FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has spent nine months molding his new team to fit his personality, preaching a physical brand of football where games are won by success in the trenches.
So it was almost fitting offensive coordinator Jim Chaney opened the Bielema era by calling seven straight run plays Saturday. Even better: The Razorbacks smash mouth plan worked to perfection, leading to a touchdown pass that got Arkansas off and rolling to a 34-14 win against Louisiana-Lafayette in Razorback Stadium.
“The feeling, you can’t really describe it,” Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. “We’ve waited so long. To finally get out there and display it and to see it … It’s just a sigh of relief almost.”
Almost everything went right during a feel-good opener in front of an announced crowd of 69,801. Arkansas showed off its balance, a powerful ground game and big-play potential on offense en route to 522 yards Saturday. The defense endured some early struggles, but adjusted, put pressure on quarterback Terrance Broadway throughout the second half and forced two turnovers.
It all led to a 20-point win in a game that had been projected as an intriguing opener because of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ success in 2012. But Arkansas never trailed, extending ULL’s winless streak against Southeastern Conference opponents to 37 games.
The success also pushed Arkansas to 1-0, matching Bielema’s mantra of winning every snap, every play, every moment in every day.
“I can’t say enough about not just what our guys did (Saturday), but I think their preparation,” Bielema said about the past nine months. “When you’ve got a new staff, so many new faces, the way they handled game week, the way they’ve handled themselves really … It didn’t shock me, but I didn’t know until today got here.”
Any questions Bielema had seemed to be answered with that first drive, which started with 14- and 13-yard runs by sophomore running back Jonathan Williams. Arkansas also got 21 yards on consecutive runs by Alex Collins and moved to ULL’s 18-yard line before quarterback Brandon Allen attempted his first pass.
The ground-and-pound approach helped set up the touchdown on Allen’s third attempt, which was a play-action pass to receiver Javontee Herndon. The senior was all by himself in the end zone to haul in a 6-yard score that made it 7-0.
“When I heard the play call, I was like, ‘Please throw me the ball,’” Herndon said.
“We’ve been practicing that play a lot. That’s a good play we like to run in the red zone and it worked for us.”
It went that way most of the day for the Arkansas offense, which unveiled a one-two punch in the backfield that the Razorbacks haven’t seen since Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Williams shook off a second-quarter shoulder stinger to rush for 151 yards on 18 carries, including a 75-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter to cap the scoring. Collins was nearly his equal, gaining 131 yards on 21 carries.
Williams and became the first Arkansas duo to top the 100-yard mark in the same game since McFadden and Jones in 2007. Collins also was the first Arkansas true freshman to run for more than 100 yards in his debut since Jones in 2005.
“That’s what Coach Bielema talks about all the time,” Williams said. “Enjoy pounding the ball and enjoy being physical and we did that (Saturday).”
But the Razorbacks showed they had no plans of simply being a ground-and-pound team against Louisiana-Lafayette with Allen under center.
The sophomore, who had struggled the last time Arkansas fans saw him in a game, enjoyed a fantastic debut in the new offense. He completed 15 of 22 passes for 230 yards with three touchdowns, helping the Hogs balance out their attack.
Allen connected with Herndon for Arkansas’ first two touchdowns. The second came after ULL had tied the game on Alonzo Harris’ 2-yard touchdown run. Allen led Arkansas on a 75-yard drive, which was capped by Herndon’s 49-yard, one-handed touchdown catch on another play-action pass.
“We hit them with a run, and then we hit them with a run again,” Collins said. “So they’re expecting a run again, and then we hit them over the top with a pass and it’s a big gain down the field. So I like how our progression is.”
It was the close ULL — which came to Fayetteville with confidence after last year’s near upset at Florida — got to the Razorbacks. Kicker Zach Hocker, who was battling a groin injury, made two field goals in the second quarter — the second coming after a well-executed two-minute drive — to give Arkansas a 20-7 halftime lead.
Bielema called it the point “where I knew I had what I thought I had.”
“That was really, really big,” Bielema said. “I thought we were playing beyond the game there. Setting up some things down the road.”
Arkansas’ defense made sure ULL never got back in the game during the second half.
The Razorbacks struggled to put pressure on Broadway, a talented dual-threat quarterback who figured to pose problems for the Hogs, in the first half. But Arkansas made halftime adjustments and the difference was evident.
ULL’s total yardage Saturday (274) was well below its 2012 production (455.3). The Razorbacks also collected four sacks. Junior Trey Flowers led the way with two.
Flowers also hit Broadway to force a fumble in the third quarter, which the Razorbacks turned into their first touchdown of the second half. The turnover came two plays after Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry lost a fumble near midfield.
“We just talk to our kids all the time,” Bielema said. “On defense, they just say just put the ball down. No matter what the situation is. We’ve got to respond.”
Arkansas turned it into a touchdown six plays later, when Kiero Small caught a pass near the sideline, stayed inbounds, then bulled through two defenders to the end zone for a 10-yard score. It gave the Razorbacks a 27-7 lead.
“That was probably the breaking point right there,” Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said. “If we could have capitalized on that turnover, our defense had been getting better. They had finally settled down, gotten a stop or two, then caused the turnover and gave us the ball at midfield. If we could’ve went down and scored, it could’ve been a little more interesting. Just hate that we gave it right back to them.
“Those two ends they’ve got are pretty good. They’re hard to handle.”
Arkansas turned the game over to its offensive line and running backs the rest of the way. It was a scoreless fourth quarter, but one Bielema enjoyed as his team protected a 20-point lead by wearing down the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Arkansas never topped the 200-yard rushing mark in 2012, but finished with 292 in its debut under Bielema on Saturday. It was the first time the Razorbacks had more than 200 rushing yards since piling up 254 against Tennessee on Nov. 12, 2011.
Hudspeth said his team had referred to Williams and Collins as thunder and lightning as it prepared for Arkansas throughout camp. They didn’t disappoint.
“You’ve got to give Arkansas credit,” Hudspeth said. “They run it right at you. They make you tackle them. And they’re strong and physical. That’s what they do.
“They’ve got a really good football team. Coach has done a great job with them.”
Arkansas believes it’s just scratching the surface of what it’s capable of as well.
Allen said everyone in the locker room is buying into the fact “we’re not going to back down from anyone.” Everyone knows there are bigger challenges ahead over the next three months, including the daunting stretch of Texas A&M, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina in consecutive weeks.
But Saturday’s debut showed Arkansas that Bielema’s way can lead to success.
“I think we laid a good foundation,” Swanson said.