FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson tied the school record with five touchdown passes in the 49-7 win against Kentucky last Saturday.
Running backs Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis enjoyed their best combined effort of the season, rushing for 150 yards on 25 carries. Ten receivers, led by running back Jonathan Williams’ 74- and 77-yard touchdowns, caught passes. And an offensive line under scrutiny earlier this season didn’t surrender a sack, helping the Razorbacks pile up 533 yards.
Wilson said it left everyone “smiling” on the sideline during the weather-shortened game. It was the type of show Arkansas knew it was capable of putting together when 2012 began. The problem: It took much longer than Arkansas imagined.
“I think you saw what everybody anticipated from day one,” Wilson said. “Unfortunately we’re just now hitting it. … Better late than never, I guess.”
Arkansas (3-4, 2-2 in Southeastern Conference) is working through its bye week hoping the offensive success against Kentucky continues when it returns to action against Ole Miss (4-3, 1-2) on Oct. 27. The problems that plagued the Razorbacks during their slow start were finally an afterthought in the blowout win, where Arkansas scored touchdowns on its first six possessions.
The opponent certainly had something to do with the results. Kentucky (1-x, 0-4) has been ravaged by injuries in the secondary this season, which forced the Wildcats to start three true freshmen during last Saturday’s loss.
But it doesn’t change the fact Arkansas was nearly flawless against an opponent — any opponent — for the first time. Its point total equaled the season-high, which came in the opener against Jacksonville State. Arkansas’ 533 total yards in the Kentucky win was its second-highest behind the 564-yard effort in the opener.
“Finally,” Arkansas guard Alvin Bailey said. “Everybody was clicking. We executed well. The offensive line had good pass protection. Tyler threw the ball well. The receivers caught the ball well. Earlier in the season everything wasn’t there.
“On offense you need everything to work together to be successful and I think for the first time for the whole game this season, we finally saw that out of our offense.”
Arkansas entered the game averaged 22.3 points, which was low for a program that grew used to scoring again and again the past four seasons. The Razorbacks had been limited to just 34 points in their first three SEC games this season, though.
Arkansas also accomplished some firsts to help make the night impressive. The Razorbacks got their first touchdown on an opening drive, which also happened to come on the first play from scrimmage with Williams’ 74-yard touchdown catch.
Arkansas also averaged more than five yards a carry for the first time last Saturday, gaining 160 yards on 27 attempts (6 yards an attempt). The previous best came in the opener, when Arkansas averaged 4.7 yards a carry against Jacksonville State.
But Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said something else important happened in the Kentucky win. The Razorbacks didn’t hurt themselves with turnovers (none), missed assignments or penalties that stalled drives. It helped Arkansas put up a perfect night in the redzone (5-for-5) after earlier struggles.
“You can compile all the yardage up but at the end of the day if you don’t get in the end zone it doesn’t count for you,” Wilson said. “Really I think it comes down to when it matters. That’s in the red zone. We executed and did things the right way.”
Young players like Williams, who is expected to play an even larger role in the offense after his big performance against Kentucky, have been key to the improvement. Petrino said the offensive line deserves credit for the success, too.
“I think our O-line obviously has really improved,” Petrino said. “We’ve only given up one sack in the last three games. We’re running the ball better. That’s what you should do. You should improve as the year goes on. That’s usually a sign that you’re getting better in practice. As a coach that’s what you want to see, your team improve as the year goes on. That usually means you’re doing a good job.”
Arkansas’ goal is to carry the momentum into the final five game stretch, which will determine whether the Razorbacks can reach a bowl game this season.
The Razorbacks’ final opponents — Ole Miss, Tulsa, South Carolina and Mississippi State — rank No. 55 or higher in the NCAA in total defense. LSU (No. 2), South Carolina (No. 12), Mississippi State (No. 25) are all in the top 25.
South Carolina (No. 5), LSU (No. 8) and Mississippi State (No. 17) also rank among the nation’s best in scoring defense so far. Tulsa is No. 62 and Ole Miss is No. 66.
So there are big challenges awaiting the Razorbacks. But Arkansas believes its latest performance is just the start for an offense finally hitting its stride.
“Nobody’s expectations were higher than our own,” Bailey said of the early-season struggles. “So going out there and performing like that, that gives everybody confidence we still are us. We can still do this.”