FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Knile Davis was concerned about fumbling the football in last Saturday’s season opener.
Davis hadn’t been hit in a game in more than a year, after all, sitting out the 2011 season with an injury. So the likelihood of having the ball jarred out of his hands in his first game since the 2011 Sugar Bowl was pretty high against Jacksonville State.
“I emphasized holding onto that ball,” Davis said. “I kind of was worried about it a little bit not being hit in such a long time.”
It worked for Davis, who didn’t fumble the football in 18 carries last Saturday.
His teammates couldn’t say the same, though.
While Arkansas’ offense enjoyed a strong debut in the 49-24 win against the Gamecocks, there was one obvious blemish. Three fumbles nearly overshadowed a 564-yard, seven-touchdown performance from the high-powered group.
It’s an area the Razorbacks addressed after the game, saying the mistakes must be eliminated. It’s something they’ll concentrate on in practice field this week, too, as Arkansas prepares to play Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“We have to do a better job of that,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. “Those kids understand that. We’re going to make an effort to work on that in practice as well.”
Losing a fumble here or there happens in football, but three in one game has been pretty rare for the Razorbacks. In fact, the last time they lost three or more in a game came in the 38-7 loss to Missouri in the 2008 Cotton Bowl. Arkansas lost four fumbles that day under interim coach Reggie Herring, who led the team in the transition period between former coaches Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino.
Arkansas lost two fumbles on several occasions under Petrino. Never three.
The first came Saturday came on the opener drive, when quarterback Tyler Wilson said the ball slipped out of his hands as he tried to elude pass rushers. Jacksonville State couldn’t capitalize on the ensuing 49-yard fumble return, though, having a field goal blocked by defensive tackle Byran Jones to keep the game scoreless.
A fumble did lead to points two drives later. Tight end Chris Gragg had the ball stripped out of his hands fighting for yards after a catch. Jacksonville State scored a touchdown four plays later, taking a 14-7 lead early into the second quarter.
“Just trying to do a little bit too much,” Gragg said. “When I’m doing that, that’s just how I know how to run, just put two hands on the ball and protect it better.”
Smith was asked Monday if the fumbles were primarily the result of Jacksonville State placing an emphasis on ripping the ball out of players’ hands. He said that wasn’t the case, placing the blame squarely on his players who lost fumbles.
“We don’t allow us to get away, I guess, with the excuse they were stripped,” Smith said. “We dropped the ball. We have to do a better job of securing it.
“So, from that standpoint, that’s our fault in not securing it, not working on ball security enough. They’re all caused by something.”
So Smith said the Razorbacks intend to spend extra time on ball security during practices this week to help correct the problems. He said the scout team, especially, will be asked to concentrate on stripping the ball out on the practice field this week as Arkansas prepares for its next test against Louisiana-Monroe.
Davis said the Razorbacks aren’t happy about the fumbles in the season opener, realizing the mistakes erased other opportunities for points. But he said Arkansas isn’t discouraged by the mistakes as they press forward.
“When you have fumbles in the first game, that’s not unusual,” Davis said. “That’s actually calming. The game speed is different from practice speed. Game hits are different from practice hits. So it’s a little different. But that’s something we need to improve on. From this game forward, I don’t expect the ball to be on the ground.”
FOUR DOWNS – ARKANSAS VS. ULM NOTES
1. O-Line Review
Three offensive linemen earned the first starts of their careers during the 49-24 win against Jacksonville State last Saturday. Guard Tyler Deacon and tackles David Hurd and Brey Cook worked alongside veterans Alvin Bailey and Travis Swanson.
So how did they perform? Arkansas running back Knile Davis, who had a team-high 70 rushing yards on 18 carries, said the group did “pretty good” in its debut.
“There were a few missed blocks, but it came from miscommunication,” Davis said. “It was just miscommunicated. They didn’t know which way to go.
“But it’s not that they weren’t physically capable or anything like that.”
The line helped Arkansas finished with 564 yards, 400 through the air, against Jacksonville State. The Razorbacks averaged 4.7 yards a rushing attempt and allowed one sack, when Jacksonville State’s Dimetrio Tyson got to Wilson.
Smith said the first group played “OK” in the opener, but needs to see improvement from the group. Arkansas could get some in the form of tackle Jason Peacock, who was suspended from the opener as part of his punishment for an offseason arrest.
Smith said Peacock — who started nine games last season — is on schedule to be available for Saturday’s game against Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock.
“Hopefully we can develop some more competition there as well,” Smith said of Peacock. “We’re trying to get him added to the mix a little bit. The more we can keep pushing him to put pressure on those tackles, the better they’re going to be.”
2. Hamilton OK After Injury
Arkansas coach John L. Smith said receiver Cobi Hamilton was “fine” after leaving last Saturday’s game with a neck injury or possible concussion.
Hamilton caught two passes in the first quarter before suffering a big hit from a Jacksonville State defensive lineman. He left the field and didn’t return, spending part of the night inside the Arkansas locker room.
The Razorbacks played well without Hamilton on Saturday, getting production from the trio of Chris Gragg (7 catches, 110 yards, 2 touchdowns), Brandon Mitchell (4 catches, 122 yards) and Javontee Herndon (4 catches, 96 yards and a touchdown).
“That hurts without a doubt,” Smith said of losing Hamilton. “But that’s going to happen throughout the year. The other guys have to step up. Some other guys stepped up and I think you saw a lot out of Mitchell. He’s, I think everybody can see now, he’s a legit guy. He’s going to help us a bunch and he stepped up big.”
3. Winston Fighting For Job
Starting cornerback Darius Winston started the opener, but didn’t last long after Smith said he made mistakes in the first half Saturday. Senior Kaelon Kelleybrew worked alongside Tevin Mitchel with the starters the rest of the game.
Smith said there’s no guarantee Winston, who started six games last year, will return to the lineup for Saturday’s game. He will battle with Kelleybrew for the job.
“There’s some great competition going on there,” Smith said. “When you step up and don’t make those mistakes, that’s what we’re looking for. Now you bring in a guy, Kelleybrew, and he plays OK. He does a decent job. But Darius has to just step up now and go earn that spot back. … We’ll see this week at practice.”
4. Smith Earns SEC Honor
Defensive end Chris Smith was named the SEC’s co-defensive lineman of the week Monday. The junior shared the award with Ole Miss’ C.J. Johnson after collecting six tackles and one sack against Jacksonville State.
“Chris played well,” Smith said. “Chris can play even better than he did, but he made a lot of plays. When Chris knows what they’re going to do, like, the fourth down play. He shouldn’t’ be blocked. He should be able to beat that guy and get around the corner. We expect that from him. He played a good game.”
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau
RAZORBACK REWIND - ARKANSAS 49, JACKSONVILLE STATE 24
Five Keys Review
1. Run Game Success
Arkansas had Knile Davis back on the field Saturday night and his talents were evident early, when the junior rushed for 47 yards on seven carries. Davis bumped his rushing total to 80 yards at halftime and was on pace for a 100-yard day.
Then the Arkansas run game slowed down in the second half. The Razorbacks managed just 62 yards on 14 carries (and it included a 27-yard scramble by backup quarterback Brandon Allen). Davis had four attempts for minus-10 yards.
Arkansas finished with 164 yards in its opener, but the longest run from a back was Knile Davis’ 13-yarder. So run game improvement will be emphasized this week.
2. Limit Mistakes
The Razorbacks were uncharacteristically sloppy with the football Saturday night, coughing tit up three times in the big win. Two of the fumbles came on Arkansas’ first three possessions, contributing to the early 14-7 deficit.
Quarterback Tyler Wilson dropped the ball trying to elude defenders on the first drive, killing a scoring chance. It nearly led to a six points, too, if not for Davis’ touchdown-saving tackle deep in Arkansas territory. Tight end Chris Gragg fumbled two possessions later fighting for extra yards. Running back Ronnie Wingo had another fumble late. The mistakes put a damper on an otherwise strong showing.
3. Sound Tackling
Arkansas’ new defense made its debut (if you’re not counting the Cotton Bowl) against Jacksonville State. Coordinator Paul Haynes said tackling, one of Arkansas’ big weaknesses last season, would be an area of emphasis for his group. It’s also an area that will be watched closely with a big test against Alabama looming.
The Razorbacks weren’t terrible Saturday night, but there were a handful of missed tackles that led to second-effort yards by the Gamecocks. Haynes has said one missed tackle is too much for a coaching staff that expects perfection, so there are high standards. Arkansas will try to get closer to that in practice this week.
4. Score Early, Often
The Razorbacks didn’t exactly get off to a rousing start against Jacksonville State, watching a 55-yard drive end with Wilson’s fumble. But it’s clear that turnovers and other mistakes were the only things that could stop Arkansas from scoring Saturday.
The second quarter was a clear sign of Arkansas’ abilities on offense. The Razorbacks piled up four touchdowns and 222 yards on 19 plays, putting plenty of distance between themselves and the Gamecocks. Arkansas led 35-14 by the time the spurt ended and, while Jacksonville State scored the next 10 points, the Razorbacks never felt threatened again in their 25-point win.
5. Stay Healthy
Arkansas didn’t want any of its stars to go down with injuries in the season opener against the Gamecocks. But receiver Cobi Hamilton’s night ended when he caught a pass in the first quarter, cut back to the middle of the field and was walloped by a Jacksonville State defensive lineman.
John L. Smith said after the game Hamilton was held out because of a minor neck injury and ruled out a concussion. Teammates said Hamilton was told he had suffered a concussion. Either way, the Razorbacks are fortunate. The injury isn’t expected to keep Hamilton out of next Saturday’s game against Louisiana-Monroe.
Players of the Game
Offense — QB Tyler Wilson (19 of 27, 367 yards, 3 TDs)
There’s plenty of expectations surrounding Wilson entering his senior season and the quarterback delivered in the opener. He set a school record for passing yards in a season opener, breaking a mark held by Casey Dick. He also equaled a school record for passing touchdowns in an opener. Smith credited Wilson for his performance afterward, saying it was good to see his leader was “in command.”
Defense — S Ross Rasner (11 tackles, 1 ½ TFLs, forced fumble, )
He was picked on some by Jacksonville State’s passing attack, but Rasner turned in a fine performance from his safety spot Saturday. He led the team in tackles and had 1 ½ for losses. He also forced a fumble and broke up a pass. The forced fumble helped end a Jacksonville State drive that began with the Gamecocks down 42-24. The Hogs then pushed downfield and stuck the ball in the end zone to put the game away.
Special Teams — KR Dennis Johnson (96 yards on 4 kick returns)
Johnson said the NCAA’s new rules, which moves kickoffs to the 35-yard line and is expected to lead to more touchbacks, wouldn’t deter him from coming out of the end zone in 2012. The senior proved it in the second quarter. Johnson fielded a kickoff six yards deep, but brought it out anyway and returned it 42 yards.
The big play came with Arkansas trailing 14-7. The Razorbacks scored five players later to tie the game, igniting a 28-point second quarter that helped them pull away.
Johnson averaged 24 yards on four kickoff returns Saturday night.
8 – Number of true freshmen who played Saturday. The list included: receivers Mekale McKay and Keon Hatcher, running backs Jonathan Williams and Nate Holmes, linebackers Otha Peters and A.J. Turner, cornerback Will Hines and defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr.
17 — Number of players who made their Arkansas debuts Saturday night. In addition to the true freshmen, safety Rohan Gaines, quarterback Brandon Allen, cornerbacks Davyon McKinney and Kaelon Kelleybrew, defensive end Austin Flynn, tight end Alex Voelzke, offensive tackle Grady Ollison, wide receiver Demetrius Wilson and defensive tackle DeMarcus Hodge earned their first playing time.
34 — Career touchdown passes for Tyler Wilson, which moved him to fifth on the school’s career list. Wilson passed Barry Lunney Jr. (1992-95) with his three touchdown passes Saturday night. Ryan Mallett holds the career mark (62).
49 – Points scored by the Razorbacks in their season-opening win. The 49 points is the third-highest total for an Arkansas coach in his debut. Arkansas scored 59 points in John Tomlin’s debut in 1943 and 53 in Lou Holtz’s first game in 1977.
Arkansas (1-0) will hit the road – sort of - traveling to Little Rock to play Louisiana-Monroe in War Memorial Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Razorbacks are 9-0 against ULM in a series that began with a 38-21 win in 1996.
Arkansas beat ULM 31-7 the last time the programs met in 2010. The Razorbacks never trailed, but didn’t have an easy time with the Warhawks. Arkansas led 7-0 at halftime and 14-0 at the end of the third quarter before pulling away in the fourth quarter behind Ryan Mallett’s 400 passing yards and three touchdowns.
The game serves as the Warhawks season-opener. It’s also the first in a three-game stretch that includes a road trip to Auburn and home game against Baylor.
“We got the win and I’m extremely happy that we were able to get that first one for (Smith). We’ve got many to go still. We handled it very well. I think there’ll be a lot of corrections and things to go over that you kind of don’t get to rehearse in that first. It was a good game for us to kind of get everything under our belt.” — Wilson on picking up Arkansas’ first win under John L. Smith.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau