Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
In a year where an unapologetic demagogue can sniff the U.S. presidency, I suppose the turbulence of the 2016 football season for Arkansas could've been anticipated, but by all benchmarks, the 31-10 win over Florida in Fayetteville was utterly weird.
I cannot recall a game, for instance, where so many players were laid prone with in-game injuries. This phenomenon disparately affected Florida, as the Gators' stellar linebacker Jarrad Davis battled an ankle injury all day and was commonly seen limping off and onto the field until he was shelved for good late in the game. Alex Anzalone went out with a season-curtailing broken arm. A few defensive backs got their bells rung as the Hogs, stewing after that rout at Auburn, played their most physical game on both sides of the ball all season.
The brutality wasn't the lone anomaly. Jim McElwain, brought in by the Gators for his alleged play-calling acumen, seemed oddly uninterested in disproving the argument that the SEC East is by and large mediocre. Quarterback Luke Del Rio's first pass of the day, a slant into traffic, was jarred into the air for Santos Ramirez to turn into an easy pick-six. His throws didn't get substantially better from there, and frankly, it appeared that he would be yanked at some juncture so backup Austin Appleby could attempt a rescue.
Not only did Del Rio never leave the field — and thereby was permitted to throw another pick later and get sacked three times — he was rarely asked to employ a competent trio of tailbacks. Again, while the Hogs were destined to play better than they did two weeks earlier, if only because there was no alternative direction than upward, the Gators essentially acknowledged their limitations early. They had one run longer than 10 yards, and it didn't come from shifty sophomore Jordan Scarlett, who had chewed up Missouri and Georgia the past two weeks to the tune of 194 combined yards. On this day, he hit season lows in attempts (five) and yards (15), impossible to project after Arkansas ceded a program-worst 543 rushing yards just 14 days before.
Florida was so putrid offensively that almost half of its aggregate total yardage came in the fourth quarter against a cushiony pass defense. Even then, Del Rio was scattershot from the pocket and worse on the run. Coordinator Robb Smith had restored the luster of the defense and his own name in a matter of three hours, all necessary to snuff a quarter-century of SEC failures against the Gators. Nine straight wins for Florida over the Razorbacks' first 25 seasons in the conference were likely a calling card for Bret Bielema throughout the bye week: If Danny Ford (0-3), Houston Nutt (0-3) and Bobby Petrino (0-2) couldn't kill that ignominy, then the big guy would stand at the helm of the team that would.
And it was amazingly routine. But for Austin Allen's worst throw of the season, a first-quarter interception that Duke Dawson had no issues snatching and returning for the Gators' only touchdown, this would've been an even more emphatic rout. Allen cast aside the errant toss to again be efficient (15 of 26 for 243 yards and a score to Drew Morgan), and took substantially less abuse in the pocket, too.
The day belonged to the tailbacks, though. Rawleigh Williams III continued a push for First-Team All-SEC honors by reeling off 148 yards on 26 carries, and for the fourth straight contest he had two productive receptions out of the backfield. He's a shade behind Auburn battering ram Kamryn Pettway in the overall rushing rankings in the conference, but has outpaced him in receiving yards. If he can crank out 45 yards against LSU, he cracks the 1,000-yard mark in a year where many wondered just how assertive he could be after last year's neck injury.
Williams' unexpected consistency is starting to be matched by freshman Devwah Whaley's jitterbugging and sprinting. The Beaumont, Texas, product had his best all-around game against a defense engineered to deny him lanes and free space to make downfield acceleration happen. With 14 carries for 66 yards, and two big catches for 69 more as a safety valve, the implementation of his hands and feet in the passing game is vital. Allen's been savaged all year because of a porous line, so the best way to keep the pass rush at bay is to make the backs dual threats, and Whaley's work there makes him a huge asset over the final month.
That damnable Auburn game has the initial appearance of being an aberration on the back end of an exhausting eight-week stretch, and the Hogs now stare down a modest remaining schedule. A third straight defeat of LSU would get the Hogs back in the rankings ahead of two road tilts at Starkville and Columbia, keeping the program in line for a nine- or 10-win season that will inevitably net longer looks from high-end prospects come January.
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