State of the Hogs: Magic Act at Baton Rouge

Challenged by Bret Bielema all week, the Arkansas defense found its mojo to sack LSU, 31-14, in Baton Rouge. Maybe it was magic.

BATON ROUGE, La. — Just when everyone thought the Arkansas defense had disappeared, defensive coordinator Robb Smith produced some magic.

“Every now and then, we can pull a rabbit out of the hat,” Smith said on the field in a post-game celebration.

That’s as good of an explanation as any for the way the Arkansas swarmed LSU quarterback Brandon Harris in a 31-14 victory Saturday night before 101,699 at Tiger Stadium. The Tigers entered at No. 9 in the nation and coupled with Arkansas' victory at No. 18 Ole Miss a week ago in Oxford it was a first for the program. The Hogs had never won on the road in back-to-back weeks against a ranked foe. Remember, they blanked both of those teams in back-to-back weeks last year.

Well, there wasn’t 101,699 there for long. A few left as soon as the Hogs jumped on top 14-0. More left when it was 21-0. LSU scored touchdowns just before the end of the half and again to start the second half. But when the Hogs answered with a 10-0 haymaker, they were streaming out of the stadium on the Jared Cornelius’ 69-yard run four minutes into the final quarter for a 31-14 Arkansas lead.

After producing only eight sacks in nine games and missing Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly six times on third down the week before, defensive end Deatrich Wise led a front that totaled five sacks at LSU. Wise entered the game as the UA sack leader with a paltry two. He had 2.5 against the Tigers.

Wise delighted in explaining it all in the post-game interviews, going immediately to his immense talent and how coaches finally helped him unleash his prowess. He’s always been the most likely Arkansas defender to explode and reminded that he loves night games. He pointed to a nice game against LSU last year under the lights.

Linebacker Dre Greenlaw came up with a sack and forced fumble to set up a touchdown. He led the Hogs with 12 tackles, often trading positions with Brooks Ellis to man the middle linebacker spot to track LSU beast Leonard Fournette. Greenlaw also had the best line in the interview room.

“Deatrich Wise ate something he wasn’t supposed to eat and I want some of that, too,” Greenlaw said. “Deatrich got that sack in the first quarter and came back to the huddle and said, ‘I got more where that came from.’ And he did.”

It capped a week where head coach Bret Bielema challenged his defensive coaches in an early meeting Wednesday morning. He said it’s as hard as he’s chewed on his staff.

“I was on them really hard,” he said. “I didn’t like being like that. It was early, early. I’m glad I did it.

“Deatrich Wise, he’s as good as you can possibly look, exactly what an SEC defensive end should look like. He really had a nice week of practice and played really well.”

Wise said it was a matter of hearing coaches and everyone else trashing the defense. He said there was a lot of talk that the Hogs ranked 125th in the country in sacks.

“It was that,” Wise said. “It was hearing that. The 125 number. That’s as bad as you can be. We heard it over and over and we had enough. Enough was enough.

“Myself, I missed Chad Kelly two times last week. Had him dead and missed him. It’s a matter of a guy like me with the talent that I have doing what the coaches tell me to do.

“Some of it was going back to the fundamentals. Running through the quarterback, not reaching. Our offense is high powered, phenomenal. We had to do something to help them. It was going back to fundamentals, working on tackling. Simple as that.”

Bielema said the Hogs added a second set of tackling circuits this week. They also prepared for LSU’s heavy look on offense with extra tight ends and tackles by practicing reserve end Karl Rosesler at strongside linebacker, putting him in a down position for a 5-2 look.

Bielema said it was a matter of running out of strongside linebackers with both Josh Williams and Dwayne Eugene out with injuries. Williams was the latest, breaking his wrist in Ole Miss preparations. Khalia Hackett is the top reserve at both outisde linebacker spots, but has spent most of his time practicing behind Greenlaw on the weakside. Hence, Roesler was the best option. He made only one tackle, but the UA defensive look seemed to convince the Tigers to stay away from those packages. It probably helped that the Tigers lost their fullback the previous week against Alabama.

Smith’s packages always seemed to have answers for the LSU formations. And, it was easily the best the Hogs had tackled. Everyone in Arkansas knew the tackling had to improve over last week’s constant whiffs at Ole Miss, especially against Fournette, the nation’s most powerful back. He reminds me of the great Earl Campbell of Texas, another man best tackled when forced towards the sideline.

“I knew we would tackle well,” Bielema said. “Even when LSU got Fournette rolling to start the second half, I knew we’d come back and stop that.”

The offense does look high powered. There were big play touchdowns of 80, 69 and 52 yards. The running game amassed 299. LSU got 91 from Fournette, but finished with a net of just 59 on the ground. The Hogs rolled to 440 total and did not have an offensive penalty.

“We won the line of scrimmage,” Bielema said in the understatement of the night. “I think when Arkansas and LSU play, it’s who wins up front and who capitalizes on the big play. We did both tonight.”

Alex Collins lost a fumble on the first series — with the defense responding with a three-and-out — but was oustanding the rest of the way. He gained 141 yards including a career best 80-yard TD sprint. He averaged 8.8 to Fournette’s 4.8. Bielema got in his ear after the fumble with running backs coach Jemal Singleton doing the same when there was a missed protection.

“Alex responds to a challenge,” Bielema said. “I jumped him and Jemal jumped him hard about the protection. Those can be bad.”

Shreveport, La., product Jared Cornelius had the biggest, a 69-yard end around for the game’s final touchdown with 10:18 left. Brandon Allen faked an off-tackle plunge to Kody Walker, then slipped the ball to Cornelius. There was a broken tackle in front of the LSU bench at midfield and then a sprint to catch wide receiver Dominque Reed blocking the LSU corner into the end zone.

Reed scored the game’s first touchdown, taking a short pass and circling the LSU secondary with a slick counter move for a 52-yard play.

“To see Dominique blocking that guy for 30 seconds was awesome,” Bielema said. “I guarantee Dominque didn’t come to Arkansas to block.”

Reed was more proud of the block than his TD play.

“I knew J-Red was coming,” Reed said. “My man was pressed up against me. I just tried to keep driving him. I took one peek over my shoulder to see which side J-Red was coming and gave my man one final push. That did it.”

Cornelius said, “I saw Dominque run his guy down the field. He ran him all the way to the 5-yard line. That was a lot of work. I had to score when he did that. Wow. To get this touchdown in Tiger Stadium, it’s number one in my book.”

Cornelius said Reed took some grief from wide receiver coach Michael Smith earlier in the season.

“Coach Smith always jokes, Dominique is looking down to make sure he’s not going to get rolled up when he blocks,” Cornelius said. “He’s not like that anymore.”

Allen said Cornelius and Reed both were toasted by teammates and coaches on the sideline after the clinching touchdown.

“The offensive linemen were all going to Dominique,” Allen said. “They liked the block. Dominique is a great player and so unselfish. He doesn’t look like a guy who would block, but he does. He’s going to run his guy off the play and it was great blocking.”

Allen had carried the load with the passing game in recent weeks. It wasn’t needed with the run game and the sack attack stepping up.

“What a great game by the defense,” Allen said. “And, our blocking and run game was great. The defense gave us some field position for an easy score and we hit some plays in the run game. It was a great job of some guys making great plays.”

There was a strange start to the day. When both teams came on the field in sweats some two hours before the kickoff, Sebastian Tretola was confronted by several LSU players upset that he kind of danced his way across the painted eye of the Tiger at midfield. Freshly painted earlier in the day, that area was partially roped off.

The massive Tretola (6-5, 330) had his head sets on with his music blaring. As usual, he was singing his tunes and oblivious to the trouble he was causing. Eventually, his teammates surrounded him and the LSU players drifted away. There was just a little jawing from point blank range but never anything ugly.

“I was told about it,” Bielema said. “From what I understand, Sebastian handled himself well. He just did what he does every game, plays his music and sings.”

Bielema was asked about the progress of the program. The 6-4 Hogs have now won six of their last nine SEC games — with three on the road this year — to become bowl eligible for the second straight season.

“The only team to really hand it to us was in our first year, and that was Alabama,” the third-year coach said. “That was on the road. We had another game, against South Carolina, when we just didn’t play well. But we’ve been in the rest. We want people to know that when you come to play Arkansas, you are going to be in a street fight and we are going to play the longest.”

DeMarcus Hodge, the Monroe, La., product named captain for the return to his home state, was basking in the glory as last man to the interview room.

“We made a change in ourselves this week,” he said. “We looked at everything we were doing and everyone made the change that was needed in each of our own game. We took what had happened the last few weeks to heart.

“You look at Deatrich, he had a game last week where he missed some big plays. It was redemption. He’s been ready all week. He erarned it with how he practiced and then he did it in the game. We all did what we could to change our performances.”

Wise said he did predict the sack breakout early in the game.

“I think I was trying to get us riled up,” Wise said. “And, we also had to get Fournette going sideways. That’s the key against a big back like that. He can’t hurt you going east and west. He hurts you when he goes north and south. So that was the goal, turn him and then get more guys to the ball. We did that.”

They also emptied Tiger Stadium early. Poof, the stands were vacant early, allowing the 2,500 red clad Razorback fans to party in Death Valley. Maybe it was all a magic act. No, it was physical, hard-hitting football as taught by Bret Bielema.

Leaving the press box and chatting with a group of LSU boosters emptying out of the club areas eight minutes before the end, there was a telling comment.

“We are going home now,” a man dressed in purple said. “We have been thoroughly whipped and beaten. This game is won by the lines, offense and defense. That’s the way our team does it. Tonight, this was about Arkansas whipping my Tigers right there where we pride ourselves in being the best. Hats off to the Razorbacks.”

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