Arkansas is making a habit out of coming from behind and escaping with wins.
With his defense a tad susceptible and Vanderbilt’s offense appearing to have found its groove, coach Bobby Petrino believes his Razorbacks will find themselves immersed in another tight game.
The eighth-ranked Razorbacks hope to avoid another sluggish start and win their fourth in a row Saturday when they visit the Commodores, who are hoping to build on their first win in more than a month.
Arkansas (6-1, 2-1 SEC) seemed like it would have no trouble rolling over a Mississippi team that came into last Saturday’s matchup ranked 106th out of 120 FBS schools in total defense, but the Razorbacks again came out flat. They trailed 17-0 in the second quarter before reeling off 29 straight points and holding on for a 29-24 victory.
“Certainly we didn’t want to start that way, but we kept competing,” Petrino said. “We found a way to win and I’m happy with how we responded.”
Falling behind early is becoming a bit of a disturbing trend for Petrino’s team.
The Razorbacks have faced first-half deficits in each of their last three games, trailing by an average of 14.0 points, but have managed to come away unscathed as they’ve outscored their opponents 64-10 after halftime.
Arkansas’ defense, which ranks ninth in the SEC allowing 386.7 yards per game, has done a good job of tightening up in the second half, and looks like it could be tested again.
After averaging 10.3 points and 205.0 yards during a three-game skid, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin decided to give quarterback Jordan Rodgers his first start last Saturday against Army. Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers, helped the Commodores (4-3, 1-3) rack up a season-high 530 yards in a 44-21 win.
“Offensively, the way they can execute and move the ball … we have to go play a good football game and play hard, play fast to win the game,” Petrino said. “There is no doubt about that. It is going to be another hard-fought contest.”
Although the offensive outburst came against a Black Knights team that came in ranked 70th in the FBS in total defense, it gave Vanderbilt a much-needed confidence boost.
“A lot of teams, when you lose three straight, you’re going to have a hard time bouncing back,” Franklin said. “It shows the character of our team. We’re going to keep fighting and competing.
“We are getting better. We are starting to show somewhat of an identity.”
Rodgers passed for 186 yards - the most by a Vanderbilt quarterback all season - which helped open things up for Zac Stacy, who had the third-best performance in school history with a career-best 198 rushing yards. Rodgers also scrambled for 96 yards as the Commodores finished with 344 on the ground.
“They’re kind of finding their identity on offense with the new quarterback and Stacy having the big game running the football, so we got to stop the run and get after the quarterback if we’re going to have a chance to win,” Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette said.
While Vanderbilt has just begun to show some glimpses of offensive hope, Arkansas’ offense has been its biggest strength all season.
Junior Tyler Wilson leads the SEC with 2,011 passing yards and has 12 touchdowns to three interceptions for the Razorbacks, who are off to their best start since the 2006 team opened 10-1.
Although the offense revolves around Wilson’s arm, the ground game has proven it should also be respected, as senior Dennis Johnson rushed for a career-high 160 yards on 15 carries last weekend.
With Ryan Mallett leading the offense last season, the Razorbacks amassed 555 yards in a 49-14 win over Vandy. Arkansas is 6-2 all-time against the Commodores and has won all three trips to Nashville.
The Commodores, 4-1 at Vanderbilt Stadium this year, are trying to win five home games in a single season for the first time since 1974.