FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Trailing midway through the fourth quarter, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema wasn’t all that concerned about style points or margin of victory.
Not with another shocking loss like less than a year ago to Toledo still fresh on his mind.
Behind a pair of fourth-down conversions in the fourth quarter, the Razorbacks (1-0) managed to avoid another early season disappointment to a non-Power 5 conference team on Saturday — rallying for a 21-20 victory over Louisiana Tech (0-1).
“I know everybody would have, including myself at the end of the day, would have liked to come out of here with a larger margin of victory,” Bielema said. “But … I knew (the Bulldogs) were going to be a good football team, very well coached.”
The Razorbacks rallied thanks to a pair of nerve-wracking calls by Bielema, particularly with first-time starter Austin Allen under center for Arkansas.
Bielema’s faith in his junior starter was rewarded, especially after Allen connected with tight end Jeremy Sprinkle from four yards out on fourth down to give Arkansas the 21-20 with 6:37 remaining in the game.
“I’m glad (Bielema) called it,” Allen said. “We’d been practicing that play all week, everybody knew what they were doing and we did it perfectly. It worked out for us.”
Despite the go-ahead touchdown, the Razorbacks didn’t secure the win for good until another fourth-down call by Bielema with just over a minute remaining.
Facing fourth-and-inches at its own 37, Arkansas converted a first down with a power run by 240-pound running back Kody Walker — allowing the Razorbacks to run out the clock and exhale a welcomed sigh of relief following last year’s early stumbles.
“You make the fourth-down decision looking to have success,” Bielema said. “The last one, it’s just a gut feel. I just had a feeling we were going to have a nice push, and it ended up sealing the game.”
With 18 wins over the last two seasons, including a pair of bowl victories, Louisiana Tech didn’t expect to enter Saturday as the usual kind of early season cupcake for the Razorbacks.
And the Bulldogs didn’t play like it, either.
Freshman J’Mar Smith, playing in place of suspended starter Ryan Higgins, finished 19 of 31 for 212 yards passing for Louisiana Tech — helping the Conference USA school take a 20-14 lead in the third quarter after a 20-yard field goal by kicker Jonathan Barnes.
However, Barnes missed another kick off the left upright from 39 yards that would have put the Bulldogs up 23-14 in the fourth quarter.
That gave hope to Arkansas, which responded with a 13-play, 77-yard touchdown drive — capped by Allen finding Sprinkle on a throwback to the left side of the end zone.
Allen finished 20-of-29 passing for 191 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his debut as the Razorbacks starter, but he also threw a pair of first-half interceptions that led to Louisiana Tech touchdowns.
Rawleigh Williams led Arkansas with 96 yards rushing on 24 carries, including a touchdown.
LA. TECH: Minus 13 starters from a year ago, and with Higgins on the bench, the Bulldogs looked every bit as good as its teams that have won nine games in each of the last two seasons. Smith had little problem picking apart Arkansas’ defense, with wide receiver Trent Taylor leading the Bulldogs with eight catches for 78 yards.
“I think we have an awful lot of positive things to build on, but I don’t think this a game we wanted to be close,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. “We don’t want to be close, we want to win.”
ARKANSAS: The Razorbacks entered the season with three new starting offensive linemen, and their inexperience showed on Saturday. Arkansas allowed four sacks of Allen in the close victory, and it managed only 106 yards rushing on 40 carries — a significant concern moving forward into Southeastern Conference play.
LA. TECH: The Bulldogs take a break from Power 5 conference competition when they face South Carolina State in their home opener, a week before traveling to face Big 12 Conference member Texas Tech.
ARKANSAS: Life doesn’t get any easier for the Razorbacks, who travel to Texas to take on No. 13 TCU.