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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Bret Bielema was concerned about how Arkansas defensive tackle Darius Philon might react after his fumble return for a touchdown against Northern Illinois.
The Razorbacks coach could be forgiven for not knowing exactly how the Mobile, Alabama, native might celebrate his score. Game-changing defensive plays have been few and far between the last few years at Arkansas.
"I was a little scared he might break into a little Alabama shuffle over there," Bielema said. "He is an entertaining player who was really into it."
Philon, who put the Razorbacks (3-1) up 14-0 in the first quarter with his 14-yard scoop and score, managed to hold his emotions in check following his first career touchdown.
The rest of Arkansas, however, is anything but calm after a third straight blowout win — this one a 52-14 thrashing of the overmatched Huskies, who entered the game with a nation-best 17-game road winning streak.
For a team in despair only a few weeks ago, the Razorbacks have emerged as one of the Southeastern Conference's biggest surprises so far this season. They've outscored their last three opponents by a combined score of 174-49 and look anything but like a team that's lost 13 straight SEC games and was picked to finish last in the West Division this season.
The optimism surrounding the program is a welcome change for Bielema and his players, many of whom have suffered through a 7-17 stretch over the two seasons following the scandal of former coach Bobby Petrino.
They also hope their recent winning ways, on the heels of a school-worst 10-game losing streak, is a sign of things to come — beginning this week against No. 6 Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas.
"I think the guys are confident," Bielema said. "By no means have they arrived in any way, shape or form. But I think they have a certain mentality and an attitude that has not been here since I've been here, and it's getting better and better every day."
The Razorbacks were 12th in the SEC in scoring defense last season, allowing 30.8 points per game while losing their last nine games of the season.
Against the Huskies, Philon's touchdown continued a trend of defensive relevance this season. Arkansas held Northern Illinois, which entered the week seventh in the nation in rushing offense with an average of 325.3 yards per game, to 123 yards on the ground. The performance followed a week where the Razorbacks frustrated Texas Tech's Air Raid offense with several key pass breakups on the way to a 49-28 win.
Senior defensive end Trey Flowers led Arkansas' defense on Saturday, making a team-high nine tackles. Flowers was projected as a third-round draft pick in the NFL Draft after last season, but he decided to return — a move that paid off Saturday as he made a pair of tackles for lost yardage.
That included the sack of Northern Illinois quarterback Drew Hare that led to Philon's fumble recovery and touchdown — and Bielema's dance moniker.
"I don't know what coach (Bielema) is talking about, but I appreciate him giving me a dance move that I've never heard of," Philon joked.
In addition to the defensive improvement, Arkansas is second in the SEC in scoring offense with an average of 48.8 points per game this season.
That's second in the conference only to the Aggies' 55.3 points per game, and Bielema isn't about to let the Razorbacks let down their guard this week.
"My role as a humbler has got to be increased this week," Bielema said. "... Because you guys and everybody, all the girls and moms and dads will tell them how good they are."