Strange doings at Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday night before a record crowd of 76,564 fans.
Third-ranked USC took advantage of two Razorback fumbles and an interception in the first half – all of the host's side of the field – for points and then dominated in the second half while whipping Arkansas 50-14 Saturday night before a packed house and a national television audience.
"Our defense did really well tonight," USC head coach Pete Carroll said afterwards. "Arkansas tried a lot of new things and we played hard. We were in position all night. We are on our way to a good thing. To get five turnovers and give up none, that's how you want to play. That is our philosophy."
So why in the world were the Razorback fans going nuts and cheering as loud as at any time during the contest with 9:25 left in the game and down 37 points?
Because heralded freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain made his first appearance of the game and promptly led his team 80 yards in five plays - one of those a 42-yard bomb to former Springdale teammate Damian Williams.
That was one of the few bright spots on the night for the Razorbacks, who suffered a 53-point drubbing at the hands of the Trojans in Los Angeles last season and didn't get anywhere near the results they had hoped for in a game with as much preseason hype as any ever in Arkansas.
"The turnovers really hurt us tonight," UA head coach Houston Nutt said. "...We were put in bad situations tonight and had very bad field averages."
It was the first season-opening loss for the Razorbacks under Nutt in nine years and only the fifth loss in the last 22 openers for Arkansas while USC was winning their 16th straight road game.
"From now on we will be focused," Nutt said. "We've got some excellent seniors who played hard. We need to grow up in a hurry. We have got 11 more (regular season) games. It is a ling season ahead for us. This game is over and we can't do anything about it."
USC got a starring performance from new quarterback John David Booty, who was 24-of-35 passing for 261 yards with 3 touchdowns with no picks.
He led his team to 472 yards of total offense in his first start before being relieved by Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter.
"This was a very difficult situation and a tough environment to play in," Carroll said. "We were really agressive the whole night. I am really proud of our team. J.D. got us off to a good start. Our receivers all made plays tonight and it was a heck of a first game."
Arkansas starting quarterback Robert Johnson finished the night 12-of-25 passing for 110 yards with two interceptions on a night when the home team had 263 yards total offense – 157 passing and 130 rushing.
Mustain, who would throw an interception on his second series that USC turned into its final score, was 4-of-6 passing for 47 yards with the one miscue.
"Mitch did some good things for his first time on the field," Nutt said.
UA star tailback Darren McFadden, who suffered a toe injury and had surgery in early August, started and had 42 rushing on a night when new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn made his debut.
McFadden said he was about "80 to 85 percent" going into the game.
"He started running full speed on Thursday,' Nutt said. "He surprised me how quick he covered. We knew he wouldn't be ready for his normal 25 or 30 carries, but we got the okay from his doctors and decided to take a chance. We knew he would be involved in the game and not have a chance to reinjure the toe."
The Trojans took a 16-7 lead into intermission and then put the game away in the third quarter with a pair of touchdowns and tacked on another couple in the fourth.
Booty connected on a 14-yarder to Patrick Turner with 9:24 left and then in essence put the game away with a 10-yard scoring toss to tight end Fred Davis with 2:55 left in the period.
He then led another 80-yard drive that resulted in a 1-yard toss to Ryan Powdrell with just under 13 minutes before exiting assured of the victory.
USC running backs Emmauel Moody, Chauncey Washington and C,J, Gable all had over 50 yards each as USC rushed for 192 yards.
"They (USC) have got some good weapons and good receivers," Nutt said. "Their running backs are solid. They are young and you might not know their name, but they are good."
Arkansas shot itself in the foot three times in the opening half, the first time when UA starting tailback Felix Jones had one of his three fumbles before intermission.
Jones rushed for 4 yards, caught a screen pass for 18 and then got four more before being hit by Dallas Sartz and putting the ball on the ground where fellow linebacker Keith Rivers picked it up at the Arkansas 46.
"Felix Jones is distraught," Nutt said. "He had a tough game. Felix is not a fumbler. We are going to have to tell him: "We believe in Felix Jones."
The Trojans ran eight plays – the same amount it took them to score 28 points in last season's game – before having to settle for Mario Danelo's 35-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead with 10:24 remaining in the opening quarter.
The Razorbacks kept USC out of the end zone until the third of Jones' fumbles – two which were recovered by the Trojans.
This one occurred at the Arkansas 15, was forced by Sedrick Ellis and picked on by Kevin Thomas who was hauled down by UA quarterback Robert Johnson at the UA 3.
Two players later true freshman starting tailback C.J. Gable was the beneficiary of the famous USC Student Body right sweep and ran untouched into the end zone.
Whey they get the ball on the 45 or 50, it makes things easier on them and harder on our defense," Nutt said.
Danelo's PAT had USC ahead 10-0 with 13:12 left before halftime and he drilled a 38-yarder for a 13-0 lead with 7:41 on the Trojans' next possession.
At that point, Arkansas began what turned into a 13-play, 80 yard drive to put its first points of the season on the board.
The drive was aided by USC penalty on fourth down, one that gave Arkansas a first down when it appeared the drive had stalled.
Johnson was 7-of-7 passing on the drive, spreading the ball around to Marcus Monk, Damian Williams and McFadden before hitting true freshman Ben Cleveland for what at first appeared a 23-yard touchdown pass.
A review correctly put the ball down at the 1, with Johnson's bootleg getting points two plays later and Stephen Arnold's PAT cutting the home team's deficit to 13-7 with 2:23 left in the half.
USC answered by driving down the field in eight plays to set Danelo up for a 44-yard field goal.
After three timeouts by Arkansas with five seconds left, Danelo crept one over the goal post as time ran out to send USC to the locker room with a 16-7 advantage.
Arkansas will host Utah State next Saturday at 6 p.m. while USC has a bye week before hosting Nebraska on Sept. 16.
"We just have to go out there and work harder," UA defensive end Jamaal Anderson said. "This one game won't direct our whole season."
o o o
Injuries: Desmond Williams (concussion), John Johnson (sprained knee) and Freddie Fairchild had to leave the game with cramps in his legs.
USC 50, UA 14
Hawgs Daily Top Stories
Top 10 most irreplaceable Razorbacks in 2017Arkansas can't afford to lose any of these players in 2017.
Hawgs DailyYesterday at 2:08 PM
Hogs announce 2017-18 season openerArkansas has announced the date and opponent for its 2017-18 season opener.
Hawgs DailyYesterday at 9:06 AM
Ragnow picks up another preseason honorFrank Ragnow has picked up another preseason honor.
Hawgs DailyWednesday at 4:24 PM
Hogs offer another in-state linemanThe Razorbacks have offered another in-state lineman.
Hawgs DailyTuesday at 9:16 AM