FAYETEVILLE — Late in the first quarter, Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen was flushed from the pocket on third-and-goal from the Southern Miss 5-yard line. He scrambled and dove into the end zone for the Razorbacks’ first points in a 24-3 win.
But it was the last play of the day for the sophomore.
After scoring, he ran to the sideline, holding his right arm close to his body and found a trainer. He quickly went to the X-ray room, then after several minutes he went to the Arkansas locker room. After the halftime break, Allen returned to the sideline in street clothes with his throwing arm in a sling.
“It didn’t appear to be anything more than … like a bruise,” Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema said. “Didn’t want to put him back in there today, it’s still a little bit tender. He seems pretty convinced he’ll be back by the start of the next week.”
With Allen sidelined, Bielema turned to backup AJ Derby.
“I was on the headset when Brandon came off, I’m not sure what happened, but I was on the headset,” Derby said. “Then they told me right away to get ready.”
But he had an inauspicious debut. After one first down via four consecutive runs, Arkansas faced third-and-4 at its own 30 on the first play of the second quarter. Derby lined up in shotgun, but misplayed the snap from center Travis Swanson. He tried to pick it up, but knocked the ball backwards before falling on it for a 19-yard loss.
“I’m going to put that 100 percent on me. I got to realize who I’ve got back there, that it’s not Brandon,” Swanson said. “AJ’s not used to it, he’s used to taking snaps from somebody else. So I’m going to put that completely on me. It’s my fault.”
Derby, a junior transfer, threw for 1,936 yards on 149-of-321 passing with 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions at Coffeyville Community College last year. He attempted just two passes in the second quarter Saturday, completing one for 4 yards as the Razorbacks ran the ball 14 times to close out the first half.
“I think as a head coach you always get a little nervous when that No. 2 quarterback goes in there,” Bielema said. “But I thought AJ, especially as the day wore on, got more and more comfortable out there. Couldn’t ask for him to handle that second half any better.
“I thought our coaches did a nice job at halftime getting some plays that they felt comfortable with him. … I know he was a little bit rattled coming in there.”
In the second half, Derby completed 3-of-4 attempts for 32 yards. He completed back-to-back passes midway through the third quarter. Those appeared to give the Southern Miss defense — which was completely focused on stopping the run — a pause.
On the next play, he handed the ball to Jonathan Williams for a 45-yard TD run that gave Arkansas a 17-3 lead.
“I felt good in the second half. Our offensive line stepped up … and our running backs did great,” Derby said. “So it took a lot of pressure off myself. It was just a great team offensive win.”
Bielema and Derby both credited Allen with helping as a player-coach in the second half.
“I thought BA, whenever he’s done playing, I’ll hire him as a coach,” Bielema said. “He did a great job in the second half of calming him down on the headset there. I thought that was pretty cool.”
While Bielema said he thinks Allen’s shoulder is just bruised, he’s got faith Derby can get the job done as a starter at Rutgers if needed.
“AJ’s played a lot of football. Obviously, he started off at Iowa. I played football with his dad (John) so I’ve known the kid forever, which is kind of scary,” Bielema said. “But AJ is a football junkie. He prepares very well. He’s a very detailed guy. But AJ is AJ. He’s going to do some things once in awhile like, ‘What are you doing?’ But I guess all quarterbacks are like that in some way.”