LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Jim Harris) - No. 20-ranked Arkansas did pretty much what it set out to do in downing Football Championship Subdivision-level Alcorn State 52-0 early Saturday afternoon at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.
The offensive regulars started fast, scoring two touchdowns on a couple of one-play drives in the first quarter. Junior receiver Jared Cornelius got wide open down the middle to catch 29- and 35-yard touchdown passes from Austin Allen, and Cornelius also had a long-distance punt return for a TD called back by penalty. No matter, as highly regarded freshman running back Devwah Whaley broke through a hole in the middle on the very next play and outran everyone 75 yards for his first touchdown as a Razorback.
Arkansas led 24-0 after one quarter, and after shutting down and nearly putting to sleep all of the announced 46,988 fans on hand in the second quarter, turned it on with a 28-3 second-half sparked by Henri Toliver’s 70-yard interception return.
Redshirt freshman receiver La’Michael Pettway and true freshman running back T.J. Hammonds joined Whaley in getting their first college touchdowns, and senior receiver Cody Hollister took over the role of injured Keon Hatcher (out resting a hamstring pull) to scamper 26 yards to score on a reverse.
Arkansas totaled 559 yards total offense, and Austin Allen completed 13 of 18 passes for 206 yards, though Allen spent much of the game shaking his throwing arm like he was ready to roll dice, and he didn’t seem to have the same zip on his throws he displayed last week against A&M. Allen, to be fair, suffered a chest muscle bruise in last week’s game, not to mention assorted other hits, and for all the reports that he was 100 percent this week, Allen seemed a little off. He floated a few throws, one that nearly got Cornelius split apart by a defender and two others that were knocked away by closing defensive backs on seemingly wide-open receivers. We’re not talking about close d-backs with 4.4 speed here.
The question will still be about the defense, even after only surrendering 10 points. Alcorn State helped the Hogs out with critical turnovers, including one late in the first half after reaching the Arkansas 1. The Braves were on the march to start the second half – they would have been looking at cutting the Hogs’ early 24-point lead to 3 if not for the miscue before halftime – before Toliver, who was picked on several times in the second quarter, caught a deflection off Brooks Ellis’ hands at his 30 and weaved his way through Braves to score.
Giant offensive tackle Dan Skipper got his big paws on yet another field goal for Arkansas that stopped another Braves drive in the fourth quarter. That gives Skipper six blocks in his four years.
In all, though, the Arkansas defense surrendered 313 yards to a fast-paced-style of offense, albeit FCS level, that doesn’t huddle. Alcorn, a SWAC team that lost a wild, triple-overtime game at home to Arkansas-Pine Bluff three weeks ago, got 155 yards on the ground and 158 through the air. Again, a quarterback got loose with lots of green and no defenders near him against the Hog defense, and the pass defense was hit a few times deep down the middle. Tackles were missed by cornerbacks Tolliver and Ryan Pulley as well.
Which only means something because the Razorbacks don’t play another cupcake next week, but rather No. 1 Alabama in Fayetteville. And that’s followed by high-octane Ole Miss in Fayetteville and a road game to Auburn. Arkansas’s 4-1 start could easily turn to 4-4 before Halloween.
Arkansas’s defense did come up with four turnovers (2 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions, the second theft by Josh Liddell to complement Toliver’s). And Alcorn started the game with an onside kick that didn’t fool the Razorbacks.
So, here’s five other takeaways from Saturday’s win:
· Arkansas’s Cole Hedlund hit a 25-yard field goal when the Hogs’ opening drive starting at Alcorn’s 43 bogged down at the 7. But Hedlund in the second quarter didn’t reach the crossbar with a 44-yarder, while Alcorn State’s Haiden McCraney had room to spare on his solid 43-yard field goal in the second half. Alcorn also had a kickoff man boom one 6-7 yards deep in the end zone a couple of times. Arkansas finally got a kickoff to result in no return when Adam McFain caught one after the Hogs’ last score. The positive to UA kickoffs was that Connor Limpert was able to get a lot of height on his boots, and coverage early was fast downfield to limit returns. Later in the game, though, the coverages fell off some.
· Why was Austin Allen still in the game in the fourth quarter, when Arkansas comfortably in command? Backup Ty Storey finally entered with 4:18 to play ostensibly to handoff, which Allen had done on seven straight plays previously in leading to the Razorbacks’ last touchdown with 6:36 to play. There is that chance, against the monsters scheduled to line up against the Hogs’ suspect pass protection, that Allen could get hit hard enough to require a fill-in Maybe that backup won’t be Storey, considering UA head coach Bret Bielema wasn’t able to get him in the game until all the other backups were in (Arkansas would like to redshirt true freshman Cole Kelley, but some observers feel he may be the second-best quarterback on campus). Storey didn’t get a snap with the regular backs, the backup freshmen runners or the starting line (he did get Duwop Mitchell, who fumbled). That could be a problem. But if you’ve been around Bielema, he’s said in so many words that he doesn’t coach anticipating those kinds of negative problems. Seriously, he said that.
· It was important to get Devwah Whaley a lot of confidence-building carries Saturday, and for that matter, the speed of T.J. Hammonds is needed in the backfield as well. Rawleigh Williams III is a solid, hard-running little back, but he showed even on Saturday he’s unlikely to break a long one before being run down by defenders. He did have 126 yards on 13 carries, a 9.7-yard average per carry, and a long run of 29 yards. Whaley, though, gained 135 yards on 9 carries and showed his SEC-level speed and running ability in the first quarter, and Hammonds impressed with 28 yards all on his own on the final Arkansas scoring drive. But why did this trio only get three carries combined in the first half, when it was still a game and Arkansas was bogged down with apparent nonchalance on both sides of the ball after taking a 24-0 lead? Arkansas even failed on a fourth-and-1 from its own 45 in the second quarter when sixth-year senior Kody Walker got nothing running into a pile in the middle; Alcorn had 10 players in the “box,” much like what A&M had around its goal line last week when Arkansas failed miserably from in close.
· Arkansas used the lesser competition provided by the Braves much like it did two weeks against Texas State, looking at a new combination or two in the starting offensive line. In particularly, right tackle Colton Jackson, who has given up his starting job of the first three weeks to Brian Wallace, lined up some at right guard. We’ll wait to hear Bielema’s and offensive coordinator Dan Enos’ assessments Monday, but Arkansas didn’t necessarily mash the Braves up front with any combination it tried. A lot of success for Rawleigh Williams came on outside bursts. Fact is, people have a pretty good handle on what Arkansas is trying to do and is trying to take the middle away while not nearly as worried about the Hogs going wide.
· You’ve got to wonder how many yards Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts will run for next week against an Arkansas defense that looked bad down the middle at various times Saturday against Alcorn. The pass defense was exposed a handful of times in the middle of the field, and Toliver also had trouble as the nickel back in coverage. But with the promises still ringing by defensive coordinator Robb Smith that Arkansas would never again have the kind of mistakes we saw in allowing A&M’s Trevor Knight to run for 157 yards and two 40-plus-yard touchdowns last week, there was Alcorn’s quarterback, redshirt freshman Noah Johnson, finding nothing but green in front of him in the third quarter before losing his footing a couple of times and letting the Hogs catch up after he gained 53 yards to the UA 17. It looked scarily similar to Knight’s sprints last week. There were a half-dozen other running play calls where it appeared Arkansas was out of position and blocked up front and no linebackers were near. The defensive line didn’t have one of its better games after being outplayed in Arlington, Texas, last week. But on the positive side, safety Josh Liddell’s tackle of Silas Spearmon on Alcorn’s first offensive snap, a loss of 5 yards on an option pitch play, was the first tackle for loss by a Hog safety this season. And, speaking of safeties, regular Santos Ramirez missed the game with a leg bruise but De’Andre Coley, who was ejected last week for a targeting late hit against an A&M receiver, played well for most of his snaps Saturday.