It wasn’t pretty, but Arkansas took care of business by besting FCS opponent Jacksonville State 49-24 in front of 71,062 in Reynolds Razorback Stadium Saturday night in the season opener for both teams.
Now, many of you can sit back and celebrate the rest of the 3-day Holiday Weekend.
I know you won’t celebrate Labor Day (Who does that?).
I am referencing the annual, “Razorback Fan Freak Out” Day.
Widespread Hog Panic has been a September staple the last few years. A glorious round manufactured anxiety ensued when Arkansas allowed 467 yards (373 passing) of offense to Troy last year in a 38-28 win over the Trojans.
Two years ago, Arkansas’ wins over Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Monroe were—according to the Razorbacks most knee-jerk reactionary fans– sure signs of doom.
Arkansas had the audacity to trail Tennessee Tech 3-0 after the 1st quarter of the 2010 opener and only scored 31 points against ULM in Game 2 while crawling out to a 7-0 halftime lead against the War Hawks in Little Rock.
Last night I heard Average Hog Fan bemoaning the performance against—*gasp*–Jacksonville State.
Here is a word to the wise: Don’t sleep on JSU.
The Gamecocks aren’t SEC-caliber, but they probably are Sun Belt Conference caliber. If you think for a second that former Arkansas (and current Jacksonville State) head coach Jack Crowe hasn’t had this game circled on his calendar since it was announced, you are kidding yourself.
JSU prepared all offseason for its chance to take down Goliath and the program represented itself well behind fifth-year senior quarterback Marquez Ivory.
That should not have been completely unexpected. There are plenty of FBS teams (probably high double digits) that Jax St. “could” beat and several others they probably would beat–like Memphis, New Mexico and UNLV.
JSU is every bit as good as the North Texas team that LSU beat by a similar score (41-14) in Baton Rouge Saturday.
Crowe and company beat Mississippi and TFMC 49-48 in 2010 and led Florida State 9-7 with 36 seconds left in the game at Tallahassee in 2009.
And, (while I am not comparing Arkansas’ defense with Bama’s) as for the prevailing thought that no top echelon SEC team would give up 300 yards to a FCS team, it’s worth noting that Almighty Alabama gave up 342 yards (302 on the ground) and 21 points to FCS Georgia Southern in November of last year on the way to the national championship.
So, while many Arkansas fans are already making sweeping proclamations about the 2012 Razorbacks’ vast number of deficiencies, I think I will reserve judgment.
I did so the last two years and those Razorback teams—with a BCS Bowl appearance and Top 5 national finish, respectively–turned out to be much better than many fickle Arkansas fans predicted based on a few luster-lacking outings.
What We Saw
–Arkansas again looked like a potential offensive powerhouse. UA Senior Quarterback Tyler Wilson was on the money all night long. He set a school record for yards passing in a season opener, finishing 19 of 27 passing for 327 yards and three touchdowns and he looks to have a nice, new athletic weapon in fellow QB turned wide receiver Brandon Mitchell (6-4 230, 4.5 40-yard dash).
Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino repeatedly used the duo to exploit what JSU gave him—the middle of the field.
Petrino showcased Mitchell in the slot receiver position and created a number of physical mismatches with Mitchell being covered by much smaller linebackers and safeties.. But for one drop of a beautifully thrown strike by Wilson, Mitchell would have had a near-perfect night.
Even with the drop, it was a show-stealing performance as Mitchell pulled in 4 catches for 122 yards. Many of the yards came after the catch and contact as Mitchell showed off better-than-expected speed and elusiveness.
–Arkansas’ Chris Gragg also showed why any list of the Top 5 NFL prospects at tight end without his name on it is a complete joke. Gragg grabbed 7 catches for 110 yards and 2 TDs. With his size—6’3, 236—it’s almost unfair that Gragg runs a legitimate 4.5 40-yard dash and has a cartoonish wing span.
If he stays healthy, Gragg could become Arkansas’ 2nd Mackey Award winner (given to the nation’s best tight end) in 3 years. Green Bay Packer D.J. Williams won the Mackey Award as a Hog in 2010.
–The one blemish on Gragg’s night was also the biggest one on the Razorbacks’ performance as a whole. Gragg lost a fumble, one of 3 Arkansas lost as a team (Wilson and Ronnie Wingo, Jr. lost the others).
The turnovers, not Arkansas’ defense, are the main reason the opener failed to satisfy Hog fans’ blood lust. Take away 1 or 2 of the fumbles and Arkansas margin of victory would have been what most expected.
–Arkansas defense certainly could have played much better—particularly in the back 7. The UA cornerbacks’ coverage was soft early allowing Jacksonville State to extend drives on a number of 3rd down.
And, linebackers Tenarius “Tank” Wright and Alonzo Highsmith were solid at times, but for the most part looked like players who missed almost all of Fall Camp with injuries (Highsmith missed all of Spring Practice as well).
The positives on the defensive side of the ball came mostly from Arkansas’ experienced defensive line. It tallied 3 sacks and had a whopping 9.5 (of Arkansas’ 11 overall) tackles for loss.
On the back end, safety/linebacker Ross Rasner is expected to be a Jack of All Trades for this unit and he showed why with 11 tackles (1.5 for a loss) and several pass break ups.
–It was good to have All-SEC runningback Knile Davis back on the field after he missed all of last season with an ankle injury he suffered early in 2011 Fall Camp. Davis looked as quick and strong as ever but was admittedly a bit rusty—he said in postgame interviews that he missed big hole on the goal line.
Considering the seriousness of his past injuries, Davis’ 18 carries for 70 yards and a TD was encouraging.
What We Didn’t See:
–As one would expect, Arkansas didn’t give future opponents much to scout—particularly on defense. Defensive Coordinator Paul Haynes 2nd-guessed himself in following the game, suggesting he could have dialed up a few more blitzes to try to rattle Jacksonville State and take some pressure off of the secondary.
–Arkansas appeared to avoid serious injuries. Wide Receiver Cobi Hamilton sustained a minor neck injury and left the game very early, but is expected to return next week. Reserve defensive end Colton Miles-Nash left the game with an apparent leg injury, but it, too, appeared to be minor.
What You May Not Have Seen:
–It you watched the pay-per-view telecast there are plenty of things you may not have seen as the cameras appeared to be set up in West Siloam Springs. Add in the two-toned numbers on Arkansas’ new uniforms and it wasn’t the easiest opener for eyeballs around the Natural State.
–ESPN/ABC analyst Kirk Herbstreit apparently has more confidence in Arkansas than many of its fans. On hand to call Bama’s dismantling of an overrated Michigan squad and its Quarterback Denard Robinson, Herbstreit said of Bama as they were shaming the Wolverines, “We are gonna find out how good this defense is in 2 weeks when they face Tyler Wilson and Arkansas.”
–Apparently our Summer isn’t over, yet. There were reportedly dozens of fans who suffered heat-related problems requiring attention from Razorback Stadium personnel Saturday night.
–My hopes of increased attention to gameday detail at Razorback Stadium with the revamping of its scoreboard and Pig Screen appear to be dashed, already. Updating the Down and Distance is still a problem, so I guess I will give up on the those in charge of the stadium actually managing to pull off an out of town scoreboard that is updated regularly.
The issue wouldn’t be a big deal if lead sponsor AT&T provided better than “Tomato Cans and Shoestring” cell service inside Razorback Stadium.
What We Hope to See Next Week:
An old adage advises that a football team improves the most between the 1st and 2nd games of the season. I hope to see that by way of major improvement from Arkansas’ secondary.
Arkansas also needs the Mayor of Markham, Cobi Hamilton, to return for next week’s game in Little Rock and prove he is healthy as he is one of the few Arkansas wide receivers who hasn’t been manhandled by Alabama the last few years and has made a few plays against the Crimson Tide. Alabama is Arkansas’ Week 3 opponent (and the probable #1 ranked team in America) in 13 days.