Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Eight erratic quarters and a couple of overtimes into the 2016 season, Arkansas certainly had earned the right to get a comparative breather. Texas State was a perfectly timed and perfectly mediocre avenue toward that end.
The Hogs swallowed up the Bobcats with a 35-0 halftime advantage on a 349-25 total yardage disparity, then coasted over the final 25 minutes — the threat of stormy weather caused Bret Bielema and Texas State coach Everett Withers to agree to trim the final quarter down to 10 minutes — for a 42-3 final. On a day where eight ranked teams were handed defeats, there was no cause to complain for the Razorbacks. It was a clean, efficient game in front of a sellout crowd at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, and even that nasty weather held off until well after the proceedings had finished.
As a result, Arkansas vaulted to 17th in the Associated Press poll, and its upcoming SEC date with Texas A&M took on substantially higher stakes than anyone might have envisioned at the start of the month when neither team had cracked the polls. The Aggies rode a comfortable road win over Auburn to their own 3-0 start and now are perched at No. 10, so the decision a few days ago to put the forthcoming matchup in Arlington in an 8 p.m. time slot has been validated. The sixth iteration of the so-called Southwest Classic will kick off that night at AT&T Stadium with both teams trying to position themselves to take a crack at Alabama's divisional dominance.
For the Hogs, they fortunately had to labor slightly less than A&M did. While the Aggies were tasked with a trip to Jordan-Hare, Arkansas got to return home after last weekend's pulse-quickening defeat of TCU, and the Bobcats were nowhere near prepared to provide the kind of mid-major challenge that Louisiana Tech offered in the opener. Rawleigh Williams III continued to put himself clearly ahead of his other backfield mates with another 100-yard rushing effort and two scores, and Austin Allen hit both Keon Hatcher and Jeremy Sprinkle for touchdown strikes for the third straight contest. Throw in Ryan Pulley's first career touchdown on a nifty second-quarter interception return, and the Hogs more or less played out the affair as closely to an ideal script as possible.
Considering that the day began with Louisville leveling a historic blow to No. 2 Florida State in a 63-20 beating, and ended with Texas' brief feel-good tale smoldering out in strange fashion at Berkeley, Calif., there couldn't be any justifiable complaining for Razorback fans who were still on edge after two combined wins by a combined four points to start the campaign. Bielema's string of agonizing late-game September collapses won't be eulogized, however, unless the Hogs can pin a loss on the College Station crew come Saturday night, and at the risk of reducing this Pearls to one of those "Keys to Victory" pregame blurbs, three things have to happen for Arkansas to get out of the opening month unblemished:
1. Allen must continue to remain smart with the ball. Hatcher's touchdown catch to conclude the first drive was something of a risky throw, and A&M will undoubtedly try to cut down on the out routes for which the first-year starter has proven to be adept. When older bro Brandon got confident the last two years, it was evident in how often he picked on mismatches over the middle. That's a dangerous but profitable territory if exploited — Hatcher reeled in a 73-yarder later in the first quarter against the Bobcats that ended up being a hair shy of a second scoring grab — and there's no question Austin Allen has the confidence needed to go there.
2. Aggies defensive end Myles Garrett cannot be permitted to enter the backfield. Here's a daunting prospect for new offensive line honcho Kurt Anderson: You have a freshman right tackle, transfer right guard and a left guard adapting to a new position, and all three could end up having to deal with the second coming of former Aggie pass-rushing hellion Von Miller. Garrett is also useful stopping the run, durable, and worthy of a double team, so it's no shocker that he projects as the consensus top pick for the 2017 NFL Draft. Allen got mashed around by an aggressive Tech front but the Horned Frogs and Bobcats only got one sack each on him, and some of that was a function of smarter playcalling on third downs. Garrett will need to be dealt with on every down, because he's athletic enough to help A&M overcome a lack of experience in the linebacking corps and be employed in pass coverage, too.
3. The Razorbacks' secondary must continue its steady upward advancement. Pulley has looked like a new player altogether so far after numerous shaky moments last fall when he was pressed into duty. Henre Toliver and Jared Collins remain steady, and Santos Ramirez has been actively tossing around his newly bulked-up frame, knocking away passes and chasing down tailbacks. There's still not an All-SEC type of guy in the unit, but if the Hogs' renewed pass rush — 10 sacks through three games is more than the team had after nine games last fall — keeps its sights on the Aggies QB Trevor Knight, then that caliber of backfield play may be unnecessary.
Arkansas now sits 9-1 over its last 10 games, the lone loss being the November shootout with Mississippi State that would've ended up a win had the field goal protection for Cole Hedlund not faltered. This is one of the most confident and battle-tested teams in the country at the moment, and it's not a team that fears being involved in a close game anymore. If the Hogs can start snuffing out these losing streaks to A&M, the Bulldogs, and of course Alabama, then the ongoing hot stretch that has vaulted Bielema over the .500 mark at Fayetteville after a 3-10 start to his tenure is going to carry on for a while.
Building a lead so rapidly and holding it in games, even professional football, is difficult…