LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas got a good look at what it’s capable of accomplishing with a clean performance in last week’s win against Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Razorbacks found out what sloppy play can produce Saturday night.
Arkansas, a week after enjoying a smooth debut under coach Bret Bielema, had to scratch and claw to collect a 31-21 win against Samford in front of an announced crowd of 47,358 in War Memorial Stadium. The Razorbacks led by 10 points at halftime, lost the lead in the third quarter, but leaned on a dominant ground game to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and grind out a win.
It produced a sigh of relief for a team trying to get back on track in Little Rock after going 0-2 last season. The losing streak did end, but it wasn’t easy. Bielema said the close call produced “teaching moments” with tougher tests coming.
“I told our guys in the locker room, obviously, you’ve got to enjoy every win. As a head football coach I’ve learned that, as a player. Obviously, they’re frustrated. I think we defined several things to show them how to lose a football game.
“There’s a lot of teams that would’ve lost that game right there.”
The good news for Arkansas: It didn’t lose. The Razorbacks found a way to buckle down when it mattered most in the fourth quarter to win its second straight game.
Running back Alex Collins was the man behind the comeback, getting most of his game-high 172 on Arkansas’ late touchdown drives. He had a 21-yard run to set up the go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter and a 55-yarder on the next possession, which Collins then capped with the first touchdown of his college career.
The South Florida native became the first Razorback freshman to top the 100-yard mark in his first two games. Teammate Jonathan Williams (126 yards) also went over 100 for the second straight week, giving Arkansas its first tandem of backs to rush for 100 yards or more during the first two games of the season.
“We wanted to wear them out, wear them out, and in the fourth quarter, you could see them start to get tired,” Collins said. “We took advantage of that. We started pounding it a little bit harder. Just trying to wear them out.”
Two turnovers, six costly penalties and some defensive lapses made it much closer than Arkansas imagined after a convincing win against Louisiana-Lafayette. And the most frustrating aspect to Bielema and the Razorbacks: Arkansas didn’t have any trouble early on, racing out quickly to a 14-0 lead thanks to a pair of Brandon Allen touchdown passes to tight end Mitchell Loewen and receiver Javontee Herndon.
Penalties — one a holding call on an offensive lineman, the other a pass interference penalty on Hunter Henry — stalled two promising drives from there.
Herndon ended any chance for another late in the second quarter when he fumbled a punt. Williams also fumbled the ball on Arkansas’ first play of the second half, which Samford turned into a touchdown to cut the Razorbacks’ lead to 17-14.
“They came out and jumped on us pretty good,” Samford associate head coach Bill D’Ottavio said. “They were doing some good things. Our kinds kind of adjusted and we got going a little bit. … We kind of got our feet back up underneath us.”
Arkansas had some defensive changes with three starters missing Saturday, including defensive end Trey Flowers. The SEC defensive lineman of the week watched from the sideline after being unable to return from a knee injury he suffered last week. Safety Rohan Gaines (knee) and linebacker Jarrett Lake (suspension) didn’t make the trip, leaving Arkansas leaning on a few new starters.
The results weren’t terrible. Samford finished with 231 yards. But Arkansas had some trouble slowing Samford. Quarterback Andy Summerlin went 19-for-28 for 117 yards and a touchdown, while running back Fabian Truss rushed for 103.
Truss gave Samford the lead on a 16-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
“We got too comfortable with ourselves and let Samford stay in the game a little longer than they were supposed to,” Arkansas linebacker Braylon Mitchell said.
But it was the Bulldogs’ final highlight.
Arkansas regrouped on the sideline and turned things over to its ground game.
“I told our guys you gave (the crowd) every reason if they wanted to boo you. They should’ve,” Bielema said. “But they battled through it ...
“Our guys took over in the fourth quarter.”
The Razorbacks outagained Samford 163-10 in the final quarter. All of Arkansas’ offensive production came on the ground, including Collins’ big 55-yard run.
The sustained success led to a dominant time of possession advantage in the quarter (11:25 to 3:35), leaving Samford with little chance to come from behind after Williams’ 1-yard plunge gave the Hogs a 24-21 lead with 13:38 left. Arkansas scored against on its next possession to build a 10-point lead, then ended the night by putting together a 13-play, 63-yard drive that ate the final 7:35 off the clock.
Fittingly, the grind-it-out mentality came nearly a year to the date Arkansas couldn’t close out Louisiana-Monroe in a 34-31 overtime loss.
“Last year, if you look back at the ULM game, we threw the ball a lot more,” said Allen, who finished 9 of 17 for 125 yards with two touchdowns. “That really killed us on incompletions and killing the clock. So being able to keep that clock rolling and getting first downs only by the run is huge.”
It helped Arkansas avoid a loss to an FCS team, something eight Football Bowl Subdivision teams suffered last week. But Arkansas center Travis Swanson said the Razorbacks were disappointed they “made this one hard on ourselves.”
“We hit a lull there for a little while,” Swanson said. “Then back in the fourth quarter, we realized who we are, what we do. And we took care of it.”