FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith and the Razorbacks were disappointed last Saturday, when Ole Miss’ 2-minute offense moved downfield with ease to set up a game-winning field goal in the final seconds.
The improving group wanted to be under pressure with the game on the line, got the chance and didn’t produce. So when it got another opportunity again during the 19-15 win against Tulsa on Saturday, Smith said Arkansas wasn’t going to fail.
“We kind of challenged ourselves this week because last week we didn’t finish like we wanted to,” Smith said. “We all knew it was going to be on us. … We finished up.”
Arkansas (4-5, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) narrowly avoided another disappointing result in front of an announced homecoming crowd of 64,451 in Razorback Stadium thanks largely to a strong defensive effort from Smith and company.
The junior turned in the game-clinching play when he beat a Tulsa lineman off the line of scrimmage, hit quarterback Cody Green from the blind side and forced a fumble that was recovered by teammate Byran Jones with less than a minute remaining.
It put a cap on a solid defensive effort from a group that held Tulsa (7-2) to its lowest totals in points, yards (328) and rushing yards (106) this season.
It also helped Arkansas grab its first victory against an opponent with a winning record and its 18th straight against the Golden Hurricane.
“It gives us a lot of confidence just to show the Razorback fans and ourselves the defense can win games,” Arkansas linebacker Terrell Williams said. “Throughout the week we said it’s going to be a defensive game. Put it on our back. If the offense makes plays, they make plays.
“But at the end of the day if the opposing offense doesn’t score then we win the game. So just keep them out of the end zone.”
Arkansas did just that in the second half for the second straight week, limiting Tulsa to a field goal after a start coach John L. Smith described as “soft.” He challenged the defense with Arkansas clinging to a 13-12 halftime lead and the group responded.
“You have got to pat those guys on the back,” Smith said. “They got a lot better and accepted the challenge the second half because they got ripped a little bit.”
Each stop was critical, too, considering Arkansas’ offense floundered for much of the second half. The only bright possession came on a four-play, 76-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter, which helped the Razorbacks regain a 19-15 lead.
The rest was up to the defense, which made key stands throughout the second half.
One of the biggest came with Tulsa trying to add to its 15-13 lead in the third quarter. The Golden Hurricane moved to the Arkansas 5, but couldn’t score.
Cornerback Tevin Mitchel made one key play on third down, getting just enough of the ball to knock it out of receiver Keyarris Garrett’s hands on third-and-goal. Then Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers batted down a fourth-down pass attempt.
“We were in an all-out blitz. We were coming at them. We knew they were going to throw fades,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said. “We kind of put the pressure on our corners all week that they’re going to have to make some plays on the fade. … Then it was huge of Trey to knock it down and give us a big play.”
Tulsa entered the game ranked ninth in the nation in rushing offense (248.8 yards), but finished 142 yards below it Saturday. It had 125 total yards in the second half.
Arkansas, meanwhile, got 407 yards and another big rushing performance from running back Dennis Johnson. The senior gashed Tulsa’s defense for 109 yards and two touchdowns, eclipsing the 100-yard mark for the second straight game.
Quarterback Tyler Wilson completed 21 of 31 passes for 272 yards with an interception. He hit receiver Cobi Hamilton 11 times for 177 yards, helping the senior bump his season total to 69 catches. It broke Jarius Wright’s school record.
But Arkansas looked back at its offensive struggles after the game.
“It seems like every week it’s 10-0,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to flip the switch and put it in the — everybody uses the term put it away or finish the jugular or whatever — but try to get that across. And we didn’t quite do that.”
It didn’t cost Arkansas a win Saturday, though. Smith and the defense made sure Arkansas could celebrate a homecoming win with the sack and takeaway.
It was just the fifth sack Tulsa has allowed this season.
“It was funny (Friday) night he was like ‘Hey, I’m going to get a sack. I’m going to get a sack,’” Haynes said. “Because these guys haven’t given up too many sacks. They get the ball out quick. I was sitting there watching film and he came in and said, ‘I’m going to get a sack (Saturday).’ So that’s awesome for him.”
And for the Razorbacks as they enter the final stretch of the season, facing Top-25 teams South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU in consecutive weeks. Arkansas must go 2-1 over the stretch to reach the six-win mark and become bowl eligible.
It’s a daunting task. But Arkansas believes anything is possible if its defense — which has allowed 15 points or less in three of its past four games — continues to improve.
“We’ve been doing a lot of good things in the last month,” Haynes said.