True freshman Felix Jones slipped past would-be tacklers, sprinted untouched through the secondary and turned in a dazzling debut.
The Razorbacks’ season opener against Missouri State was billed as the first start for sophomore quarterback Robert Johnson, who was stepping into the unenviable position of following departed three-year starter Matt Jones under center.
But Arkansas’ ground game stole the show.
The Hogs, led by Hillis, Jones, De’Arrius Howard and Darren McFadden, rumbled for 483 rushing yards during a 49-17 win against Missouri State in front of 66,424 in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Arkansas didn’t have an easy time with the Bears because of five frustrating turnovers, but the quartet of ball carriers proved more than enough as the Hogs claimed their ninth consecutive season-opening win.
“What did we run for, 470, 480?” said left guard Stephen Parker, who was part of a veteran line that opened gaping holes for the tailbacks. “That’s ridiculous. I thought the Ole Miss game last year was great and that was 300.
“This blows my mind.”
Jones, the speedy freshman, led Arkansas with 137 yards on 8 carries, including an 80-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Hillis compiled 135 yards and 3 touchdowns on 14 attempts. Howard racked up 119 of his 120 yards in the second half and McFadden chipped in 70 yards, most of which came in the closing minutes.
In the end, it was the seventh-best, single-game rushing effort in school history and the highest output since 2002, when the Hogs rumbled for 426 rushing yards in the 38-17 win at Auburn. It also was the first time three Hogs went over the 100-yard mark in a game since 2001, when Jones, Fred Talley and Cedric Cobbs accomplished the feat in the 58-56 seven-overtime win at Ole Miss.
“(Running backs coach Danny) Nutt came to me and said, ‘D,’ we’ve got a stable,” Howard said. “It’s good to have three backs over 100. It starts the season off right.”
Said Johnson: “That’s real good for me. It takes a lot of pressure off me.”
Hillis, who started the game at H-back, got Arkansas on the board in the first quarter when he sprinted 32 yards for a touchdown that gave Arkansas a 7-3 lead. McFadden closed the scoring with his first career touchdown on a 3-yard carry with 7:21 left in the game.
In between, Jones broke off his 80-yard touchdown run. Howard rumbled down the sideline for a career-best 60 yarder. McFadden added a 37-yarder.
Arkansas averaged 9.5 yards on its 51 rushing attempts.
“There’s no question they’re darn good backs,” said Missouri State coach Randy Ball. “Playing against the SEC, when they’re No. 2 in the league in rushing (in 2004), we knew they would be tough to stop.”
But Hillis and the Hogs weren’t satisfied. It was far from a picture-perfect night.
Arkansas’s offense bumbled and stumbled, at times, turning the football over at an alarming rate. In all, the Razorbacks fumbled four times, threw one interception and finished with five turnovers.
Scifres banged the opening kickoff off freshman linebacker Freddie Fairchild and recovered it. Hillis fumbled twice. Receiver Marcus Monk coughed the ball up after a 20-yard catch. Johnson threw an interception on the fourth play from scrimmage.
The errant toss was the only miscue Missouri State took advantage of, getting a 29-yard field goal from Jon Scifres to give the Bears a 3-0 lead. But Hillis believes the Razorbacks dodged a bullet.
“If that happened against any other team but tonight, I’m afraid we may have lost the game,” Hillis said about the turnovers. “If we take care of the fumbles, I think we had one of the best games in a while in Arkansas’ history.”
But Arkansas wasn’t alone. Missouri State had trouble keeping possession, too.
Former Arkansas and current Missouri State tight end Payne Hall was stripped by safety Vickiel Vaughn inside Arkansas’ 10 in the first quarter and the loose ball was picked up by cornerback John Johnson at the 4. Scottie Reddix fumbled a little later and watched cornerback Darius Vinnett scoop up the loose ball and race 44 yards for a touchdown that gave Arkansas a 14-3 lead.
The Bears committed five turnovers, three in the first half.
“The turnovers killed us,” quarterback Scott Carroll said. “We never felt like Arkansas’ defense stopped us.”
Missouri State settled down in the second half and got into the end zone twice in the third quarter to cut Arkansas’ lead to 28-17.
The first score came on a 6-yard pass from Carroll to receiver Jeremy Nicholson. It capped a 7-play, 75-yard drive. A little later, P.J. Ilkner raced 86 yards through the Arkansas defense for a touchdown with 1:01 left in the third quarter.
Missouri State finished with 338 yards of total offense against the Hogs.
“There was some good, some bad and some ugly,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring said about the debut of his defense. “I expected more out of this group. We’ve got a long ways to go. But I’m trying to be positive.”
The effort was enough to help Johnson have a memorable debut. The sophomore completed 12 of 22 passes for 88 yards with one touchdown and an interception.
It wasn’t a jaw-dropping effort, but Johnson turned in several key plays.
He calmly completed a 6-yard pass to receiver Cedric Washington on fourth-and-4 in the first quarter. Hillis scored on the next play. He also led the Hogs on a late scoring drive, tossing a 5-yard touchdown pass to Monk with two seconds left in the first half. The Hogs moved 49 yards on 7 plays in 1:04.
Johnson also completed two more important passes to Monk with the Hogs clinging to a 28-17 lead in the fourth quarter. The first was an 8-yard completion on third-and-4. The second was a 19-yarder on third-and-9.
“I am proud of Robert Johnson’s first start,” said Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. “He did a good job of managing the team and executing. Some of his passes were dropped by receivers that should not have been dropped.”
Arkansas won’t have much time to work out the kinks on either side of the ball.
The Razorbacks open Southeastern Conference play against Vanderbilt next Saturday in Razorback Stadium. It’s the first of a difficult three-game stretch that also includes road trips to Southern Cal and Alabama.
“We’ve got a long way to get to the top,” Howard said. “We’ve got to protect the ball. In a big conference game, five turnovers is not going to get the job done.
“I’m proud of the guys, but we’ve got to get out there and take care of the ball a lot better.”