Quarterback Robert Johnson was just as happy on the other end of the room, smiling from ear-to-ear while devouring a bag of potato chips. Even defensive coordinator Reggie Herring showed some playfulness after being asked about linebacker Pierre Brown’s performance, shrugging his shoulders and shouting to the senior in search of an answer.
Don’t tell Arkansas that Louisiana-Monroe hasn’t beaten a Southeastern Conference team since 1995. All that mattered was the feeling in the locker room after earning its first win in a month.
It wasn’t a flawless performance by any means, but the Razorbacks (2-3, 0-2 in the Southeastern Conference) did more than enough to end their frustrating, three-game losing skid in front of 54,209 in War Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.
Tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones took care of the offense, combining for 227 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns on 25 attempts. The defense handled quarterback Steven Jyles and the Indians, limiting them to two touchdowns. And the Hogs improved to 18-1 in Little Rock under coach Houston Nutt, claiming their first October win since a 48-28, homecoming victory against Ole Miss in 2002.
“It feels real good. It feels real good,” said Arkansas guard Chase Pressley, who started in place of injured senior Kyle Roper. “We needed this one bad. Coach Nutt talked about just getting the ball rolling again.”
The Razorbacks accomplished it behind McFadden and Jones, who helped Arkansas get past the frustrations by leading an offense that had two weeks to prepare after a shaky, 24-13 loss at Alabama. Nutt said the Hogs needed to improve its SEC-worst passing offense, but Arkansas leaned on its conference-leading ground game Saturday.
McFadden, who lost a fumble on Arkansas’ first play, rumbled for a game-high 125 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. He gained 118 yards and notched 39- and 15-yard touchdown runs that helped Arkansas take a 23-8 first-half lead.
Jones finished with 102 yards and two touchdowns of his own, doing most of his damage in the second half. The fleet-footed freshman rushed for 53 yards after the break, scoring on 4- and 3-yard runs that helped Arkansas build a 44-8 advantage.
They became the first Arkansas freshmen to rush for more than 100 yards in the same game.
“The freshmen always ball hard,” Johnson said. “They always come to play and they always come to score. It was fun watching them out there. They make it a lot better for the passing game with the way they run and the things they do.”
The Indians kept pace with the Razorbacks in the first half of last September’s 49-20 loss in War Memorial Stadium because of their big-play offense. Quarterback Steven Jyles passed for 278 yards and 20 first-half points before the Hogs settled down.
They were competitive in the first half once again, but couldn’t squeeze out the same kind of production against the Razorbacks on Saturday. Herring installed a new game plan during the off-week, countering the Indians’ wide open offense with a scheme that used three defensive linemen and six defensive backs most of the night.
“From Alabama to now, it’s obviously a step forward,” Herring said. “Regardless of who we played. We played a very difficult offense to prepare for. They spread you out and they run the option. You could stop them, stop them, stop them and then all of a sudden, they spit one out there.”
But Jyles found little room against the Razorbacks, completing 11 of 25 passes for 97 yards and rushing for 38 before leaving the game in the fourth quarter. ULM put together 327 yards — 177 rushing — but got into the end zone just twice.
“Arkansas has lots of speed on both ends of the lines and they exposed that tonight,” Jyles said. “Arkansas’ defense has had a rough year so far, but the last few weeks they have started to show their strengths and they truly showed their strength (Saturday night).”
The Indians scored their touchdown on a fake field goal in the first half, when backup quarterback Jesse Blair hit tight end Joey Trappey for a 23-yard touchdown that helped the Indians pull to within 16-8 with 4:05 left. ULM didn’t score again until backup quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster’s 4-yard touchdown with less than a minute left in the game. In between, Arkansas reeled off four, game-deciding touchdowns.
The first came immediately after ULM’s touchdown cut the lead to 16-8.
Johnson led the Hogs on a 6-play, 80-yard scoring drive. He hit receiver Marcus Monk for a 15-yard completion on the first play. Johnson scrambled for 13 yards a little later. And the Razorbacks picked up 15 yards on a roughing the passer penalty to the Louisiana-Monroe 15.
McFadden scored his second touchdown on the next play to give the Hogs a 23-8 lead with 2:15 left in the half.
“We ran the ball pretty good,” Johnson said about the drive. “Then we threw the ball pretty good. We used all the weapons and when you do that, good things can happen for you.”
McFadden dealt Louisiana-Monroe a crushing blow at the beginning of the second half, fielding the kickoff and weaving 64 yards to the ULM 26. Jones scored his first touchdown four plays later, giving the Razorbacks a 30-8 lead early in the quarter.
McFadden’s only mistake Saturday was fumbling the ball on Arkansas’ first play from scrimmage after a 26-yard gain. He averaged 11.4 yards a carry.
“It feels good to get out here and get a win and get back on the right track,” McFadden said. “The offensive line did a great job of blocking and opening holes up and I just hit them.”
Arkansas played without two starters on offense — Roper (strained knee) and receiver Cedric Washington (hamstring) — and it showed early on. Aside from McFadden’s fumble, the Hogs botched a few handoffs, committed a couple of careless penalties and even surrendered a safety when Johnson was sacked in the end zone by ULM defensive end Brandon Guillory.
But Arkansas’ special teams made up for the slow offensive start after the safety cut the lead to 3-2. Reserve linebacker Weston Dacus drilled returner Mason Denham and forced a fumble. Cornerback John Johnson fell on the loose ball at the Indians’ 39 and McFadden scored his first touchdown on the next play.
It was the first turnover Arkansas has forced since Michael Coe’s interception against Vanderbilt.
“Weston showed us something that he hasn’t shown us all year,” Herring said. “It was a tremendous hit. I’m really proud of Weston for bringing his lunch.”
Johnson finished completing 12 of 17 passes for 119 yards. He also threw his first touchdown in nine quarters when he hit sophomore Cedric Logan for a 5-yard score in the third quarter. Tailback De’Arrius Howard also notched a 4-yard touchdown in the first half. And fullback Peyton Hillis led the Hogs with 3 catches for 39 yards.
The Razorbacks are hoping the performance will give them the confidence they need before next Saturday’s important home game against Auburn.
“We’re happy to win the game,” Coe said. “Success always breeds confidence. A win always brings confidence and it usually starts a roll.
“It always feels good when you win.”