Wilson helps Arkansas overcome shaky defense

Associated Press  |  Last updated September 02, 2012
Tyler Wilson looked every bit a Heisman Trophy contender, and Arkansas' offense didn't miss a beat in its first game of the post-Bobby Petrino era, rolling up 564 yards in an easy victory against Jacksonville State. The No. 10 Razorbacks' defense, however, looked far from a national championship-caliber squad in the first half - particularly with a visit from defending national champion Alabama looming in two weeks. Wilson set a school record for yards passing in a season opener, finishing 19 of 27 passing for 327 yards and three touchdowns in a 49-24 win. The senior's effort helped overcome a pair of first-half fumbles as well as the loss of receiver Cobi Hamilton in the first quarter to a head injury. What Arkansas' offense didn't overshadow were the early struggles of the defense, which allowed 193 first-half yards by the Gamecocks - who led 14-7 early before falling behind 35-21 at halftime. Of particular concern for the Razorbacks (1-0), who were ninth in the Southeastern Conference in total defense last season, was the 163 yards passing allowed in the half. ''Our expectations are to do better than we did,'' Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. ''I know as a football team, our guys walk off the field ... pleased that it was a win, but they're not pleased with how well we played because we can do a lot better. And we know that.'' The game was Smith's first as the Razorbacks' coach, his first as a head coach since the 2006 season at Michigan State. It was also the second for defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, who took over for Willy Robinson following the regular season last year. Haynes coached in Arkansas' Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State last season, but Saturday was the Razorbacks first game fully using his system and terminology. The results were mixed in the first half, with Jacksonville State (0-1) quarterback Marques Ivory completing 12 of 19 passes for 147 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Gamecocks gained 158 yards on two scoring drives, a 13-play, 83-yard march and a 10-play, 75-yard drive just before halftime. Arkansas improved in the second half, allowing only 129 yards behind 11 tackles from safety Ross Rasner and what appeared to be a change at cornerback - with senior Kaelon Kelleybrew taking over for senior Darius Winston. ''It's the first game, so a lot of new faces, a lot of new guys,'' Haynes said. ''It's kind of expected, but our kids know that that's not our expectations; that's not the type of defense we want to have.'' The Razorbacks return to action next week against Louisiana-Monroe, though their big-picture focus is squarely on a home matchup with the No. 2 Crimson Tide in two weeks. That includes the defense and the health of Hamilton, who was knocked out of the game after a crushing hit by Jacksonville State's Caleb Lawrence on Arkansas' second possession. Smith wouldn't say for sure that Hamilton suffered a concussion, but he did say he expects the senior to return to action next week. In the meantime, the Razorbacks unveiled a host of new playmakers Saturday in place of Hamilton and the three receivers (Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright) the team lost to the NFL after last season. Tight end Chris Gragg had seven catches for 110 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and former backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell made the most of first collegiate start - hauling in four catches for 122 yards. Mitchell, who battled Wilson for the starting quarterback job prior to last season, split his time between quarterback and receiver during the summer and preseason camp. The junior, who has also played in parts of two seasons for the Arkansas basketball team, looked every bit the natural fit at receiver Saturday. Mitchell set up Ronnie Wingo's second-quarter touchdown run with a 34-yard catch, and he did so despite a minor case of nerves the night before his first start. ''I was anxious, barely got any sleep (Friday) night,'' Mitchell said. ''I was ready to get out there and play.'' Wilson also connected with junior receiver Javontee Herndon four times for 96 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown in the third quarter to put Arkansas up 42-24. Overall, it was a nearly flawless beginning for the senior quarterback, who bypassed the NFL draft after last season with hopes of winning an SEC and national championship. ''Tyler is a first-round draft pick, and he has everything it takes,'' Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe said. ''I think he's the best quarterback in the SEC, and I'll take him over that guy at Southern Cal (Matt Barkley), personally. ''He changed the rhythm and picked out the strengths and weaknesses and knew right where to go.
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