I’ll start writing about this in a second, but first:
I just feel like that’s a good place to start.
Bret Bielema famously (and at times, infamously) stated when he took the Arkansas job in 2012 that part of the reason he wanted to come to Arkansas was to give Razorback fans something they’ve never had before. He meant it in terms of an SEC championship, but it can be applied to plenty of things. Last year, Bielema led the Hogs to their second bowl victory in as many years, which was a first for Arkansas. This year, he led the team to a victory over Florida, which Arkansas has never done as a member of the SEC and hasn’t done since the early 80s, so there are several Arkansas fans who’ve never seen this happen.
And it was a triumph that was not widely expected to take place.
Arkansas’ defense was a national joke over the last two weeks since they laid down for Auburn, but the Razorbacks dominated the #11 Gators throughout the game. Florida’s offense only scored points on a long field goal late in the fourth quarter, and only made it into the red zone once, when the game was already out of hand. Florida only gained 12 yards on the ground. For the game. 12. Arkansas’ run defense was ranked among the worst in the nation and they held Florida to 12 yards.
The Hogs didn’t allow too much more through the air. Luke Del Rio struggled throughout the game and was sacked three times. He threw for 229 yards and a good chunk of that came on Florida’s final drive of the game.
So what was the big difference? For starters, Arkansas tinkered a bit with its defensive line, moving Jeremiah Ledbetter to defensive end and starting McTelvin Agim at tackle. Also, Florida is really the first team Arkansas has played this season that plays a pro-style offense. It’s much more suited to Arkansas’ defense, as this is what Arkansas primarily practices against all year. And Florida hasn’t been impressive offensively all season, especially on the road.
But that shouldn’t detract from Arkansas’ performance. They weren’t handed anything. Arkansas took it to the Gators from the first snap, which was a pick 6 for Santos Ramirez.
There wasn’t much reason to expect Arkansas to be able to run the ball effectively, but they did. Rawleigh Williams added to what could be an All-SEC season with 148 rushing yards and 22 receiving yards, capped off with a 41-yard touchdown run to ice the game. Devwah Whaley continues to come along, this time rushing for 66 yards on 14 carries and adding 69 receiving yards on two catches. Arkansas finished with 223 rushing yards, the second-most Florida has given up this season.
So what was the big difference? For starters, Arkansas tinkered a bit with its offensive line. Walkon lineman Johnny Gibson got the start at right guard in place of Jake Raulerson. That may have played a part but beyond that, it’s something of a mystery. Florida’s defense was considered among the nation’s elite coming into the game. Granted, their schedule to this point hasn’t been terribly impressive, but they’ve done a solid job of shutting down most of their opponents this year. But Arkansas was able to throw them around.
The Gator defense appears completely worn out by this physical Arkansas offense, which is about to put this game away.— Robbie Andreu (@RobbieAndreu) November 5, 2016
The Gators have been physically beaten up today. The injury list is going to be long, with some big names on it.— Robbie Andreu (@RobbieAndreu) November 5, 2016
So, for once, Arkansas didn’t have to rely on Austin Allen to win the game for them, and that’s a good thing, because it took him some time to get going. He struggled for much of the first half, including throwing an ugly pick-6 of his own that stood as Florida’s only points for most of the game. But when he started rolling, he was very good, especially connecting with Drew Morgan. This was unquestionably Morgan’s best game of the season. He totaled 7 receptions for 95 yards and a key touchdown just before halftime. Morgan took a pretty brutal hit while catching a pass over the middle in the third quarter, and was down for a minute before jogging off. Classic Morgan.
The win is pretty important for Arkansas. The Razorbacks are officially bowl eligible for the third straight season and how they finish these last three games will have a big say in where they end up going. If they win out, the Capitol One Bowl might be in play. Win one or two more and they’ll almost definitely be in the Pool of Six (my preseason prediction of the Music City Bowl is included in those six). And, heaven forbid, if the Hogs don’t win one of the last three they’ll likely end up in Birmingham or Shreveport.
How well Arkansas performed against a team that plays the style Florida does should give Arkansas a boost of confidence to prepare for LSU next week. The Razorbacks have done an excellent job of handling Leonard Fournette the previous two seasons, but it was easy to dismiss that prior to the Florida game considering how badly the Razorbacks have played the run this year. But this game gives some hope that they might be able to play well again at home next week.
The Mississippi State game many had circled as a possible victory looks a lot more interesting after the Bulldogs upset Texas A&M today, and Missouri is still Missouri.
It will also be interesting to see if Arkansas can finally crack into the Playoff Committee’s top 25 next week for the first time. Arkansas now has three quality wins, and losses to three top teams (even if they were blowouts). Florida State was the only 3-loss team in the rankings last week, but there may be more on Tuesday night.
But that’s all stuff to worry about later. Arkansas just leveled one of their most dominant conference victories in recent years on an opponent that has had Arkansas’ number as long as many of us can remember. The Razorbacks earned some respect on Saturday, and the great thing is that there’s still more they can earn.