Jerry Franklin lost his cool, then Arkansas lost control of the game.
After five solid quarters to start the season, the Razorbacks’ beleaguered defense unraveled last week, allowing Georgia to move the ball at will following Franklin’s ejection. Without the sophomore linebacker, the Hogs looked a lot like last year’s team, which allowed big numbers against top competition.
That’s a bad sign for Arkansas, with a game at No. 3 Alabama this Saturday.
“The same group of guys who did some bad things also did some really good things. We aren’t going to panic,” defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said. “We have a lot of football left.”
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The Razorbacks led 21-10 after three Georgia turnovers when Franklin — their leading tackler from last season — was ejected early in the second quarter for pushing players and bumping into an official. Georgia scored on five of its next six possessions, gaining 345 yards of offense in less than two quarters. The Bulldogs went on to win 52-41.
Georgia rallied with big plays. Richard Samuel ran 80 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, and the Bulldogs led 27-21 at halftime. Arkansas took the lead twice in the third quarter but couldn’t hold it for even two minutes.
Georgia even tried a 2-point conversion from the 8-yard line at one point after a penalty, and the Razorbacks couldn’t stop it.
“It was heartbreaking, watching your team go out there and battle, and you can’t be with them,” Franklin said.
Franklin said he sent a letter of apology to the officiating crew, and although he wasn’t the only reason the Razorbacks lost, they clearly missed his leadership.
“That hurt us,” coach Bobby Petrino said. “He’s a guy that makes a lot of the calls out there on the field.”
Arkansas allowed 31 points per game last season en route to a 5-7 record. The Razorbacks allowed 139 points in three straight early losses to Alabama, Texas and Florida — and they weren’t much better late in the season against South Carolina and Mississippi State.
Still, Arkansas hoped an extra year of experience would help in 2009. The Razorbacks returned their entire starting front seven, and they had no trouble with Missouri State in a 48-10 season-opening win.
But that was Missouri State. The Georgia game was a reality check. Joe Cox threw five touchdown passes, exploiting an Arkansas secondary with its share of newcomers.
“We did some bad things,” Robinson said. “It starts in your alignment and it starts with your technique. We lost sight of that against a really good football team.”
Aside from Samuel’s big play, Arkansas did a decent job stopping the run. But the Razorbacks sacked Cox only once and didn’t hassle him much as he led Georgia to quick touchdowns.
Robinson isn’t promising drastic changes.
Arkansas hopes safety Elton Ford, who has been recovering from a neck injury, will be ready to contribute soon. He started eight games in 2008.
Otherwise, the Razorbacks seem content to rely on the same players who faced Georgia. Franklin’s return should help, and Malcolm Sheppard is still a feared defensive lineman after leading Arkansas in sacks last season.
“I’ve been telling a lot of the guys Malcolm Sheppard is as good as any defensive lineman I’ll play this season,” Alabama offensive lineman Mike Johnson said. “He’s a real quick guy, a great inside player and has a good motor.”
The Arkansas offense looks dangerous — in the first quarter last weekend, the Razorbacks twice scored on their first offensive play of a drive.
For a while it looked like the Razorbacks might blow Georgia out with their ability to score quickly. The problem was, whenever the Razorbacks scored, they had to give up the ball.
“Probably the first time in my career you’ve had two one-play touchdown drives and lose the game,” Petrino said.