Defense Struggles, But Survives

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas' defense was the source of constant criticism during the preseason after struggling to stop the offense.

And for good reason. It gave up big plays in preseason scrimmages. It struggled to stop the run. And it didn't really prove it has the experience and toughness to survive the rigors of a 12-game schedule.

The Razorbacks didn't exactly ease many of those concerns during the 28-24 win against Western Illinois on Saturday night. But there was good news: It did just enough to help coach Bobby Petrino earn his first win at Arkansas.

The young bunch, which struggled to handle Western Illinois and running back Herb Donaldson most of the game, buckled down to keep the Leathernecks out of the end zone on its final two possessions. It was enough to help the Razorbacks erase a 10-point second half deficit and show defensive coordinator Willy Robinson there is hope for the future.

"To weather that storm ... We could've hung our head at the end and quit," Robinson said. "But our team came back and responded. I can't tell you enough how much of a character builder that is going to be."

The Razorbacks — who started three true freshmen and one redshirt freshman — had to learn the hard way against a potent ground game.

It was no secret Western Illinois was going to rely on Donaldson to carry the offense and the senior responded. He rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries. He also caught a 12-yard touchdown pass.

The Walter Payton Award candidate — the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy — bulled his way carry after carry. It helped Western Illinois build a lead, control the clock and keep the Arkansas offense off the field.

"That's a lot of carries," WIU acting coach Mark Hendrickson said. "I'm not sure anybody will have that many carries against Arkansas for the rest of the year. ... I think he had a great night."

WIU held the ball 13 minutes longer than Arkansas and was 7-of-17 on third down. The performance left Petrino frustrated with the Razorbacks' ability to stop the run and get off the field. One obvious example: Donaldson rushed for 14 yards on third-and-14 from the Arkansas 17 in the fourth quarter. It led to a touchdown and 24-14 lead.

"He was a good back," linebacker Jerry Franklin said. "I knew he was good, but we just had to buckle down."

The Razorbacks finally did after the offense scored a touchdown to cut WIU's lead to 24-21. Donaldson rumbled for 15 yards on the next play, but held him to three on his next two carries. Quarterback Matt Barr couldn't complete a third-down pass and Arkansas' offense took over again.

Another touchdown gave Arkansas its first lead since the first half and put the defense on the spot. Western Illinois got the ball with 1:42 remaining, but the Razorbacks wouldn't let them move past the 50-yard line.

Even then, it wasn't easy. Arkansas defensive backs dropped three passes that would've been interceptions during the eight-play drive. Petrino described it as one of the longest series he has ever witnessed.

But it finally ended when freshman Elton Ford broke up a fourth down pass with 32 seconds left. Arkansas ran out the clock to end the game.

"We had a bunch of young guys still trying to get it together," senior defensive tackle Ernest Mitchell said. "At the end we got it together."

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