It wasn’t a perfect 10, but as far as rushing the ball, 9.5 yards per carry was close as Arkansas opened its season with a 49-17 win over I-AA Missouri State.
Several debuts took place at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium – such as sophomore Robert Johnson making his first start at quarterback, freshman Felix Jones making a huge first impression at tailback, first-year defensive coordinator Reggie Herring getting five turnovers from his unit and the Hogs unveiling new jerseys with “Arkansas” printed across the chest – but UA’s traditionally strong ground game was the difference.
Arkansas, which has led the Southeastern Conference in rushing two of the last three years and has been in the top three the last four seasons, rushed for 483 yards, the seventh-best total in school history, on 51 carries.
On the down side, Hog backs had trouble holding on to the ball, fumbling five times and losing four. The Razorbacks countered by taking the ball from MSU five times.
“We kicked the season off on a good foot, but our defense was put in some bad situations,” UA head coach Houston Nutt said. “We did a good job, but I am so upset about those fumbles because we worked so hard on not doing that. We have got to get that corrected.”
An interception led to an MSU field goal while Arkansas lost the ball deep in Bear territory three times – at the seven, the 22 and the 34.
“Turnovers kept this game from being blown open,” MSU head coach Randy Ball said. “We thought they might press a little bit after we got it close, but they didn’t buckle and they made plays in the second half. Arkansas’ running backs are were they belong, which is the SEC.”
After setting an SEC rushing record for quarterbacks and setting a school record with 8,392 yards of career total offense, Matt Jones moved on to the Jacksonville Jaguars as a receiver, leading to Johnson’s first start.
He was efficient, completing 12-of-22 passes for 88 yards, including a five-yard scoring pass to Marcus Monk two seconds before the half to give UA a 28-3 lead at the break. Monk led the team with six catches for 77 yards and the TD.
Johnson’s first pass went through the hands of Peyton Hillis and his second was intercepted. From that point on, he was 12 of 20. Freshman Alex Mortensen played one first-half series and several in the second half, finishing with 20 yards on one of three passing.
“After the interception, I just had to immediately forget about it and move on to the next play,” Johnson said. “It’s my job as quarterback to lead the team. I wasn’t nervous at all to begin the game. I felt comfortable out there.”
“I am proud of Robert’s first start,” Nutt said. “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.”
Felix Jones ran for 12 yards on his first carry. On his second carry, on UA’s first possession of the second period, he sprinted 80 yards for a touchdown and a 21-3 Hog lead. The run is the longest scoring rush for Arkansas since Fred Talley’s 81-yard jaunt against Central Florida in 2001.
Jones finished with 137 yards on eight carries, becoming just the eighth freshman to top the 100-yard mark. His total is the second-best mark for a freshman in school history. Brandon Holmes tops that list with 143 yards against LSU in 2000. Jones’ 80-yard touchdown is the longest ever for a UA freshman.
“I have to give credit to the offensive line,” Jones said. “They blocked so well tonight, it was easy to run the ball.”
Jones and Johnson got plenty of help from Hillis, De’Arrius Howard and freshman Darren McFadden. Hillis scored three times and finished with 135 yards on 14 carries. Hillis’ three touchdowns are a career high and are the most since Matt Jones ran for three scores against New Mexico State in 2003.
Howard ran for 120 yards on 12 carries, giving Arkansas three 100-yard rushers in a game for the first time since Matt Jones, Talley and Cedric Cobbs pulled the trifecta in the seven-overtime victory at Ole Miss in 2001.
McFadden added 70 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
Defensively, Arkansas allowed 338 yards, but forced the five turnovers with cornerback Darius Vinnett returning a fumble 44 yards for a score to give Arkansas a 14-3 first-quarter lead.
Except for an 86-yard third quarter touchdown run by P.J. Ikner, which got the Bears within 28-17, Arkansas maintained control most of the way. Ikner led the Bears with 84 yards on nine carries.
MSU quarterback Scott Carroll was 12 of 28 for 160 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
“Coming out after halftime, the turnovers killed us,” Carroll said. “We never felt like the Arkansas defense stopped us. We knew it was up to us.”
Safety Vickiel Vaughn matched his career high of 10 tackles while linebacker Sam Olajubutu also had 10 stops. Cornerback Michael Coe had four tackles, intercepted a pass and returned it 16 yards, forced a fumble and returned four punts for 61 yards.
The game drew a crowd of 66,424 with fans contributing $21,535 to the Red Cross for the Hurricane Katrina relief fund.