GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Arkansas wanted to make a statement in The Swamp, confident its hard-nosed philosophy under coach Bret Bielema was ready for a big test.
Its ground-and-pound philosophy was successful early, helping the Razorbacks take a surprising lead against Florida. But there was one problem: It was only the first quarter.
Arkansas unraveled after a strong start Saturday night, suffering a 30-10 loss to No. 18 Florida in front of an announced crowd of 90,043 in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Quarterback Brandon Allen — who was making his first road start — threw a costly interception that was returned by cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy for a touchdown to give the Gators the lead in the second quarter. Florida receiver Solomon Patton then caught 51- and 38-yard touchdown passes to push the edge to 17 points.
It was more than enough for Florida (4-1, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) — led by one of the nation’s best defenses — to secure its ninth straight win against the Razorbacks (3-3, 0-2). Arkansas also lost its third straight game under Bielema.
The Gators remain the only team Arkansas has not beaten since joining the SEC.
“Just too many issues,” Bielema said. “Too many dropped balls. We had a pick six. We had a couple missed tackles that directly resulted in 14 easy points. When you play a ranked opponent on their own turf, you can’t do those things and expect to win.”
Saturday’s game turned on an interception for the second straight week.
Allen threw an ill-advised pass that was picked off by Florida’s Purifoy, who raced 42 yards to the end zone. Allen tried to force the ball to receiver Keon Hatcher, but there were two defenders between them.
It was the second straight game Allen — who said earlier in the week Arkansas could not help Florida’s defense with critical mistakes — had an interception returned for a touchdown. Saturday’s mistake gave the Gators a 10-7 lead.
“Momentum is just a big part of the game right there,” said Allen, who also lost a fumble in the first half but it didn’t lead to Florida points. “Once they got that pick six and a couple of big plays that were able to keep momentum on their side.”
Said Bielema, “We got a little out of rhythm after that pick six.”
But it appeared Florida would still take just a three-point advantage into the locker room. Then, Arkansas suffered another damaging sequence in the final minute.
It started when Purifoy signaled for a fair catch on a punt floating deep into Florida territory. But he bobbled the ball in front of Arkansas linebacker Jarrett Lake, who latched on with Purifoy. They went to the ground and Lake came away with the ball.
A penalty flag was thrown on Arkansas for failing to give Puriofy a chance to finish the fair catch. The interference call gave Florida 15 yards to start its drive.
“If he muffs it he is allowed to try and recover that uninterrupted, unimpeded before the ball hits the ground,” Bielema said. “The ball went up in the air, J-Lake was trying to grab it and that was the foul.
“I knew the penalty was the correct call. That’s why I didn’t argue it.”
Arkansas appeared to hold defensively until a costly coverage bust in the secondary. Cornerback Tevin Mitchel lost track of his man — Patton — on a third-and-12 play from the Florida 49. Patton caught the ball in space, turned up the sideline and outraced the Razorbacks to the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown.
The score, which came with 20 seconds left, gave the Gators a 17-7 halftime lead.
All of the issues erased an impressive start by the Razorbacks.
Arkansas was eager to test its physical style against a stingy Florida defense that led the nation in rushing yards allowed (53.5). The Razorbacks enjoyed plenty of success early with Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, who helped power Arkansas to 81 rushing yards in the first quarter.
The most Florida had allowed in a game this season was 66.
“We got out of our gaps and had guys trying to make plays,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “But when you play a team like Arkansas, you can’t get frustrated.”
Collins — who was back in his home state — ripped off a 28-yard run on his first carry and had 51 yards in the first half. Williams only had 18, but his winding 4-yard touchdown run gave the Razorbacks a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
“You feel good,” Bielema said. “But, unfortunately, they don’t call the game after the end of the first quarter. It’s a four-quarter game.”
Florida’s defense clamped down on Arkansas after surrendering 120 yards in the first quarter. It closed holes Collins found early, forced Arkansas into several third-and-long situations and teed off on Allen. Dropped passes and penalties didn’t help.
Allen finished 17-of-41 for 164 yards with the interception. Collins finished with 54 yards and led Arkansas with five catches for 45 yards. The Razorbacks had 275 yards, 155 of which came in the final three quarters after the strong start.
“We had a lot of things not go our way,” Allen said. “A lot of plays on offense I wish we could do over again. Definitely some big momentum swings that we weren’t able to get back on our side. … Credit their defense. They’re No. 1 for a reason.”
Florida, meanwhile, did enough in quarterback Tyler Murphy’s second start. The junior made plays with his legs and finished completing 16-of-22 passes for 240 yards. He made up for the fact Florida’s running back tandem of Matt Jones and Mack Brown struggled to find room against the Hogs, finishing with 89 yards.
Florida did most of its damage through the air. Solomon’s two touchdowns came on nearly identical plays. His second score gave the Gators a 24-10 lead with 11:23 remaining in the third quarter.
Solomon finished with six catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
“He made two big plays that really changed the game,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said.
Allen took a beating in the loss, leaving the field for a few snaps after injuring his hand during a play that drew a late hit penalty on Florida. The quarterback was battered and bruised by the time the game ended after pass protection problems.
That wasn’t all. Center Travis Swanson left in the second half after suffering a knee injury. Cornerback Will Hines had to be carted off the field after breaking a bone in his arm and went to a local hospital to have it set before heading home.
Arkansas’ path won’t get any easier after completing the second leg of its four-game stretch against ranked teams. But Smith said the Razorbacks have been their own worst enemy during much of the three-game losing streak.
“Arkansas can’t beat Arkansas,” Smith said. “That’s what we’ve got to change.”