Brought to you once more courtesy of Bob Marley, Tito’s Vodka, and two priests, a young one and an old one, who on Saturday oversaw the exorcism of a demon that has plagued the Arkansas Razorbacks for the entirety of their membership within the Southeastern Conference.
I hate Florida in a way that I don’t hate other SEC teams. Arkansas plays Florida so infrequently that there is no familiarity from which to foster begrudging respect. No success to fall back on, and no “next year” to take solace in. Only sporadic heartbreak. Only hatred from having never beaten them in conference play. If the SEC is family, Florida is the distant cousin we see every few years who is always, always a dick. Every time. Arkansas loses to Florida. Every time.
Since the 1982 Bluebonnet Bowl, the United States fought two wars, the Soviet Union imploded, diseases were wiped off the earth and technology took us from newfangled Nokias to iPhone 7s and beyond, and still the Razorbacks could not win against Florida.
We watched Tony Bua launch and Marc Curles cheat and Reggie Fish muff and we came to believe that Arkansas was cursed. That it may never happen.
But 2016 was the 108th year after their last title, and a baseball is sewn together with 108 stitches. This had to be the year.
Wait, that was the Cubs. And the brilliant New York Times piece on their championship that I’m currently ripping off. Sorry.
If 2016 is the year that the Cubs break a 108 year curse, surely a 34 year dry spell can see some relief as well, right? 2016 was to be our year against the Gators.
For the first time in 2016, Arkansas fans got to experience the confident exuberance of watching their Razorbacks control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. It’s a trite saying in football, and not always accurate in this era, but “run the ball, stop the run” is going to work every single time against a team built the way that Florida is built. And when a team runs as well as Arkansas did on Saturday, and they stop the run as well as Arkansas stopped the run, that team is going to dominate. And no bonehead penalty or cheating referee or special teams gaffe or 34 year winning drought is going to matter.
For most of the season, I felt that Florida was a good matchup for Arkansas, but not because I believed that the Razorbacks’ rushing attack would be able to impose its will. I thought that Austin Allen would utilize his laser accuracy in the passing game in just enough drives to produce just enough points to overcome a struggling Florida offense. If you had told me that Allen would produce anything other than his typically razor sharp effort, I would have chalked this one up to the right-hand column and moved on to LSU. And I would have been wrong. Austin Allen was not particularly sharp, even when given time to pass, but Arkansas overcame that through a combination of the dominance of their rushing attack and some keen playcalling from Dan Enos, particularly a couple of perfectly timed screen passes.
As the season has progressed, Arkansas has found more and more success running outside than in past seasons, and that continued against Florida. The Razorbacks didn’t abandon the interior run, but they were most dangerous on the outside, pulling weakside linemen, blocking down with receivers, and creating running lanes that allowed Rawleigh Williams and Devwah Whaley to rack up yards and get downfield with less traffic and more cut-back lanes. It was the best run-blocking performance that the Arkansas offensive line has given this year, and night-and-day from the effort put forth two weeks ago at Auburn. Williams and Whaley are both hosses, and right now running outside is what best gives them a chance to gather some steam.
When your quarterback isn’t at his best, other players have to step up, and nearly to a man, that’s what the offense did yesterday. Drew Morgan, yet again, provided stability when Arkansas needed it most. A touchdown catch to end the first half, two critical receptions to extend drives, and a seemingly effortless handling of what was, if nothing else, a creative onsides kick from Florida. What about Johnny Gibson in his first start? What about Jared Cornelius, who goes out every week and runs great routes and catches everything and doesn’t drop punts and blocks his ass off downfield? Same goes for Keon Hatcher. Same goes for Jeremy Sprinkle.
On the other side of the ball, the Arkansas defense finally caught an offense without a mobile quarterback, and they made the most of it. Maybe it was the rest from the bye week, or maybe it was Bret Bielema’s insistence during that time that Arkansas learn how to stop the run come hell or high water. Moving Jeremiah Ledbetter back almost certainly played a role as well. Finally, Florida’s offense simply isn’t nearly as good as every other SEC offense Arkansas has faced this season. Not even close. Still, when you hold a conference opponent to twelve rushing yards, you’ve done something right. The Arkansas defense did a lot right yesterday, and they have three more chances to prove their renewed mettle. I feel much better about things after watching yesterday.
Arkansas now sits at 6-3, with three of those wins against teams ranked in the Top 15 at the time of the game. Next week the Hogs host Leonard Fournette and LSU before finally getting to play two unranked SEC opponents, Mississippi State and Missouri, to close the season. Arkansas gets LSU the week after they played Alabama, which is, of course, the best possible time to play LSU. Stopping Fournette will be a slightly taller order than stopping whatever it was that Florida trotted out as a rushing game yesterday, but the Hogs have stopped Superman before. Two weeks ago you wouldn’t have told me it was possible, but I believe they can do it again. It is, after all, 2016.
I’ll see y’all next week.
Trent Wooldridge will be that guy with enough bourbon. He loves the S-E-C chant and honks because he hates Texas. He puts honey on his pizza, demands aisle seats, and sees quitting golf as more of a hobby than actually playing golf. Follow @twooldridge and track his quest to transform his six-year-old into a southpaw ace in the bigs.