Wednesday, October 07, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Razorbacks achieve a lot of firsts

Leader sportswriter

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Saturday night, Arkansas finished. The Razorbacks overcame struggles on special teams and the defense held Tennessee to just three points in the second half en route to a 24-20 win over the SEC-East Volunteers in front of a crowd of 101,265 at Neyland Stadium.

Saturday’s game was one of many firsts for the Razorbacks (2-3, 1-1 SEC). It was their first SEC win of the year, their first win at Tennessee since their first season in the SEC (1992).

Under third-year head coach Bret Bielema, it was the Razorbacks’ first SEC road win and also the first time in the Bielema era that the Hogs won a game decided by seven points or less. Before Saturday, the Razorbacks were 0-9 in those one-possession games.

Junior tailback Alex Collins is well on his way to a third-straight season of rushing for more than 1,000 yards. On Saturday, Collins recorded his third-consecutive game of rushing for more than 150 yards. He finished the road win with 27 carries for 154 yards and two touchdowns.

The Hog feature back’s biggest run Saturday was a 19-yard burst around the left end on a misdirection pitch on third and 2 from the Tennessee 35-yard line late in the game. Arkansas was able to run out the clock three plays later.

“We’ve focused a lot in practice on finish,” said Collins, “finish, finish, finish. To see it finally work out, now everyone’s got it in their minds that we’re capable of finishing games, even when they’re close. Now that we know how to do it, we can keep doing it.”

“We kind of talked about it all week, that enough was enough,” said Bielema. “At some point in your life as a man, you’ve just got to kind of finally take what the world wants to give you. You can’t keep giving it away.”

Arkansas almost gave Saturday’s game away on a couple of different occasions in the second half. Even when Tennessee kicker Aaron Medley brought the Volunteers (2-3, 0-2 SEC) within 24-20 of Arkansas’ lead with a 45-yard field goal in the third quarter, the Razorbacks had several chances to build on their lead, but never took advantage of those opportunities.

After Medley’s field goal, Arkansas’ offense answered with a 10-play drive that went deep into Tennessee territory, with the big play being a 51-yard reception by tight end Hunter Henry.

True freshman Rawleigh Williams’ 12-yard run set up first and goal at the Volunteer 7, but the Vols’ defense held and Cole Hedlund’s low-trajectory kick from 22 yards out was blocked. The other error was also on special teams, but the head Hog gets the blame for that one.

Arkansas had a chance to take a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter with another field goal. The Razorbacks faced fourth and 4 at the Tennessee 10, and instead of taking the field goal that would’ve given Arkansas a 27-20 lead, Bielema called for a fake field goal instead.

The play gained positive yardage, but kicker Adam McFain was stopped a yard shy of the first down and Tennessee’s offense took the field and the momentum. It’s one of those play calls that if it works, the head coach looks like a genius and if it doesn’t, quite the opposite.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and yes, if the play had worked and McFain scored it would’ve all but sealed the game in Arkansas’ favor. But it didn’t, and it allowed Tennessee a prime opportunity to get back in the game and even take the lead.

Regardless, you have to take the points in that situation, which would’ve put your team up seven points. In other words, next time kick the field goal.

That silly play call ultimately didn’t matter, though, as the Razorbacks’ defense, who had struggled mightily at times this season and had to play the second half without linebacker Josh Williams (broken leg), held Tennessee scoreless the rest of the way and Arkansas’ offense made enough plays down the stretch to get the hard-fought win, and it’s one the Hogs needed and earned.

The Razorbacks could’ve easily gotten down on themselves when the Vols jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead when Evan Berry returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown and UT quarterback Josh Dobbs capped an 89-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown run shortly after.

Tennessee, though, has made a habit this season of jumping out to early leads only to falter and lose those leads down the stretch. Arkansas stayed the course, stuck to its game plan, and slowly but surely made the Vols play its game.

The Razorbacks battled back to tie the game at 17-17 by halftime and took control in the second half, outgaining Tennessee 236-90, while also controlling the time of possession. Arkansas held the ball for 21:57 in the second half and limited UT to 8:03 in that time.

Controlling the clock kept Tennessee’s offense on the sideline while keeping the Razorbacks’ defense fresh. That showed down the stretch, and that helped the Hogs’ defense play its best game of the season Saturday.

Offensively, the Razorbacks’ statistics weren’t much different than in previous weeks. The offense was again pretty well-balanced with 219 yards passing and 275 rushing, but establishing the run is what moved the chains and made the Razorback offense successful Saturday.

Collins made play after play throughout the game, and Rawleigh Williams, like the defense, had his best game of the season. He had his first 100-yard game rushing as a Hog, finishing the night with 14 carries for 100 yards.

Another big difference in Saturday’s game, compared to previous weeks, is Arkansas’ offense cut down on its penalties. Penalties have plagued the team this season, none more than last week’s loss to Texas A&M (5-0, 2-0 SEC), when the Razorbacks racked up 11 penalties for 93 yards – many of which were very costly.

Arkansas had just three penalties for 20 yards against the Volunteers, while Tennessee had four for 39 yards, one of which was a block in the back that negated a long punt return for a touchdown.

It’s a lot easier said than done, but if Arkansas can continue to establish and be strong in the run game, control the time of possession, not give up big plays on defense and limit its penalties, the Razorbacks will continue to give themselves chances to win games week in and week out.

Saturday’s win was a good one and one Arkansas desperately needed, but it was a winnable game and that was known going in. The Razorbacks will face a significantly tougher test this Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

For the first time in 73 games, Alabama entered last week’s SEC showdown at Georgia as an underdog. The Crimson Tide (4-1, 1-1 SEC) responded with a 38-10 win over the previously unbeaten Bulldogs (4-1, 2-1 SEC).

By no means will Arkansas be given a chance to win this Saturday in Tuscaloosa, but if the Hogs can do the things they need to do in order to be successful and not aid the No. 8-ranked Crimson Tide in any way, and catch a break here and there, they’ll at least give themselves a chance, and that’s all you can ask of this group.