This probably wasn’t the most pleasant week to be an Arkansas Razorback. The Hogs’ offense didn’t live up to the program’s self-described identity as a power running football team, and the defense melted down in the second half, giving up 28 points and a bonanza of yardage, mostly on big plays, in a 45-24 loss to No. 9 Texas A&M.
Some wondered how the Hogs remained in the Top 25 after such a loss. It might have been out of respect for A&M and how the Hogs’ have performed this season, or some voters might have sent their ballots in early before watching the Razorbacks falter in the fourth quarter.
Either way, the No. 20 Razorbacks (3-1, 0-1 SEC) have spent the week making corrections, attempting to improve and hoping to move forward after their uncharacteristic play on both sides of the football.
Saturday presents the next step in that process when Arkansas travels to Little Rock where the Razorbacks will play host to Alcorn State (1-2) in War Memorial Stadium at 11 a.m. It’s the Razorbacks’ final nonconference game of the season, and it precedes a brutal three week stretch that begins with the Razorbacks playing host to No. 1 Alabama at Fayetteville before No. 16 Ole Miss also visits campus. Then Arkansas travels to Auburn before taking an open date. The Razorbacks then play host to Florida and LSU before closing out the year with road trips to Mississippi State and Missouri.
That schedule is tough, but loaded with opportunities for football that’s ready to take advantage of them. The questions remain whether Arkansas is the kind of team that can take advantage of them or not.
It seems like the season just started, but a third of it is in the books. The most meaningful games still loom ahead, and now that the Aggies have pointed out the Hogs’ weaknesses, the Razorbacks need to go about strengthening them.
With practices closed, there’s no telling what is being reinforced, tweaked or installed. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema admitted the Razorbacks aren’t as stout along the offensive front as he would like. The Hogs have started a different offensive front in three of their four games, and they could make it four out of five on Saturday.
Former offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who left Fayetteville for the same position at Georgia last winter, was supposed to be an outstanding recruiter, but the seeds he sowed for the Hogs aren’t exactly bearing fruit. The jury is out on his replacement Kurt Anderson, who came to Arkansas after serving as an assistant offensive line coach for the Buffalo Bills, but a coach can only work with the material he has. How much the offensive line improves or does not improve from now until the end of the season will be interesting to watch.
Coming into the season, the common thought was that Arkansas had repaired most of its defensive issues in the spring and summer with maturing players and new defensive backfield coach Paul Rhoads correcting some stance and technique problems in the secondary.
Those assumptions seemed true until the Aggies blitzed the Razorbacks’ defense last Saturday with a bevy of big plays in the second half.
No doubt poor execution had to play a part, but the Aggies exploited the Razorbacks’ defensive game plan with their own schemes to a befuddling particularly the running game. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith usually has a sound defensive plan in play, but in the second half it appeared the Razorbacks defenders were playing with their cleats tied together.
Saturday, the Hogs need to play a get-right game before forging forward to their meeting with No. 1 Alabama. Anything can happen, but I’m assuming the Crimson Tide will take care of Kentucky on Saturday and come to Fayetteville undefeated and ranked No. 1.
Saturday’s game should be used for the Razorbacks’ greatest benefit. It’s virtually a junior varsity game. Once the starters put it away, the game should be used to develop Arkansas’ inexperienced players as much as possible. Chances are the Hogs will need those younger guys at some point this season.
There was talk that Arkansas had developed some depth behind starting linebackers Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw, but I think that was just a myth. Just like last season, Ellis and Greenlaw are playing every meaningful down so far this season. Linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves has to bite the bullet and give De’Jon Harris and Dwayne Eugene more opportunities to contribute. Who knows? They might surprise us.
Offensively this is a game where running backs Devwah Whaley and TJ Hammonds must get some touches. Their redshirts have been burned. They need to play more, just to see if they might be able to help the team. Hammonds lined up as a Wildcat quarterback on play that blown dead because of a penalty. It will be interesting to see if that is used against the Braves on Saturday or saved for conference play
Quarterback Austin Allen is playing better than most anyone could have imagined. He’s completed 66.9 percent of his pays for 1,026 yards and 9 touchdowns against two interceptions. Both were thrown in his first game as a starter. But, getting his backup Ty Storey some meaningful snaps is more important than letting Allen pile up a ton of stats.
Prediction: Arkansas 48-10