FAYETTEVILLE — Bret Bielema needed just one game to show this is no longer Bobby Petrino’s Arkansas.
The new Razorbacks coach led the way for a season-opening 34-14 win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday, a game in which Arkansas rushed 51 times for 292 yards.
The rushing yardage was the most Arkansas had gained in a game since a 326-yard effort against Texas El-Paso in 2010. That Razorbacks team was on its way to a Sugar Bowl berth under Petrino, whose quick passing trigger is nothing like what Arkansas showed on Saturday under Bielema.
The former Wisconsin coach, along with new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, made it clear that the Razorbacks are bringing the power-running game back into style in the Southeastern Conference. They did so behind a combined 282 yards rushing from the running back duo of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, and they did so early.
Chaney, known for his passing offenses at Purdue and Tennessee in the past, called seven straight runs to open the game. Arkansas finished with eight runs and three passes on the touchdown drive, gaining 62 yards on the ground and setting the tone for what Bielema hopes is a balanced offensive approach.
“I think Jim wanted to make a statement,” Bielema said.
Balance hasn’t exactly been the calling card for the Razorbacks over the last five seasons, the first four under Petrino and last season while running the same system under interim coach John L. Smith.
Arkansas fielded one of the SEC’s top passing offenses during that time, but it came at the expense of the running game. The Razorbacks averaged just 118.7 yards rushing per game last season, with a season-best 167-yard effort in a loss to Mississippi.
The most Arkansas averaged rushing per game during the Petrino era was during the 2010 season, when it gained 148.9 yards on the ground per game.
The Razorbacks were well over that mark by the end of the third quarter on Saturday, with senior Travis Swanson leading the way by pulling from his center position and blocking down field on several runs.
“I think we laid a good foundation,” Swanson said. “Obviously, it’s very different from what we were used to doing, but we’ve been working on it all these months since they’ve been here.”
Williams provided the game’s biggest rushing highlight, a 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that put Arkansas up 34-14. The sophomore, who played sparingly behind last year’s running back combination of Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson, finished with 151 yards rushing on 18 carries — doing so despite injuring his left shoulder late in the first half.
Collins, the highly recruited freshman from Florida, added plenty of highlights of his own, even if he didn’t break a run longer than 17 yards. He finished with 131 yards rushing on 21 carries, and the two evoked memories of the last time Arkansas had a powerhouse running duo — when Darren McFadden and Felix Jones led a rushing attack that averaged 286.5 yards rushing per game in 2007.
“It’s real exciting,” Williams said. “That’s probably one of the most memorable times that Arkansas fans have, is when they had Darren and Felix. Hopefully, we can kind of rekindle that flame.”
In fact, it was McFadden and Jones who were the last Razorbacks duo to top the 100-yard rushing mark together in the same game, doing so since that 2007 season against South Carolina. Also, Collins became the school’s first true freshman to top 100 yards rushing since Jones in 2005.
“It’s really cool because it’s something we’ve been working on in practice and something we’ve been working on all summer,” Collins said. “This one-two punch, and getting on the same page with our offensive linemen so everything would be successful when we played another team ... To see it work out the way we wanted to, it was great.”
The 51 rushing attempts were the most for the Razorbacks since a 50-rush effort against Kentucky in 2008. That was Petrino’s first season at Arkansas, which averaged 38.3 pass attempts and 30.6 rushing attempts per game last season under Smith.