FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Bret Bielema wasted little time in attempting to quell any concerns about Arkansas’ passing game when he met wide receiver Keon Hatcher’s father for the first time.
The Razorbacks’ coach, ever wary of being ”mislabeled” as a run-only coach rather than the balanced approach and identity he so craves, had a message for the dad of his junior wide receiver.
”We can throw it,” Bielema promised.
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Arkansas (2-1) has had little cause to throw the ball so far this season, particularly during a dominating two-game winning streak that’s seen it outscore its opponents 122-35.
The Razorbacks have attempted only 17 passes over the last two games, including 12 in a 49-28 win over Texas Tech last week. And while the 68 rushing attempts in the win against the Red Raiders might cause some to question the effectiveness of Arkansas’ passing game, Bielema insists he has full confidence in the air attack and quarterback Brandon Allen.
”I’ve been referring to it as the best-kept secret in Fayetteville,” Bielema said.
The passing game doesn’t figure to be a secret for long, especially as the Razorbacks enter the most difficult portion of their schedule – beginning with a visit from Northern Illinois on Saturday before a three-game stretch that features No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 2 Alabama and No. 13 Georgia.
The Huskies (3-0), the two-time defending champions of the Mid-American Conference, have won 17 straight road games and are expected to provide a great deal more resistance defensively than an overwhelmed Texas Tech did. They won 48-34 at UNLV last week and 23-15 at Northwestern, and aren’t about to shy away from facing a team from the Southeastern Conference.
Allen, for one, doesn’t expect a repeat of last week when Arkansas rushed for 438 yards against the Red Raiders. The Razorbacks ran the ball 40 times in the second half while pulling away, compared to only two pass attempts for Allen – who finished 6 of 12 passing for 61 yards.
”We’re still confident,” Allen said. ”We’ve done it all in practice, we know we can go out and perform our passing game. We just really didn’t need to (last) weekend, so credit the offensive line, the running backs for the jobs they did to just basically move the ball at will.”
Allen’s 109 passing efficiency rating last season was last among SEC starting quarterbacks, though it’s worth noting he played for much of the season with a shoulder injury.
This season, despite his lack of attempts, the junior is seventh in the SEC with an efficiency rating of 157.2. He’s completed 28 of 48 passes (58.3 percent) for six touchdowns and one interception, aided by a 4-of-5 passing performance in a 73-7 win over Nicholls State – a game in which all four of his completed passes went for touchdowns.
Allen showed a willingness to run the ball without concern for his shoulder against Texas Tech, rushing for a key first down and a touchdown while finishing with 27 yards on three carries.
He also converted a pair of long third downs with clutch passes during a second-quarter scoring drive against the Red Raiders, showing the ability – if not frequency – is there when Arkansas needs it to balance out its dominant running back duo of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams.
”I mean, if they can stop the run we’re going to air it out,” Hatcher said. ”But if they can’t stop it, why throw it you know? Continue to hand the ball off to them and let them go make plays.”
While the Razorbacks are averaging only 142 yards passing per game so far this season, Bielema’s eventual goal is to feature an offense that averages more than 215 yards rushing and passing. He also believes that’s a reality that will happen sooner rather than later.
”That day is coming, I really think,” Bielema said. ”I am very, very excited to see where it comes out when it does.”