CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Arkansas has waited a long, long month since its embarrassing regular-season finale — a 28-24 loss at Missouri — to get back on the game field.
That opportunity finally comes Thursday in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech, a team featuring an up-tempo offense, a mobile quarterback and a pair of explosive receivers.
In other words, this looks like an offense that could score some serious points against the Razorbacks.
Strangely, Arkansas alternated wins and losses during most of the season, dating to mid-September. The Hogs will hope that trend continues with a bowl victory.
Here is a look at the 5 key things that will determine whether Arkansas wins or loses the Belk Bowl.
5. Austin Allen’s performance
When the Arkansas quarterback plays his best, the Razorbacks offense operates at a high level and gives the team a chance to win almost any game. But for all the toughness and talent Allen has displayed throughout this season — his first as the team’s starting quarterback — he’s also been mistake-prone.
Allen was intercepted in six of Arkansas’ final seven regular-season games. His 2 red-zone interceptions at Missouri were fatal.
Virginia Tech ranks 22nd in the country in pass defense — allowing 194.2 yards through the air per game — so nothing about this test will be easy for Allen. But if he and his receivers are able to make some things happen, that exponentially increases Arkansas’ chances of winning.
4. Force turnovers
Virginia Tech committed at least 2 turnovers in each of its last four games, going 2-2. For the Hogs to win this one, forcing a turnover or several probably will be necessary.
The good news for Arkansas is that despite its obvious and well-hashed problems defensively, the Razorbacks actually have been decent at forcing turnovers. Only twice all season did Arkansas’ opponent not commit at least 1 turnover.
3. Feed the running backs
Arkansas’ offense works best with two running backs earning meaningful carries, a fact that has been proven as true freshman Devwah Whaley became more involved throughout the season. Rawleigh Williams III led the SEC in rushing yardage, but he shouldn’t need to carry the load alone.
Before leaving the game with a bruised knee, Whaley appeared headed toward another 100-yard game last month at Missouri.
The Razorbacks also might get some work out of sixth-year senior Kody Walker, who is expected to play on Thursday. At times during his career, he’s shown himself to be a capable goal-line and short-yardage back.
2. Corral Jerod Evans
Most of Arkansas’ worst defensive performances this season have come against dual-threat quarterbacks like Evans. Think Trevor Knight, Jalen Hurts and Nick Fitzgerald.
Evans has thrown for 3,309 yards and 27 touchdowns while also recording team highs in rushing yardage (759) and rushing touchdowns (10).
Arkansas is planning to switch to a 3-4 base defense next season but could try out some of those looks against Virginia Tech. It will be interesting to see how those sets work against Evans.
1. Prevent big plays
Arkansas’ defense is one of the worst in the country when it comes to allowing big plays. The Hogs rank 126th in the country in opponent plays from scrimmage of 40 or more yards, having allowed 26 such plays.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech’s offense has shown an ability to produce explosive plays. Hokies receiver Isaiah Ford has caught 16 passes of 20 yards or more. Evans threw or ran for at least 20 yards 58 times.
The Razorbacks defense has been worst against the run for most of this season, but in the Missouri loss, Tigers quarterback Drew Lock had success throwing deep against the Hogs.
If Virginia Tech produces several of those chunk plays, Arkansas will have a hard time winning the Belk Bowl.