FAYETTEVILLE — Quarterback Tyler Wilson and the rest of the Arkansas offense has had trouble punching the ball into the end zone this season, falling short of their own lofty expectations by averaging just 23.3 points through six games.
It only took one play Saturday night for the Razorbacks to show everyone it wouldn’t be a problem against Kentucky.
Running back Jonathan Williams caught a pass on a wheel route and took it 74 yards for a touchdown, kicking off Arkansas’ 49-7 blowout of Kentucky in front of an announced crowd of 67,153 in rain-soaked Razorback Stadium. Arkansas scored 28 points in the first quarter, led 42-0 at halftime, and cruised in a game eventually called with 5:08 left in the third quarter because of a second lengthy weather delay.
Wilson led the way during a 533-yard effort, completing 23-of-31 passes for 372 yards and a school-record tying five touchdown passes. Williams was on the receiving end of two scores, amassing 150 yards on three catches. Running back Dennis Johnson also scored three times (two rushing, one receiving) in the rout.
“We had a lot of guys making plays, which is fun to watch,” Wilson said. “The first play of the game is a touchdown. The second series we go down and score. It was just one of those nights. It seems like everybody is open and you hit them.”
It helped the Razorbacks (3-4, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) win their second straight game and move into an off week with some much-needed momentum as they try to salvage a season that began with a 1-4 start. Kentucky (1-6, 0-4), meanwhile, suffered through its worst loss of the season Saturday.
The Wildcats also dropped their fifth straight.
“They’ve grown by leaps and bounds the last two weeks,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said of his team. “It’s fun to watch. It’s really fun as a coach to see young guys just keep climbing that ladder and getting better and better.”
Wilson and the Arkansas offense knew it would have chances to score against Kentucky, which brought an injury-depleted secondary to Fayetteville. Three freshmen started and Arkansas took advantage on the first play from scrimmage.
Williams caught a pass on the far sideline, made two Kentucky defenders miss, cut across the field and sprinted to the end zone for his first career touchdown. Wilson said Williams — who said on Twitter early Saturday he was going to score a touchdown — did something similar in practice this week preparing for the game.
Johnson then scored on Arkansas’ second possession, capping an 11-play drive with a 3-yard touchdown run to make it 14-0 before a storm forced a 65-minute delay.
“It was important for us to come out and show what we showed early and do that for our morale going forward, for our confidence,” Wilson said.
Smith was asked if Arkansas was aggressive early because of the realistic possibility weather delays were coming. It had nothing to do with the approaching storm.
“That’s kind of (offensive coordinator Paul) Petrino’s style,” Smith said.
Arkansas — which won a weather-delayed game against Ole Miss in 2010 — wasn’t slowed by the layoff when play resumed. It took the Razorbacks four plays to punch the ball in the end zone again on Wilson’s 5-yard pass to Johnson.
Williams then scored his second touchdown on a 77-yard pass on the final play of the third quarter. Javontee Herndon caught an 8-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter. Johnson’s second rushing touchdown made it 42-0.
“(Williams) wasn’t the only one who had a good night,” Smith said. “Tyler’s night was good. Cobi (Hamilton’s) night was good. DJ’s night was good.
“Everybody’s night was good when you win.”
The offensive explosion overshadowed another solid performance from the Arkansas defense. The Razorbacks, fresh off a 24-7 win at Auburn, dominated another offense struggling to find consistency at the quarterback position.
Freshman Jalen Whitlow started the game, but went 2-for-10 for 83 yards and a touchdown. Morgan Newton — who replaced Whitlow for a few series in the second quarter — didn’t fare much better in completing 2 of 5 passes for 21 yards.
The passing problems kept Kentucky from moving the ball against the Razorbacks.
The Wildcats managed just 170 yards and six first downs in the weather-shortened game Saturday. It got 61 of those yards on Whitlow’s touchdown pass to receiver La’Rod King, ruining Arkansas’ hopes for a shutout after it had built a 49-0 lead.
“Two weeks in a row, it’s been great defensive efforts,” Arkansas safety Ross Rasner said. “We’ve given up 14 points to two conference opponents, and any time a defense can do that it’s great for our confidence.”
Said Smith: “I wanted so bad to get a shutout. It would’ve been nice for these guys.”
Soon after the touchdown, a second round of storms pushed through the area late in the third quarter, forcing the teams off the field for the second time Saturday.
It took roughly 40 minutes for SEC commissioner Mike Slive and representatives from both schools to meet and cancel the rest of the game.
It was the first time Arkansas has ever called a game before it had been completed.
“Given the extended weather forecast and out of concern for the health and safety for both teams and fans, the Commissioner, after consultation with both institutions, has terminated the game,” SEC spokesperson Charles Bloom said.
But the 42-point win still equaled Arkansas’ second-largest in an SEC game in school history. The Razorbacks also beat Tennessee 49-7 last season. The largest margin of victory was 46 points in a 52-6 win against Mississippi State in 2003.
The complete performance led Wilson to deliver the game ball to Smith, who met with creditors in his bankruptcy hearing Friday afternoon. Wilson was asked why he decided to hand the game ball to Smith and said the coach “deserved the ball.”
Arkansas, which has beaten two teams with a combined 0-8 record in SEC play this season, now has an extra week to prepare for its next opponent. The Razorbacks will play Ole Miss (4-3, 1-2) in War Memorial Stadium on Oct. 27.
“It makes you feel good,” Wilson said. “You can smile a little bit going into the bye week. I think it’s really important we maintain focus during this week and not take the week off and come in hot into this back half of the schedule.”