Arkansas run defense answers call in a big way to begin November
13 days, 18 hours and 17 minutes.
That is how long the Arkansas defense had to wait before it could rid the taste of 56 points from its mouth.
After the Razorbacks were embarrassed in a 56-3 loss at Auburn on Oct. 22, head coach Bret Bielema promised there would be changes over the course of the bye week leading up to last Saturday’s game against Florida.
On Saturday, Arkansas rewrote the history books when it beat the Gators, 31-10, in Fayetteville. The Hogs hadn’t beaten Florida since they joined the SEC, and Arkansas hadn’t beaten Florida at all since 1982.
The improved play by the defense helped make it happen.
Sure, the Razorbacks’ offense put up points against a Gators defense which had been stellar for much of the season. Rawleigh Williams III ran wild for 148 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Devwah Whaley added 66 more yards on his 14 carries.
But the defense deserves praise for its improved performance. Against the Tigers two weeks prior, Arkansas surrendered 543 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns on the ground.
“One of the things that came out of that Auburn game was there have been a lot of times when we were running over people, and I’ve never really been on the receiving end of that,” Bielema said after beating Florida. “To come out of that game when we couldn’t stop the run, I said, ‘I don’t care what we do, we’re going to stop the run on defense.’”
The defense answered against the Gators. Florida only finished with 12 rushing yards on 14 carries.
“That message was sent and accepted,” Bielema continued, “our kids played with an attitude and it reconfirmed to me how much they’ll respond.”
While personnel changes were made to the defense, the coach also called upon past players to provide inspiration. Before the Hogs took the field against Florida, Bielema brought in Trey Flowers, who starred on Arkansas’ defensive line before being selected by the New England Patriots in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
“We actually had Trey Flowers come in and speak to our unit (Friday),” the coach explained. “I can’t give you his exact words, but they were along the lines of, ‘Every day in this world, you’ve got to eat, and every day, that guy across from you is trying to take your food.’ Our guys really responded.”
The players deserve the credit for executing after the embarrassing loss at Auburn, but Bielema and his staff were responsible for shaking up the unit before the Florida game. Bielema moved Jeremiah Ledbetter to the outside at defensive end, a move that paid dividends when Ledbetter recorded 4 tackles — 1 for a loss — and a half sack against the Gators.
“I hire coaches that are good at their respective positions, but one of the things that I’ve always done is if I feel a player needs to play, I’ll just come in and say it,” Bielema said. “I thought Led had done some good stuff on the inside, but I saw him getting some more activity on the edges, and he did a lot today.”
Things won’t get any easier for Arkansas this Saturday. The Hogs will face an LSU offense that averages 214 rushing yards each game. Leonard Fournette, who entered the season as the clear Heisman Trophy favorite, has bounced back from sustaining an ankle injury and leads the Tigers with 705 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns. Derrius Guice has added 629 more yards and 7 scores.
But Bielema said his team can respond to challenge. And the run defense proved it can stifle opponents against Florida. This weekend, the Hogs will try to keep Flowers’ message in mind and continue eating against a fierce rushing attack.