FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Brandon Allen was the Arkansas quarterback during arguably its worst season in school history a year ago.
With that bit of perspective, the junior is enjoying the Razorbacks turnaround this season.
Arkansas (2-1) has done its best to put a school-worst 10-game losing streak behind it, outscoring Nicholls State and Texas Tech by a combined 122-35 in dominating wins.
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The optimism surrounding the Razorbacks after last week’s 49-28 win over the Red Raiders has reached its highest point since a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State to end the 2011 season – a win that capped a 21-5 stretch over two years.
”I think we’re all enjoying the feeling of winning again, and we’re not ready for that feeling to go away any time soon,” Allen said. ”So, we plan on continuing this thing we’ve got going, this roll we’ve got going, and carrying it into this week.”
Carrying the recent bit of success forward is not a given for Arkansas, particularly against a Northern Illinois team that travels to Fayetteville with a 17-game road winning streak.
The Huskies (3-0) are no strangers to top competition from the biggest conferences in the country, having played against Florida State in the Orange Bowl following the 2012 season – and nearly reaching a second straight BCS bowl game last year.
Northern Illinois’ road winning streak includes three wins over Big 10 Conference teams, including a 23-15 win over Northwestern two weeks ago, though coach Rod Carey is wary of an Arkansas running game that leads the Southeastern Conference with an average of 362 yards per game.
The Razorbacks entered this weekend’s games with two of the top three rushers in the SEC, led by sophomore Alex Collins’ 411 rushing yards and five touchdowns through three games. Also, junior Jonathan Williams is averaging 9.8 yards per carry with six touchdowns, and sophomore Korliss Marshall is expected to see increased action on Saturday.
”They’re big, they’re physical, they’re strong, they’re quick, they can jump, they’re one-footed cutters …” Carey said. ”All three of them, it’s the best group in the country.”
Other factors to watch as Arkansas tries to continue its recent success against the road-tested Huskies:
LINE OF ATTACK: While the Razorbacks running game has received much of the publicity during the team’s reversal of fortunes, it’s Arkansas’ offensive line that’s made the biggest improvement in its second season under coach Bret Bielema. Led by 6-foot-10, 326-pound left tackle Dan Skipper, the Razorbacks ran the ball 68 times for 438 yards in last week’s win over Texas Tech. Northern Illinois has faced tough competition while winning 49 games over the last four seasons, but Arkansas’ offensive line might be the most physical.
QUARTERBACK SHUFFLE: The Huskies lost their primary offensive threat after last season following the departure of Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch. This season, a trio of quarterbacks have played for Northern Illinois, though sophomore Drew Hare played the entirety of last week’s 48-34 win over UNLV. Carey said while Hare is the starter, sophomore Anthony Maddie could also see action on Saturday.
RUNNING CHALLENGE: While Arkansas is second in the country in rushing offense, the Huskies aren’t far behind – ranking seventh nationally with an average of 325.3 yards per game. The Razorbacks allowed 302 yards rushing in a season-opening loss at No. 5 Auburn, and Northern Illinois’ crowded backfield of Akeem Daniels, Joel Bouagnon, Hare and Cameron Stingily figures to provide their most difficult test since.
DEFENSIVE RAZORBACKS: Arkansas played its best defensive game in recent memory in last week’s win over Texas Tech, holding the up-tempo Red Raiders to 353 total yards. Senior linebacker Martrell Spaight had one of the Razorbacks two interceptions in the win, and the secondary also had a host of other pass breakups – an attacking style they hope to continue on Saturday.
PASSING FANCY: Allen hasn’t had much cause to throw the ball recently for Arkansas, attempting only 17 passes over the last two games. However, the junior has made the most of his opportunities this season – completing 28 of 48 passes (58.3 percent) with six touchdowns and one interception. Despite the lack of passing, Bielema said he expects the Razorback to throw more against the Huskies, calling the passing game ”the best-kept secret in Fayetteville.”