LITTLE ROCK — At 7:56 p.m. Saturday, the edict was issued — put down the popcorn and pay attention.
Until Samford converted Arkansas’ second straight fumble into a touchdown, it never occured to me that the Razorbacks of the mighty Southeastern Conference could lose to Samford of the not-so-mighty Southern Conference. The Razorbacks compete against Alabama, LSU, Florida and the like.
Samford plays Elon, Chattanooga and Western Carolina.
Despite the fact that more than a half-dozen Football Championship Subdivision teams defeated Football Bowl Subdivision opponents on the first weekend of college football, a 30-point favorite is supposed to get the job done. Only Arkansas’ margin was supposed to be in doubt.
Instead, with less than nine minutes left in the third quarter, Samford trailed by three and had the ball. Two minutes later, the Bulldogs had the ball again. With 20:09 remaining in the game, Samford was in front.
Arkansas made lots of mistakes. But, it was surprising that the offensive line, dominant a week ago when Arkansas averaged 5.7 yards per rush while only breaking one big play, did not establish superiority until the fourth quarter. The Razorbacks rushed for 163 during the first 45 minutes, 170 during the final 15 minutes.
On the other side, Samford quarterback Andy Summerlin red-flagged potential problems with the Razorbacks’ pass defense, completing 18-of-26 during the first 48 minutes. Arkansas had the ball most of the rest of the way and he had few additional opportunities.
After Alex Collins read a linebacker blitz inside and broke a 21-yard run outside and center Travis Swanson led Collins on a sweep for 55 more as Arkansas survived 31-21, I wondered about the fans who were so infatuated with 34-14 over Louisiana-Lafayette that their 5-7 in July was revised to 7-5 or better.
They can retreat to their original position or write off the Samford contest as a fluke, accurately blaming a full-fledged onset of Murphy’s Law.
Until the Rutgers game in two weeks, I’m sticking with 5-7 or 6-6.
In order, Arkansas bumbled around like this:
• At 14-7, a holding penalty forced Arkansas to settle for a field goal.
• A sack of Brandon Allen led to a punt.
• Javontee Herndon fumbled a punt.
• Jonathan Williams fumbled, setting up a Samford touchdown.
• Wide open, Kody Walker dropped a third-down pass.
• Allen forced a third-down pass into coverage.
• Tevin Mitchel picked up a personal foul after the whistle and Alan Turner followed up by whiffing on a tackle.
• Allen went for Herndon down the middle on a trick play, but overlooked Julian Horton open deep on the left sideline.
In the postgame, Bielema mentioned the word funk.
The fact that Arkansas was solid and consistent against a supposedly decent team in the season opener shaded my judgment of the Razorbacks vs. Samford. So did the fact that Arkansas was superb on its first two possessions Saturday night, running 14 plays for 153 yards and two touchdowns.
The 10-point final margin was about as disappointing as the announced crowd of 47,358, many of whom were not around to see Kiero Small convert a fourth-and-2 with barely two minutes to play. The margin could have been larger, but Bret Bielema did the right thing and had Allen take a knee at the Samford 10 to complete a possession that consumed 7:35.
Toward the end, I thought about former Penn State Coach Joe Paterno’s proclamation that a team makes the most improvement from the first game to the second game. To say that about Arkansas, rose-colored glasses are mandatory. Maybe the coaches who grade film will come up with a different conclusion, maybe the Razorbacks played down to their competition, or maybe small schools don’t get enough credit for having decent athletes.
When all is said and done, 2-0 is all that matters.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. Email: hkingarkansasnews.com.