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Let’s play some trivia.

Which was bigger: Arkansas coach Bret Bielema doing the hokey pokey after the game, or Micahh Smith doing the actual “poke” early in the second half?

It’s not close. Smith’s fumble-causing poke against kickoff returner Jason Huntley was better than any dance in Arkansas’ 42-24 victory over New Mexico State on Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. It was just the tonic to get the Razorbacks past being mad.

Smith knocked the ball away and De’Vion Warren pounced on it at the NMSU 22-yard line. It allowed Arkansas to answer the Aggies’ 10 straight points with a pair of scores to take a 42-17 lead two plays into the fourth quarter.

The Razorbacks also got a turnover in the first half to assure a fast start. Nickelback Kevin Richardson made a diving interception in the back of the end zone after Grant Morgan read the eyes of the quarterback on a post route. It followed the only UA turnover of the day and led to an 80-yard drive for a 14-0 lead.

Bielema led the team in the hokey pokey in the locker room after the game — a comical affair in a week that included players and coaches mentioning dozens of times that they were “pissed” after losing another overtime game to Texas A&M.

“He did the hokey pokey,” Richardson said. “It wasn’t too bad.

“He said it was a new tradition, to spice up the locker room. He said it would be after big wins. He wanted to introduce it to the locker room.”

Safety Santos Ramirez said it was a way Bielema could remind the team that the game should be fun.

“That added a little flavor,” Ramirez said. “It was all about making things fun.”

There hadn’t been much fun over the last few weeks. The Hogs lost to TCU and Texas A&M with a bye week in between.

“I think the mood right now is relief,” Ramirez said. “It’s only New Mexico State, though. We gave up too many passing yards, but we did stop the run and make them one-dimensional.”

New Mexico State didn’t try the run much. There were just 14 attempts with just 11 net yards on the ground. Running back Larry Rose III, an NFL prospect, was never a threat. He had 25 yards on eight runs.

Aggies quarterback Tyler Rogers was a threat. He completed 23 of 38 passes for 344 yards. That’s 11 fewer than his season average.

That prompted a question about the development of the 3-4 defensive scheme.

“We are all right,” Ramirez said. “But we have been average for the most part; I’d say C-plus. We have to contain the quarterback better and plaster the receivers, but we are going in the right direction.”

It’s clear that Bielema thinks the special teams are going in the right direction. Punter Blake Johnson wasn’t on the field until the last 10 minutes. The kickoff unit got plenty of action for the second straight week and produced a turnover.

“People had been critical of the special teams,” Ramirez said. “Kickoff coverage is just an extension of the defense. Micahh has been working his butt off, so getting that fumble was a great boost. That was a big, big plus. The offense scored so it was back-to-back touchdowns at a big point in the game.”

Richardson equated Smith’s play to Morgan’s tipped pass.

“I was just in the right place at the right time,” Richardson said. “It just happened in my area. Grant made the play. He read that it was a post and came back into the end zone and got there.”

Bielema said it’s another instance of Morgan’s “great instincts. He just has a great feel for the game. He saw a vertical and buried a turn and went and made that play.”

As for special teams, Bielema said there’s been great work to help assistant coach John Scott build the kickoff unit. There were several changes from the previous week when A&M hit a 100-yard return in the final minutes.

“Last week, we were really good on kickoffs except for one,” Bielema said. “But we worked to add some new faces to that unit. We brought in true freshman Derrick Munson (off the redshirt list) and a walk-on in Brenden Young. We really hammered (preparations for) our coverage units.”

Young is a Bryant product and transfer from Ouachita Baptist. The 6-1, 200-pounder made two tackles on kickoffs against NMSU.

“Brenden is a guy who was on special teams and he’s been knocking around our guys on offense,” Bielema said. “So we wanted to get him out there. Ryder Lucas (three tackles) makes plays a lot and Nate Dalton has been tremendous, too.”

The anger after the two losses was evident. Bielema said he reminded the team that Virginia Tech was playing Clemson in a big game.

“I made the point to our guys Thursday night,” he said. “I told them, ‘You were up on that team by 24 points at the end of the year. We didn’t close the second half and look where they are at and look where we’re at. You could be there easily.’

“Everybody wanted to say how good TCU is up to whatever, top 10. They knocked off a really good Oklahoma State team. We went swing for swing with one of the better teams in the country, just this is a difficult league. A&M played hot and got themselves in an overtime game.

“We could have had one; but didn’t. I’m tired of saying could’ve, so we tried to change the narrative. I told them at halftime that I wanted to change the narrative about being a better team, an explosive second-half team, and that was a big point of emphasis.”

The offensive line did not allow a sack for the first time, although there were four quarterback pressures from a big blitz NMSU defense. Bielema started the same five for the fourth straight week, but Paul Ramirez played tackle (with guard Ty Clary exiting) for over half of the game. Zach Rogers got some turns at guard and Jake Raulerson entered in an unbalanced package for a few plays.

“Again, it’s by committee,” Bielema said. “I thought there were some guys that stepped up during the course of the week. I told our staff, ‘Let’s get Rogers in there. Let’s see what he can do.’ Ty is doing some good things, but we’ve got to keep him coming along.”

Bielema asked letterman and former captain Russ Brown (1995-98) to speak to the team Friday.

“I think he held the record for most starts (46),” Bielema said. “He had two great comments. The first thing he said was how he responded (to the phone call). He was nervous because he was going to talk to his brothers, guys he’d never seen.

“He gave them a connection to the old regime which was huge. He talked about his first play against Alabama as an SEC starter and had the message: Hey, you didn’t believe that there was a guy that could be just 12 inches from you and hit you that hard and how he responded to that.

“It’s a difficult road, but you have to respond the right way. I thought that message was great for our O-linemen to hear.”

Ramirez loved the message and said it was for more than just the linemen.

“It was about how you should fight for your brother,” he said. “You are brothers for life. He’s our brother. We fight for him. He told us — and if you know him you know he didn’t use these words — to go out there and kick some butt for him.”

It was a good day for the Arkansas passing game. Wide receivers Jonathan Nance

(six), Jordan Jones (four) and Deon Stewart (four) combined for 14 receptions. Quarterback Austin Allen completed 19 of 26 for 264 yards, his best game of the season.

“It was good,” Allen said. “We knew we were going to get some bubble throws, or horizontal throws we got. Just getting Deon, Jonathan and Jordan the ball early in the game gives them confidence and into the flow of the game.

“It’s great. I see it from the wide receiver group every Tuesday and Wednesday in practice when they are running great routes like that and catching the ball. They’ll continue to be relied upon in coming games.”

It’s back to SEC play. Bielema didn’t need to be told. And he didn’t wait for anyone to tell him it would be a homecoming for senior transfer David Williams.

“That’s the elephant in the room,” Bielema said. “He’s going home and I know it’s big.”

Yes, that’s big. Getting a big play on the kickoff coverage unit might be huge, too.

Clay Henry can be reached at chenry@nwadg.com .

Print Headline: Razorbacks have fun getting back into win column

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