The scoreboard and statistics books have often exploded with offensive numbers over the past five seasons at Arkansas. Defense was often just along for the ride. Sometimes you wondered if they even made the ride.
Hapless Southern Mississippi isn't a great measuring stick, but there was defensive improvement again Saturday in Arkansas' 24-3 victory at Reynolds Razorback Stadium as the Bret Bielema era begins to take shape.
The Golden Eagles may not have scored a touchdown if they played all day and all night and the kickoff was 11:21 a.m. They came close to scoring a touchdown only with about two minutes left in the third quarter when Kendrick Hardy squirted loose after his wideout held in the secondary, a block he used for the final opening.
Otherwise, there was only one other point where the visitors looked capable of getting in the end zone, just ahead of Corey Acosta's 27-yard field goal with 12:01 left in the second quarter.
Acosta missed a 49-yarder early in the third quarter and Jarrett Lake snuffed a fake field goal from the UA 20 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Southern Miss made 254 yards on 65 plays, finding a little rhythm with a third-quarter running game out of a four wide set. But the Eagles converted just 4 of 15 on third down when defensive coordinator Chris Ash floods the field with defensive ends.
It was enough to leave offensive players praising their defensive teammates in the post-game interviews, perhaps not a normal routine in recent times.
"The whole defense did a great job," said Travis Swanson, the lead man in an offensive line that still blocked both running backs over 100 yards. "The defense was the difference today. You have seen them get better week by week.
"Hats off to the defense. They kept us in the game until we could figure some things out. We were not where we needed to be offensively, sluggish at the start. It was a little better in the second half.
"Me personally, I'd need to watch tape before I say anything about the way I played. I do think after you play a few games the other teams can make adjustments."
Specifically, Swanson was talking about the toss sweep play that had been money for the Hogs in the opening two games. It wasn't there against Southern Miss.
"They did some things we hadn't seen," Swanson said. "They came with a good game plan. We did make some adjustments at halftime and did a little better."
Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, who had 116 and 115 yards respectively, congratulated the Arkansas defense.
"You see it coming each week," Williams said. "Personally, I thought they had a great week of practice, their best week.
"A lot of people doubt them, but I don't. I have seen the way they have practiced."
Collins said, "It's nice to see the defense step up like that and put the team on their back. The defense worked hard and made it happen."
The defense had a big series early in the second quarter after a bad exchange between between Swanson and backup quarterback AJ Derby led to great field position for the Golden Eagles. A pass interference penalty setup first and goal at the UA 2-yard line.
Defensive tackle Robert Thomas popped free in the "A" gap on first down to produce a 3-yard loss. Bridgeford was incomplete on the next two plays, the last a breakup by true freshman D. J. Dean.
Bielema praised Thomas and Lake for the big plays in the red zone.
"Robert has been playing at a very high level the last two weeks," Bielema said. "He's played defensive tackle about as well as anyone I've seen.
"As good as we are on the edge with Chris Smith and Trey Flowers, that keeps combo things off of Robert.
"On the goal line, Robert read the backfield key and he ripped across the face of the guard and was in there. That was a big play.
"The fake field goal, obviously, we're telling them to watch for the fake, watch for the fake. I think Jarrett made a very nice play there. I can't say enough about how those guys handled that."
Lake said he smelled something fishy.
"The two dudes on my side were whispering," Lake said. "So I didn't rush. I just held onto my man and watched for it, so I was there.
"I guess you could say I was thinking it might be a play like that. It's a big play and I do think it gave our team a boost. We got big-time plays from some other guys, too.
"As far as my day, I've got to do better. If it was 13 this week, the goal is 14 tackles next week. To be honest, I felt like I owed my team something because I hurt them last week (with a suspension). I wanted to repay them and help today.
"It feels good to play defense like we did today. It was better production by the defense.
"No matter what the offense does, we want to do our part. We aren't there yet as far as the defense, but it's a step in the right direction."
Smith took a big step, with three sacks. Lake was impressed.
"I think you saw a different person out there today," Lake said. "Maybe he had something to prove. He came with a chip on his shoulder and maybe quieted some critics. He did a great job."
Smith said it was a matter of changing up his technique at the insistence of line coach Charlie Partridge.
"He wanted me to vary it, not just the speed rush," Smith said. "I probably have been just going with speed too much and not enough power or other things. So I faked outside some and came inside with some power. I've got that, too, now. And later, the speed did hurt them.
"I kind of feel a little bit like Jake Bequette after this one. We just have to continue to use our fundamentals and technique that Coach Partridge has given us."
Bielema emphasized Smith's total package.
"He is very gifted pass rusher and has the speed and now the power game to go with it," Bielema said. "As he's gotten stronger, he has that power, too."
It wasn't a highly productive day for Smith's running mate on the other side, junior Trey Flowers. He did get an interception on a zone blitz, but didn't make any tackles a week after sitting out with a knee issue.
Still, Flowers was happy with the way the defense stepped up.
"To hold a team to a field goal, that's good," he said. "The interception was fun. So me and JaMichael Winston each have one and we challenged the secondary to join in with the pick party. I'm an old tight end so I do have some moves.
"I thought JLake came back strong after missing last week and that really helped our defense. He's one of our playmakers.
"As far as carrying the team for a little bit today, I wonder if that will show up in the papers. No one has said much good about us for awhile around here. We are not just an offensive team. We are making progress.
"We talked about that some on the sideline, that maybe we held up our end today."
Jarrett Lake gives chase. The linebacker made 13 tackles.
Chris Smith sacks USM quarterback Allan Bridgford, one of three for the Arkansas defensive end on the day.
Robert Thomas popped free to make a big stop on the goal line.
Photos by Jason Ivester, Hawgs Illustrated
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