FAYETTEVILLE — No longer does it seem the Razorbacks run into Tuscaloosa, Ala., with a running identity crisis.
Though only 2-3 after defeating Tennessee 24-20 last Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn., the Arkansas running game so secondary to passing in the season-opening, 48-13 rout over outmanned Texas-El Paso — and way below par as quarterback Brandon Allen was summoned to pass 50 times in the 16-12 upset loss to Toledo — befits the Ground Hogs image Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has reinstalled.
The rushing game didn’t run the Razorbacks by Texas Tech and Texas A&M, but Arkansas’ 228 yards rushing in the 35-24 loss to Tech in Fayetteville and the 232 rushing yards Arkansas netted in the 28-21, SEC-opening loss to 14th-ranked Texas A&M at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium did show the Razorbacks to be off and running again.
The Razorbacks netted 275 yards rushing and possessed the ball 35:18 of the game’s 60 minutes against Tennessee.
Running backs Alex Collins — the junior starter with 28 carries for 170 yards against Tech, 26 for 151 against Texas A&M and 27 for 154 against Tennessee — and freshman backup Rawleigh Williams, who rushed a career-high 14 times for 100 yards against Tennessee, benefit statistically.
That’s not where it starts, though.
“I couldn’t do anything without the line,” Collins said after Saturday night’s game in Knoxville.
Arkansas’ biggest in all of football college or pro offensive line getting thumbs up for pass protection but thumbs down in run blocking its first two games, has opened holes the last three games and finally against Tennessee minimized the penalties dogging Arkansas in its three defeats.
Post-Tennessee, senior left offensive guard Sebastian Tretola was named the SEC Lineman of the Week by the SEC Office, and Bielema said senior center Mitch Smothers actually played even better than Tretola and that junior left tackle Denver Kirkland also was outstanding.
“If you asked our players and our coaches, without a doubt I think they’d all say it starts up front,” Bielema said. “I think our O-line is coming off the ball a lot better. We got maybe (early season) a little bit too much east and west. We’re definitely coming off the football on combo and up to the second level. We’re moving people at the line of scrimmage a little bit better.”
And Collins and Williams seem to capitalize on most every block they get.
“Without a doubt, I think Alex has been able not only to follow the path, but there’s been some times where maybe we didn’t block them up all right and he made us look pretty good,” Bielema said. “ I tell you what, Rawleigh Williams too, he really hit some nice plays in there, where all of a sudden he bent it back and he’s got that timing down.”
Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle when inserted at fullback or H-back, and especially true freshman Kendrick Jackson — a linebacker moved to fullback when Bielema and running backs coach Jemal Singleton deemed their conventional fullbacks not sufficiently progressing — also have made a difference.
“Kendrick Jackson, the more we can emerge him as a fullback, has helped us a little bit,” Bielema said. “He’s only given us I think maybe six to eight plays a game, but they’re plays that matter. They’re plays down their on the goal line. Alex, if he would have stayed front side on one of those runs he would have had another touchdown. If he’d have just followed Kendrick, Kendrick blew his guy into the end zone, but Alex cut it back.”
Allen isn’t regarded as a running quarterback but subtly has added his own element to the ground game. He rushed six times for 22 yards against Tech, eight for 35 against A&M and six for 23 against Tennessee.
Most were key yards on key downs.
Allen not only orchestrates the running game, but a balanced attack, passing 16 of 21 for 196 yards and two touchdowns against Tech, 20 of 25 for 225 yards and a touchdown against A&M, and 11 of 24 for 219 yards and a touchdown without a turnover against Tennessee.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos gives Allen his due, and remarked that the passing game nearly always improves with the running game established.
However, against Nick Saban’s eighth-ranked, defending SEC champion Crimson Tide, fresh off routing Georgia, 38-10, in Athens, the Razorbacks run into the best run-defense they have faced and on Alabama turf to boot.
“They’re very good,” Enos said. “Their scheme is very, very good. They play it well. They understand it. They’ve good players, good schemes, good coaching, and that’s a good combination for them.”