I’ve never been accused of being a sunshine pumper. It’s not my bag. I’ve often had the pleasure of being called “negative” or “pessimistic” just because I live in reality where ice cream melts and then attracts ants. So you should relish in what I’m about to say:
Arkansas looked pretty darn good against UTEP.
Bold statement, I know. I fully expected the Razorbacks to run away with this game, but I didn’t expect it to happen the way it did. 4 TD passes in the first half was not in my predictions, although I did say that I think Brandon Allen will be an All-SEC QB this year. And I stand by it, especially after seeing what he did on Saturday. I was also pleasantly surprised by the play of the Razorbacks defensive line. Coming into the season, Coach Bielema and Coach Smith had really been talking the unit up, and I was expecting them to do well, but the depth and performance of the line is what was surprising to me.
Demarcus Hodge looked better than he ever has at Arkansas. The senior from Monroe, Louisiana had 5 tackles in the 2014 season. (He had 27 as a sophomore.) The big man racked up 3 tackles, including a sack, in the UTEP game alone, and showed that when the first stringers come out of the game for the Hogs, that doesn’t mean the offense is given a respite. Add to that the play of guys like Henre Toliver, who had 4 tackles and a big interception that cemented the momentum of the game in Arkansas’ favor, and you have a lot to be happy about on the defensive side of the ball.
Sep 5, 2015; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks running back Alex Collins (3) runs for a first down against the UTEP Miners during the game at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The Razorbacks defeat the Miners 48-13. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Brooks Ellis led the team in tackles with 7, as we all knew he would. Keon Hatcher looked like the senior leader we all hoped he could be. Dominique Reed never made a catch, but he showed off his speed on two deep passes that were just barely overthrown. The tight ends for Arkansas looked absolutely phenomenal. Jeremy Sprinkle is so dangerous, and when him and Hunter Henry are on the field together, it probably drives defensive coordinators crazy. And of course, two returning receivers that everyone, myself included, overlooked heading into the season showed why they deserve all the playing time they’ve earned. Drew Morgan and Jared Cornelius displayed legitimate field awareness and big play ability.
And I could go on and on about the great things that happened on the field for the Razorbacks, both on offense and defense. I would love to just ramble about all the things I saw that made me excited. (Like Keon Hatcher throwing big blocks 20 yards down field.) However, as I discussed earlier, I’ve always had a penchant for finding negatives within the positives. So I’m going to do that now.
Hog fans may not have known it before the game, but UTEP running back Aaron Jones is a potential draft pick in the NFL. He averaged 4.6 carries against the Razorbacks, racking up 70 yards on 15 carries. He also led the Miners in receiving, with 83 yards on 6 catches. Basically, he played a heck of a game, and he highlighted some areas of the Hogs defense that needs improvement before the SEC schedule starts up.
Mainly, that as good as Jones is, he ain’t Leonard Fournette or Derrick Henry. The Razorbacks front line played well, but the linebackers and secondary had some missed plays and opportunities. The linebackers were out of position several times, and it cost the Hogs some major field position. The most notable of which was when Jones came out of the backfield, was thrown a decent pass that he bobbled, tipped, and the finally caught. He then ran for about 8 more yards in a play that set up a scoring drive for the Miners. Chances are, a linebacker was supposed to pick Jones up coming out of the backfield, but that didn’t happen. You can get away with that against UTEP, but when we roll into Tuscaloosa, that could potentially be a problem.
The secondary didn’t have as many “out of position” moments as the linebackers did, but they did miss several one-on-one tackles in the flats. Both Jared Collins and Josh Liddell had opportunities for tackles along the sideline where their form just wasn’t great. One arm wrap ups, or trying to get a big hit led to the Miners getting more yards than they should have.
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The good news is, if last year’s trajectory can be applied to this year’s team, the Razorbacks defense will continue to improve week over week. It seems that losing 4 starters to the NFL may have an impact on a college team. Who knew? Guys like Dre Greenlaw, Santos Ramirez, and Liddell have a lot of catching up to do experience-wise, but the ability and intelligence is there. A continued dose of Robb Smith is the best medicine for these guys, for sure.
Finally, I think it’s time to address the elephant in the room: The Razorbacks Rushing Attack. On paper, it looks like the Hogs had an ok day running the ball. Alex Collins had 127 yards and a touchdown, Kody Walker added a goal line score, and Rawleigh Williams had 45 yards rushing behind the second team offensive line. Those aren’t bad numbers at all.
However, the rushing attack was inconsistent all day long. Collins garnered the bulk of his yards on a 70 yard draw just before halftime that did not lead to points or field position. There has been much talk in the offseason about the change in position for guys like Denver Kirkland and Frank Ragnow along the line. When it comes to pass blocking, the line looked amazing. Allen had all day and a few seconds left over to throw the ball. However, when it comes to the ground game, the Razorbacks rushing attack was not as dominant or explosive as fans expected it to be. In my mind, that is a direct result of 3 things: The loss of Johnathan Williams, the UTEP defensive scheme, and early season playcalling.
First off, I have no doubt that Coach Bielema is confident in Walker and RW3 to contribute big time yards this season. But I do think it’s time to drop the charade that Johnathan Williams is in any way replaceable. He can potentially be recreated with the Walker/RW3 combo, but Williams was the best running back on the team in my opinion, and not having him slowed down the Razorbacks rushing attack on Saturday.
Sep 5, 2015; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback Brandon Allen (10) passes against the UTEP Miners during the game at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The Razorbacks defeat the Miners 48-13. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
That being said, UTEP was very up-front with what they were trying to do defensively. Early on, the Miners would have 7 or 8 guys in the box, bringing run blitzes and stacking the line of scrimmage to slow down the Razorbacks ground game. And they did, indeed, slow it down. What the UTEP staff did not account for was Brandon Allen being a damn good quarterback, and shredding their single coverage secondary to pieces. Even IF the Hogs had been able to play Williams, I’m not sure the running game would have looked much better. I’m no mathematician, but 5 lineman against 7 or 8 defenders seems to be close to impossible to block.
Lastly, I’m fairly confident that the plays being called by new offensive coordinator Dan Enos were about as basic as UGG boots and pumpkin spice lattes. Even the passing game, which looked so good, was mainly just screen passes, slants, and corner routes. Not exactly the Sphinx’s riddle. The running game play calling was a reliable mix of traps, sweeps, and the occasional toss. I fully expect the plays to look the same against Toledo as well. No need in going past the third page in your playbook if the passing game is as effective as it was against UTEP.
To sum things up, the Arkansas Razorbacks need to improve in the second level and in the flats on defense, and the offensive line needs to do a better job on first down runs. Toledo is no pushover opponent. They are expected to compete in the MAC this year, and even though Toledo running back Kareem Hunt is suspended, the Hogs cannot afford to overlook ANYONE in Little Rock ever again. You know what I’m talking about….This Day In History is a dark day for Razorbacks.
All that being said, the Razorbacks looked really good as a team on Saturday. Mistakes aside, the Hogs controlled the game from the first snap of the ball, and executed well in pressure situations. They carry that momentum to Little Rock this Saturday, where the Hogs will open for Brad Paisley.