Three debilitating losses in a four-week span made Arkansas a little sour for homecoming Saturday. UAB paid the iron price for all that misery.
The Hogs blew the doors off the Blazers in a 35-0 first half, then more or less slogged through a special teams comedy in the second half to end up with a 45-17 win over a team that had reportedly improved after the failure of a two-year experiment with former Hog offensive coordinator Garrick McGee as head coach. It didn't really look like a Conference-USA contender at Reynolds Razorback Stadium on a bright morning in the Ozarks, though some of that may have been attributable to quarterback Cody Clements being sidelined.
UAB had mounted a fierce challenge to Mississippi State way back in September when the Bulldogs were a bit of a national mystery, rather than the sudden titan of the land. That game ended 47-34, and the Blazers actually outgained the Bulldogs at Davis-Wade Stadium, slicing through what has morphed into a terrific defense with a bunch of big plays.
Their best efforts at duplicating that kind of effort in Fayetteville came too late and would've likely not even been visible but for the Hogs' glaring woes on special teams — UAB's only touchdown until backups yielded a late passing score was a 100-yard kickoff return by Jamarcus Nelson, and not long before that, Nelson's 35-yard punt return put the Blazers inside the 10 before they ended up faltering and settling for a field goal. Arkansas got its fourth win of the season on the strength of Jonathan Williams' best rushing output of the year and a boisterous defensive showing, plus the now-renowned ingenuity of left guard Sebastian Tretola lofting a nice little fade to deep snapper Alan D'Appollonio out of a tricky formation to cement the early blowout.
It was hard to get terribly excited over it all. Three rough losses in a row, the last of which being the first-half vanishing act against Georgia, had sapped once-building momentum and left the crowd looking both sporadic and uninterested. But for those who trudged out for the late morning kickoff, they did see several great signs:
Drew Morgan got involved, albeit only once, with a nice 44-yard grab on the opening possession. The Greenwood product has only four catches but you would swear for all the buzz after the past two summers, he's poised to become a more relied-upon target. He's above average in all the key traits — burst, size and hands — but it's clear that Brandon Allen hasn't quite developed the rhythm with him. Maybe this over-the-shoulder grab changes the dynamic a bit.
Jeremy Sprinkle snatched Allen's second scoring toss and the only second-half TD for the Hogs. He's another guy with underwhelming numbers and overwhelming talent. At this juncture, with the Razorback receiving corps being what it is, why not afford Sprinkle more chances? Granted, the team is blessed with great depth at tight end right now given A.J. Derby's phenomenal conversion, but Sprinkle's height and straight-line quickness need to be tapped into sooner rather than later.
For all the return maladies, the kicking game got some stability. Sam Irwin-Hill took his benching to heart, and after Toby Baker's lone punt was a short liner that Nelson quickly brought back into the red zone, the Aussie resumed his position and knocked one 54 yards, eventually averaging 43 yards on four boots. The big story was that Adam McFain drilled six PATs and a 49-yard field goal that looked to have enough distance to be good from 60. Those three points yielded arguably more gusto from the crowd than the Tretola pass, sadly enough.
Defensively, this was a pretty complete effort against a respectable up-tempo attack, and much more of the unit that squared off against Alabama and less of the one that got befuddled by Georgia.
Of course, this was UAB, and that aforementioned Bulldog team looms now as the nation's prohibitive top squad. Dak Prescott walked away from a hard-fought win over Kentucky in a protective boot, but there's no reason to think the Heisman frontrunner will be ailing in the least by the time this one tees up.
Arkansas goes to Starkville this season under completely foreign conditions: Just last year, this game in Little Rock was going to decide who resided in last place in the SEC West Division. The pressure clearly rests upon the home team, which faces a new and more daunting task each passing week, and that gives the Hogs a window of opportunity. They've never lost three consecutive games to Mississippi State since entering the conference, and if that distinction remains intact by the time Saturday night ends, it'll be the story of the season.