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Despite exit of Razorback stars, Liberty Bowl win bodes well for Hogs

It wasn't flawless, but Arkansas's 45-23 dismantling of Kansas State in the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl was as thorough and dominant as the score suggested, if not more so.

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BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
It wasn't flawless, but Arkansas's 45-23 dismantling of Kansas State in the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl was as thorough and dominant as the score suggested, if not more so.

But for a hiccup on the opening possession and a coverage breakdown later, the Razorbacks had full control of the proceedings as the oddsmakers had projected. Cagey veteran coach Bill Snyder tried some things to offset the Hogs' decided advantages — senior receiver Kody Cook drew his first start ever at quarterback, and the Cats' undermanned defense attempted to exact some pressure on Brandon Allen — but even the sporadic successes there were nowhere near sufficient to overcome Arkansas's 569-242 total yardage disparity.

The reality is that the Razorbacks themselves caused whatever problems they had. Allen's uncharacteristic interception on the game's third play gave K-State a short field for the the first score, and consistently bewildering popup kickoffs to avoid dangerous returner Morgan Burns often faltered. Another field goal attempt by beleaguered Cole Hedlund was easily blocked, again courtesy of a protection breakdown and Hedlund's own penchant for low-trajectory boots, and the Hogs' secondary got utterly embarrassed when Cook located fullback Winston Dimel streaking open in the middle of the field for a 48-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Combined with a chip-shot field goal from Matthew McCrane before halftime, the Wildcats' touchdown had their commendable support section in the stands engaged, trailing only 24-20 with plenty of football left to play.

Trouble was, Arkansas had gotten used to mid-game spurts by recent opponents and fended them off. LSU put together TD drives to close the first half and open the second half of the game at Baton Rouge, and the Hogs coolly deflected that rally and whitewashed the Tigers 10-0 the rest of the way. This played out similarly: After the Wildcats drew close, Arkansas rebounded with a nine-play, 82-yard march to pay dirt. Allen, capping his career with one more fiendishly accurate effort, keyed the drive with a 30-yard strike to Drew Morgan and finished it with a six-yard bullet to Jeremy Sprinkle. The 64th and last scoring pass of Allen's star-crossed, but fulfilling, career pushed the lead back to 31-20.

From there, the Hogs (8-5) deployed the great Alex Collins for what likely the last time as a Hog, and No. 3 was as electric as ever. He carried five times for 36 yards on what turned out to be the clinching drive, and the last 14 came on a touchdown run that typified this season for the Razorbacks. On first down after Hunter Henry hauled in a 43-yard heave from Allen, Collins picked his way through the middle, ricocheted off three futile tacklers inside the 10 and stretched his way across the plane for the score. It was a rugged run that started with some licks but ended up satisfying, the microcosmic representation of a 2015 that began with a disheartening September but closed out quite beautifully.

Collins, if indeed on his way out, couldn't have authored a better scouting tape if he had hours of time in the editing room. His 23 rushes again proved that the Miami product has the ability to be a lead ball carrier, and Bret Bielema's prudent usage of him the past three years means that Collins' professional outlook is even brighter with him having accumulated very little mileage to date. But when it counted in 2015, Collins was up to the task of getting 20-plus rushes, his elusiveness and quick feet were on full display, and against Kansas State, he was flat-out dynamic. In addition to his 185 yards and three scores via the run, he had a 68-yard kickoff return to set up a Jared Cornelius touchdown sweep in the first quarter.

And Allen quickly recovered from his rare gaffe with another of the performances that transformed him from humble game manager to legitimate pro prospect his senior year. The long strike to Henry, himself an early entry as well, was perhaps the finest throw he made all day. Under pressure and desperately looking for an outlet, Allen unleashed a long strike off his back foot while the junior Mackey Award winner streaked down the sideline. The longest offensive play of the day pushed Allen past the 300-yard mark for the fifth time this fall, and he was once again incredibly accurate: 20 for 26, never missing consecutive throws. No receiver had 100 yards, but Henry, Sprinkle and Morgan all surpassed the 75-yard mark, proving yet again that Allen has progressed dramatically in going through progressions, thanks to excellent protection all year long.

Allen's senior year compares extremely favorably to the junior years of Ryan Mallett (2010) and Tyler Wilson (2011), both of whom entered those campaigns with designs on professional ball:

Mallett (2010) - 266 completions in 411 attempts (64.7 percent), 3,869 yards, 32 touchdowns, 12 interceptions
Wilson (2011) - 277 completions in 438 attempts (63.2 percent), 3,638 yards, 24 touchdowns, six interceptions
Allen (2015) - 244 completions in 370 attempts (65.9 percent), 3,440 yards, 30 touchdowns, eight interceptions

The production bodes well for whichever quarterback wins the predictable slugfest next spring to succeed Allen. Dan Enos did what Jim Chaney could not, make a pro-style system work for literally everyone in the mix, and that's why even Henry's announced departure for the draft, Collins' anticipated exit, and the graduations of Sebastian Tretola and Mitch Smothers up front won't deplete the Hogs too substantially next year.

The defense, meanwhile, didn't let K-State's gimmickry fool them much. Dre Greenlaw continued to demonstrate star power as a freshman, and there's no question that the linebacking corps and secondary will make gains this spring given the young talent there. Cornerback Ryan Pulley, somewhat derided for getting beaten from time to time in spot duty this fall, even ended a tough break-in year with his first career interception to cement the final margin for the Hogs.

Henry declared for the draft yesterday along with talented offensive lineman Denver Kirkland. Collins likely bolts as well, but that should be the end of early defections, and what's left behind is the memory of a resilient team that could have teetered on quitting weeks ago but wound up being one of the country's most dangerous programs from Oct. 1 onward.


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