but it’s all about how we play and not so much the opponent. We played pretty well.
“They were selling out to the run and had the safeties in the box. We knew the safeties would come down and we’d have play action.”
The play action was so effective Allen walked in on the goal line on a bootleg for a 3-yard TD run.
“They had on the flat guy, two on Hunter Henry. So they just completely forgot about me. That may be the easiest touchdown I’ve ever scored.”
Allen was more pleased with the 71-yard strike to Dominque Reed and his brother Austin’s touchdown pass to Jeremy Sprinkle, a 35-yard strike for the final UA points.
“I saw the safety bite down on Hunter,” Allen said of the throw to Reed that was the over-the-top play that fans have ached to see. “He was not the first option. But I knew he had one-on-one with what the safety did. I just put it out there for him and let him go get it and he did. Then, he got away from the last guy.
“It was fun to see Austin get a touchdown, but that’s not how it was supposed to go. We were going to get Hunter in the flat. But no one covered Duwop Mitchell and Austin saw it. I think the idea was to take a little more time (off the clock). But it was a great play.”
Mitchell didn’t expect the pass.
“You see you are on the same side as Hunter Henry, that’s where the ball is going most of the time,” he said. “But they all bit on Hunter’s out. There was pretty much no one. That’s the hard ones to catch. You better catch it, but you feel a little pressure when it’s coming in there and no one is around.
“Great, that was my first touchdown since high school. I was hoping my mom was watching back home in New Jersey. I look at my phone and there’s the text, ‘Your first TD since high school.’ She knew.
“I’m starting to get comfortable running things. It feels good because what you want is to help the team. It’s a good feeling to get in the end zone.”