FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Brandon Allen once again staked his claim as the starting quarterback at Arkansas, even if new coach Bret Bielema wasn’t quite ready to make it official.
Allen, who has been locked in a competition with Brandon Mitchell throughout the spring, completed 11 of 16 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown on Saturday — leading the Red to a 34-27 win over the White in Bielema’s first spring game with the Razorbacks.
The sophomore’s performance came in just four series in the first half, and it put the finishing touches on what has been a breakout spring for Tyler Wilson’s former backup.
Bielema declined to name a starter following the game, though his praise — along with Allen’s spot with the first-team offense on Saturday — made it clear that the sophomore has emerged as the front-runner heading into the offseason.
“Brandon Allen has taken probably, not every snap, but the majority of the snaps with the ones,” Bielema said. “He continues to impress us, continues to do some things very, very positive.
“... He started this game, and he played the entire first half with the ones. I think we feel good about that.”
Neither quarterback was made available by Bielema to speak after the scrimmage, in which the duo combined to throw for 296 yards and two touchdowns.
They finished a combined 23 of 33 passing to complete Bielema’s first spring with the Razorbacks — a relatively calm spring compared to the turmoil surrounding former coach Bobby Petrino’s firing last April.
“We’re all happy that it’s over,” fullback Kiero Small said. “We can put it behind us; it’s not a story anymore. It’s not a thing that concerns us anymore. We can put it behind us and go play football. That’s what we all love to do.”
Bielema, who was hired away from Wisconsin in December, led Arkansas onto the field before the scrimmage in front of a school-record crowd of 51,088 — topping last year’s previous best of 45,250.
Allen opened with the first-team offense and connected with Demetrius Wilson for a 26-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.
The sophomore also guided the Razorbacks to a late field goal to end the first half, leading a six-play, 55-yard scoring drive that resulted in a 37-yard field goal by Zach Hocker to put the Red up 20-12.
“I feel like he’s calmer in the pocket,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said of Allen. “He’s got confidence in himself, and that’s one thing he didn’t really have last year, being young to the game. That’s one thing he’s doing now is just being confident in himself.”
Bielema has declined to name a starter at quarterback throughout the spring, but Allen has emerged as the clear front-runner with performances like Saturday. He and Mitchell, a senior, are hoping to take over at quarterback for Wilson, the former All-Southeastern Conference performer who was in attendance for the game.
Allen served as Wilson’s backup last season while Mitchell moved to wide receiver to earn more playing time.
Mitchell moved back to quarterback following last season’s disappointing 4-8 record, and he finished Saturday 12-of-17 passing for 138 yards and a touchdown. The majority of his time came against the second-team defense in the first half, and he also threw an interception in the end zone to safety Tiquention Coleman — ending a scoring opportunity.
While much of the attention was paid to the ongoing quarterback competition, the record crowd also was eager to see the Razorbacks for the first time under Bielema.
The former Wisconsin coach was hired to replace interim coach John L. Smith in December, and he led Arkansas onto the field before Saturday’s game — with senior center Travis Swanson on his right and Small on his left.
“Going through this spring we learned so much who he is as a coach and a person, which is really refreshing to us,” Swanson said. “This spring we have made some huge steps.
“I don’t think we are where we need to be, but we have summer and fall camp to get there.”
The crowed marked the third straight year the school has set a spring game attendance record.
Bielema’s desire to implement a power running game with the Razorbacks was evident on Saturday, with the teams rushing for 185 yards on 56 carries. Patrick Arinze (254 pounds) had a game-high 66 yards on 9 carries, while Kody Walker (244) rushed 7 times for 40 yards.
Walker returned to the field after suffering a broken leg last season.
The Razorbacks began last season ranked in the top 5 even after Petrino’s sudden ouster. However, they suffered a stunning loss to Louisiana-Monroe following an injury to Wilson and bottomed out under Smith — missing a bowl game for the first time in four years.
Progress like this spring and performances like Saturday have Bielema hoping his expected turnaround at Arkansas will happen sooner rather than later.
“I think we’re in a great position where a lot of people in the world of college football, maybe in the outside world, don’t think a lot about Arkansas right now,” Bielema said. “But I guarantee they will in short fashion.
“I really, really like the progress we made.”
Muskogee graduate Robert Thomas had one assisted tackle.