FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) -- Arkansas backup quarterback AJ Derby made the best of a difficult situation when he was suddenly forced to play against Southern Mississippi.
Now the question is will Derby be in control of the offense when the Razorbacks travel to Rutgers next week?
Arkansas (3-0) pulled away in the second half behind Derby and the running back duo of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins on Saturday - beating the struggling Golden Eagles 24-3.
That the Razorbacks defeated a Southern Mississippi (0-3) team that entered the game on a 14-game losing streak was anything but a surprise. What was surprising was just how difficult it was for Arkansas to earn that win following a first-quarter shoulder injury to starting quarterback Brandon Allen.
If there was any doubt how important the sophomore has become to the Razorbacks in his first year as the starter, it became clear on Saturday.
Arkansas had just 69 passing yards in the win, with 33 of that coming on two completions by Allen before he injured his right shoulder while diving into the end zone on a 5-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
Derby finished 4-of-6 for 36 yards in what can only be described as a conservative offensive approach following Allen's injury.
''I think as a head coach you always get a little nervous when that No. 2 quarterback goes in there,'' Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. ''But I thought AJ, especially as the day wore on, got more and more comfortable out there.''
The effort, together with a combined 231 yards rushing from Williams and Collins, was enough for the Razorbacks to add to the Golden Eagles' woes. However, will it be enough this week against a Rutgers team that has won two straight after a season-opening loss to Fresno State?
Bielema hopes he doesn't have to find that out. The former Wisconsin coach said after the game that Allen was ''pretty convinced'' he'll be ready to play against the Scarlet Knights, who defeated the Razorbacks in Fayetteville last year.
If Allen is unable to go this week - or perhaps even longer than that - Arkansas' first season under its new coach could be in jeopardy of falling apart quickly.
Following the trip to Rutgers, the Razorbacks face a difficult opening stretch in the Southeastern Conference, one that includes four straight games against ranked opponents. They host No. 10 Texas A&M on Sept. 28, travel to No. 19 Florida a week later and then return home to face No. 12 South Carolina before ending the stretch at No. 1 Alabama.
It's a four-game stretch that will test just how far Arkansas has come under Bielema, with or without Allen. Without him, the Razorbacks could very well struggle to make a bowl game - even after opening the season with three straight wins.
Allen, who backed up Tyler Wilson last season, had performed well this season before his injury. He was 15-of-22 for 230 yards in an opening win over Louisiana-Lafayette, and he's now 26 of 44 (59.1 percent) for 388 yards and five touchdowns with one interception.
The Fayetteville native spent the second half on the sideline Saturday, wearing street clothes with his upper arm tightly held against his body in a sling.
Without Allen, the Razorbacks relied primarily on the top rushing attack in the SEC - attempting 31 runs to just seven passes in the first half. Derby, who spent last year in junior college after transferring from Iowa, was just 1-of-2 passing for 4 yards in the half.
''The first few plays, the adrenaline (was) pumping,'' Derby said. ''But after the first series, the game just kind of came naturally, and I just played the game.''
The junior played in nine games at Iowa as a redshirt freshman in 2011, completing three passes for 30 yards. On Saturday, he settled down in the second half - completing 3 of 4 passes for 29 yards - as Williams and Collins took control on the ground.
''It was easy,'' Derby said. ''I felt like the whole offensive line, the whole players were really supportive. It felt right being out there with the guys.''
Arkansas struggled last season when Allen replaced an injured Wilson, letting a 28-7 second-half lead slip away against Louisiana-Monroe and losing 52-0 the next week to the Crimson Tide.
The Razorbacks made sure they didn't falter under Derby's leadership on Saturday.
''We just wanted to all kind of get around him, because we knew he kind of got thrown into the fire and you don't know what's going on in somebody's head,'' Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. ''Brandon had to do that last year when Tyler went down. So we just tried to make sure he was in the right mindset.''
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