From Santos Ramirez’s pick-six in the opening minutes to Rawleigh Williams KO-ing Florida with a 41-yard TD in the fourth quarter, the 2016 Arkansas Razorbacks made one thing clear on Saturday:
They aren’t going to fade away. They’re going to get up and hit you in the mouth.
Forced to stew over a historically bad 53-point defeat for two full weeks, Arkansas played like a team thoroughly dissatisfied with itself in a 31-10 upset of Florida. In fact, Bret Bielema’s squad played so well that it never truly felt like an upset. Though the score was close for a time, Arkansas looked like the better, more complete team from start to finish.
The flaws that have dogged the Hogs all season — offensive line play and stopping the run — were addressed by the coaching staff during the bye week, and the tweaks seemed to pay off. Johnny Gibson (6-foot-4, 344 pounds) started at right guard. Jeremiah Ledbetter and 5-star freshman McTelvin Agim saw the field much more on defense. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos clearly did his homework on Florida, too.
The result? Arkansas rushed for 4.6 yards per carry, held UF to 12 yards rushing and played Bielema ball exactly as it was intended: by maintaining possession at all costs. Arkansas went 6 of 14 on third down and held the ball for 39 minutes, 21 seconds.
Credit Enos, defensive coordinator Robb Smith and, of course, the head coach.
“When shit needs to change I’ve got to come in and make it happen,” Bielema said after the game.
Florida probably isn’t the powerhouse its No. 11 ranking might imply. Quarterback Luke Del Rio and the Gators offense have looked horrid since Del Rio returned from injury, and the defense — while talented — has now struggled against Josh Dobbs and Austin Allen, by far the two best passers they’ve faced.
Even so, for the Razorbacks put forth an effort like this after such an ugly, embarrassing defeat at Auburn shows this group has a lot of resolve. Especially when there are no obvious goals in front of them. The SEC West is all but out of play, and a New Year’s Six bowl seems unlikely.
Yet the Hogs are poised to do some sneaky damage as the season winds down. Right now, their only three losses are Alabama (No. 1), Auburn (top-10 team) and Texas A&M. If they can knock off LSU and take care of Missouri/Mississippi State, people will really start paying attention.
A 9-3 finish would continue the trend of steady improvement Arkansas has seen under Bielema, and Saturday’s clash with Florida gave us a glimpse at how this program can be even better in 2017.
Allen should return as perhaps the conference’s best quarterback. The tailback tandem of Williams and Devwah Whaley will remain a force. The young offensive line only features one senior (Dan Skipper) and should continue improving. And, as we saw on Saturday, young defenders like Agim and Ramirez can keep that unit rolling.
“Make it happen” enough times in a row and Arkansas could find itself in an even better place soon enough — even in the unforgiving SEC West.