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A turn in the right direction for football Razorbacks



With a yearlong winning drought now a bygone thing, Arkansas had to take a quick "next step" back toward respectability. Nicholls State was pure scheduling fodder and morale building.

Texas Tech wasn't any sort of juggernaut, either, but the Red Raiders won a bowl game to cap off an eight-win '13, and slung it all over creation in Kliff Kingsbury's first year as sideline Casanova or head coach or whatever title the dashing chap holds in Lubbock. There was no question that recent history made this an unusually pivotal contest for a Razorback program desperate to regain footing.

Clad in an all-white ensemble that clearly but understandably befuddled once-venerable play-by-play guy Mike Patrick — he called the team "Wisconsin" multiple times during the ABC broadcast — the Hogs did, truly for the first time, look like one of Bret Bielema's downhill monsters from Madison. They eschewed the pass almost completely in a debilitating second-half throttling of the Raiders, and when it ended 49-28 in the visitors' favor, the Hogs' general was the one who exited with the cool swagger that Kingsbury normally displays. Bielema smiled broadly at the end, and why not? This was a belated but decisive triumph of philosophy, and it occurred on the road against a power conference opponent that was itching to show it could beat the proverbial and literal brakes off an SEC squad with its brand of speedy dissection.

Bielema fancies this as "normal American football" and when your quarterback operates in a heady fashion and the running plays show appropriate wrinkles of ingenuity, it all adds up to massive yardage output. More importantly it equates to ball control, the removal of the air from the pigskin, to the near-unthinkable tune of a 2-to-1 time of possession advantage. But for an episode of bad tackling and two rather intolerable giveaways, Arkansas pummeled Tech even more demonstratively than the score might lead you to infer.

Was it all a turning point, though, or did Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams simply have career days at the expense of a truly terrible defense? Hard to figure. The cynic posits that piling up 122 points against Nicholls and T-Tech hardly shows what Arkansas could do against any upper-tier league combatant. The Hogs still have noteworthy passing warts: receivers that underwhelm on one side, defensive backs that don't get quite physical enough at the line on the other. That said, there are signs that those deficiencies are getting proper redress, too.

So two weeks removed from that second-half whitewashing at Auburn, the Hogs suddenly have the makings of a moderate to severe pain in the rest of the SEC's ass. And thankfully, there is yet another reasonably challenging out-of-conference game this weekend against mid-major darling Northern Illinois. These Huskies are a sharp 3-0 and the proud owners of the free world's least celebrated but arguably most amazing run of dominance abroad, a 17-game road winning streak that dates back to 2012 and now includes consecutive hard-won battles against Northwestern and UNLV. Rod Carey helms one of the country's quiet bastions of consistency and stability now, and there's been no obvious regression yet with Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch gone.

Fayetteville is not Evanston, Ill., or Sin City, however, and Arkansas has mojo it hasn't had since the Harley went off-road. There was no audacious postgame scene in Lubbock because this relatively young group was so uncannily self-assured. That's maybe the most uplifting part of it all, that even with almost no success to draw from, the Hogs are exuding a strangely businesslike vibe in a matter of days. The second half of the Auburn game felt so sadly familiar, and yet now there's a pervading sense that it was a first-game aberration.

But the Hogs cannot afford to get all entitled suddenly, as the Huskies are precisely the kind of opposition that preys on that. They've reeled off four straight 10-win seasons under three different head coaches, went to an Orange Bowl two seasons ago and played generally a competitive schedule from year to year. Some would contend that MAC football is superior to the Big Ten product at this point, and there's certainly cause to believe that this Huskies team is a harder out than Tech was. They operate a varied offense and are masters of disrupting a team's offensive rhythm, and Carey is off to a 15-3 start as head coach as a result.

If pressed, Bielema would have probably said that a 3-1 start for his team through the first one-third of the season would be close to ideal. It's within reach and it can feel especially good to the Fayetteville fans if they get to see a win over a truly high-caliber team for the first time in three years.

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