FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ starting quarterback stood on the sideline with his right arm in a black sling, protecting his injured shoulder.
Arkansas’ bend-but-don’t-break defense and grind-it-out run game made sure sophomore Brandon Allen’s absence didn’t result in a loss on the field, too.
The Razorbacks overcame the first-quarter injury to Allen to beat the Southern Miss 24-3 in front of an announced crowd of 63,067 in Razorback Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Backup quarterback AJ Derby stepped under center in place of Allen and, after a shaky start, directed the run-heavy offense during his first action as a Razorback. The defense did more than its share, too, collecting two turnovers, three sacks and holding firm when Southern Miss cracked Arkansas territory.
The effort helped the Razorbacks improve to 3-0 under Bret Bielema — although the coach admitted afterward it wasn’t exactly a “real sexy” win. It also extended Southern Miss’ losing streak to a Football Bowl Subdivision long of 15 games.
“This group, they just keep moving forward,” Bielema said. “It’s a group that learns every day. I know that they weren’t clean in a lot of different things, but if we just keep making baby steps, keep playing a four-quarter game, keep getting the wins in the right column, we’ll be all right.”
Arkansas had to show some resiliency once again Saturday, losing Allen after his five-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. The sophomore landed hard on his right shoulder as he dove into the end zone and was taken to Arkansas’ X-ray room on the south end of the stadium. He emerged late in the second quarter without his shoulder pads, walking to the Arkansas locker room to change out of his uniform.
“I don’t think we exactly knew he hurt his shoulder until we kind of got to the sidelines and Coach B came up to me and said get some snaps with AJ,” Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. “That’s when we realized something happened to him.”
It meant the Razorbacks were left with an unproven player under center. Derby, who transferred to Arkansas last spring, hadn’t played a down in two games and looked like it early when he struggled to catch a shotgun snap.
Arkansas’ ground game wasn’t having much success either with Southern Miss stacking the box to slow running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. The Razorbacks did manage a 7-play, 20-yard drive — highlighted by Derby’s 10-yard scramble — that ended in a Zach Hocker field goal to make it 10-3.
The offense could only muster 159 yards (122 on the ground) in the first half.
“We didn’t really run as physical as we should have in the first half,” Williams said.
Arkansas’ defense made sure the Razorbacks never lost the lead while it adjusted to a new quarterback, holding an opponent under the 300-yard mark once again.
The Golden Eagles finished with 254 yards and went 4-for-15 on third down.
“That’s a tough thing to see your quarterback go down,” Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers said. “But we just felt like it was all on us.
“We had to step up and make some big-time plays.”
Flowers came up with the first when he stepped back into coverage and intercepted a pass from quarterback Allan Bridgford. Cornerback Will Hines also grabbed an interception later in the half, grabbing an errant throw from Bridgford.
Defensive end Chris Smith had a career-high three sacks. It included back-to-back sacks late in the first half, knocking Southern Miss out of Arkansas territory.
But the biggest moment came earlier in the quarter with Arkansas clinging to a 7-0 lead. Southern Miss moved to Arkansas’ 2 after a pass interference penalty on safety Eric Bennett in the end zone. Defensive tackle Robert Thomas slipped through the Southern Miss line on the next play, dropping Kendrick Hardy for a 3-yard loss.
Southern Miss eventually settled for a 27-yard field goal.
“That brought a lot of energy,” Smith said. “That close and we stop them. That’s the thing coach ash always tells us. Put the ball down. No matter what, wherever they are on the field. That’s one thing we had to do was stop them.”
Arkansas’ offense regrouped at halftime and finally found some rhythm. Derby started by completing two passes on Arkansas’ first drive, then watched as Williams took a handoff and raced 45 yards for a touchdown to make it 17-3.
It was the third straight game Williams has broken a play for 45 yards or more.
“I feel like it just brought a new life to the game,” Williams said about the run.
Said fullback Kiero Small: “We talked about at halftime coming out and going in and putting it on them. … It was big to get some momentum going.”
It was all Arkansas needed. The ground game took over from there, following the script that led Arkansas to wins against Louisiana-Lafayette and Samford. The Razorbacks kept the ball on the ground for 22 of their final 24 players Saturday.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t put them in a position to change their game plan — to force them to do something they didn’t want to do,” Southern Miss coach Todd Monken said. “That’s the key — put pressure on their playcaller and their players to make plays at critical times. At no time did they feel that.”
It helped Williams (16 carries, 116 yards) and Collins (25 carries, 115 yards) continue their impressive run, topping the 100-yard mark for the third straight game. Collins’ feat also made him the first freshman in Southeastern Conference history to have three, 100-yard rushing games to start his career. He also became the first in the NCAA to accomplish the feat since Adrian Peterson in 2004.
His seven-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter capped the scoring Saturday.
“Just imposing your will,” Bielema said when asked about the difference with the run game in the second half. “We just wear some people down. I don’t know if a lot of people want to play four quarters of football the way that we do.”
Derby finished the game completing 4 of 6 passes for 36 yards, while Allen was 2-for-5 for 33 with an interception before leaving the game. The two combined for 69 passing yards on 11 attempts. Arkansas ran for 258 yards on 56 carries.
“I think as a head coach you always get a little nervous when that No. 2 quarterback goes in there,” Bielema said. “But AJ, especially as the day wore on, got more and more comfortable. Couldn’t ask for him to handle that second half any better.”
Bielema said he didn’t have exact details on Allen’s injury afterward, saying he believed it was little more than a bruised shoulder. He also said the quarterback sounded optimistic about his health afterward, believing he’ll be able to return to the huddle when Arkansas travels to play at Rutgers next Saturday.
There’s no doubt Allen remains vital to Arkansas’ plans this season. But the Razorbacks felt good about their ability to win without him Saturday.
“As a team, we handled adversity well,” Small said.