FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said the Razorbacks wanted to make a statement in their season opener against Jacksonville State.
The Razorbacks did just that Saturday night. Three turnovers, an early deficit and pass defense deficiencies are signs No. 10 Arkansas has a ways to go before its Southeastern Conference showdown against Alabama on Sept. 15.
Arkansas, which got off to a slow start because of two first quarter fumbles and surrendered its share of plays through the air, wasn’t perfect. Far from it. But the Hogs collected a 49-24 win in front of 71,062 in Razorback Stadium.
Wilson led the way, setting the school record for passing yards in a season opener (367) and throwing for three touchdowns. He had help, too, from tight end Chris Gragg (7 catches, 110 yards, 2 touchdowns), receiver Brandon Mitchell (4 catches, 122 yards) and four different running backs who reached the end zone.
It culminated in a 25-point win for the Razorbacks under John L. Smith, who picked up his first victory as a head coach since 2006. But it also signaled to Arkansas — which has not been shy about its championship aspirations despite the downfall of former coach Bobby Petrino — there is plenty of room for improvement.
“Our expectations are to do better than we did,” Smith said. “So I know as a football team, our guys walk off the field (Saturday) kind of like … yeah, they’re pleased it was a win … but they’re not pleased with how well we played because we can do a lot better. And we know that. And they know that.”
There was early trouble for the offense, which turned the ball over on its first possession after Wilson dropped it fleeing from pressure. It was scooped up by JSU linebacker Rashad Smith, who returned the fumble 49 yards before being brought down by Arkansas running back Knile Davis deep in Razorback territory.
The defense held firm, keeping Jacksonville State off the scoreboard thanks to a blocked field goal. But after Arkansas got on the scoreboard with Kody Walker’s 1-yard touchdown run, Jacksonville State scored touchdowns on its next two possessions – the second after a fumble by Gragg – to take a 14-7 lead.
“Now looking at it, it’s good,” Wilson said of the adversity. “Everybody had a little pressure on them. See how we were going to respond. That’s the way it needs to be. But we can’t fall behind. We have to get out there, get in the starting gates and go.”
Said Smith: “Truly, I was kind of calm. I was not that upset because we’re better than that. We’ll get our feet on the ground and start playing the way we play.”
Arkansas didn’t panic against coach Jack Crowe and Jacksonville State, which recorded a 49-48 overtime win against Ole Miss in the 2010 season opener.
Instead, the Razorbacks settled in offensively, finding plenty of open space in the Jacksonville State secondary. Arkansas lost No. 1 receiver Cobi Hamilton to a neck injury or possible concussion in the first quarter, but Wilson turned to Gragg, Mitchell and junior Javontee Herndon (4 catches, 96 yards, TD) to restore order.
The Razorbacks scored touchdowns on four straight possessions – 30- and 4-yard touchdown catches by Gragg, a 3-yard run by Wingo, a 5-yard run by Davis — to grab a 35-14 lead. Jacksonville State kept things interesting, though, capping a 10-play, 75-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Marques Ivory to receiver Alan Bonner with eight seconds left in the first half.
“It’s the first game,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said. “Lot of new faces. Lot of new guys. It’s kind of expected. But our kids know that’s not our expectations and that’s not the type of defense we want to have so we’ll work at it.”
Jacksonville State crawled closer early in the third quarter, getting a 49-yard field goal from Griffin Thomas to make it 35-24. It was all the Gamecocks could get.
Arkansas answered quickly when Wilson found Herndon — who stepped into the lineup when Hamilton left the game in the first quarter — to open up an 18-point lead. Herndon slipped behind the Jacksonville State defense and Wilson hit him in stride for the score. The 63-yarder was Arkansas’ biggest play of the night.
It also put things out of reach for the upset-minded Gamecocks, who had hoped to give Crowe a win in his first game at Arkansas since being fired by former Razorbacks athletic director Frank Broyles after the loss to The Citadel in 1992.
Arkansas finished with 564 yards and scored on seven of its 11 possessions with through three quarters. Meanwhile, Jacksonville State didn’t score a touchdown in the second half against a defense that made improvements at halftime.
“At the end of the day it’s a win,” said Davis, who finished with 70 yards on 18 carries in his first game since the 2010 Sugar Bowl. “We put up 49 points, which was pretty good.”
But there are areas Arkansas will emphasize this week.
Jacksonville State got 227 of its 322 yards through the air, finding soft spots in the Razorbacks secondary. Arkansas’ run game started well, but sputtered late in finishing with 164 yards Saturday. Then there were the three fumbles from seniors (Wilson, Gragg and a second-half fumble by running back Ronnie Wingo).
So Arkansas will simply go back to work as it prepares for the next opportunity against Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock on Saturday night.
“Now we know where we are,” Smith said. “There are going to be a lot of positives on that film, but there are going to be negatives as well. …
“We’ll kick them in the tail on Tuesday and get them going again.”