When looking over the Arkansas Razorbacks’ reconfigured schedule for this covid-19 affected and infected season a month or so ago, I like many other Hog fans circled Saturday’s date with Mississippi State as one of the Razorbacks’ more likely opportunities for a victory.
The Razorbacks face the No. 16 Bulldogs at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Starkville, Miss. in a game televised on the SEC Network Alternate Channel.
I felt that way until I started seeing scores from the Bulldogs’ unexpected and somewhat shocking upset of LSU last week.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Mississippi State
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3
Where: Starkville, Miss.
TV: SEC Network Alt
Oct. 10 – at Auburn
Oct. 17 – Ole Miss
Oct. 31 – at Texas A&M
Nov. 7 – Tennessee
Nov. 14 – at Florida
Nov. 21 – LSU
Nov. 28 – at Missouri
Dec. 5 – Alabama
In his first game as Mississippi State’s head coach, Mike Leach led the Bulldogs to one of their biggest victories in recent memory with a 44-34 win over the Tigers at Baton Rouge, La.
Going into Death Valley and coming out a winner against the defending national champs is an audacious and outstanding start to Leach’s tenure at Starkville. I don’t think anyone doubted Leach’s coaching ability after his successful stints at Texas Tech and Washington State. He is a proven commodity, but few outside of the Bulldogs inner circle expected them to upend LSU last week.
So, do I still feel the Hogs (0-1) have a chance of going into Starkville and upsetting the now No. 16-ranked Bulldogs (1-0) after the Razorbacks’ less than spectacular 37-10 loss to No. 4 Georgia last week?
There’s always a chance.
Obviously the Razorbacks must play much better on offense and special teams. Georgia’s stout defense squeezed the life out of the Hogs last week, and when the pressure mounted, the Razorbacks turned the ball over three times. One interception amounted to a punt, but it no doubt stole any momentum the Hogs had mounted up to that point.
The Razorbacks saw very little daylight against Georgia. The bulk of Arkansas’ points came off an improvised, 50-yard touchdown throw from Feleipe Franks to Treylon Burks. We saw very little sustained success on offense in the first half. That and poor special teams play crushed Arkansas’ attempt at an upset the longer the game wore on.
Defensively, the Razorbacks equated themselves well until the offense’s inability to move the ball, turnovers and field-position issues broke the back of Arkansas defensive coordinator Dave Odom’s troops. Hopefully, that won’t become a familiar occurrence as the season progresses.
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman credited Georgia’s outstanding defense for the Hogs’ opening-game struggles, but added that the Hogs have to be resilient and not let last week’s failures leak into this week’s effort at Starkville.
“One negative can’t turn into two,” Pittman said Thursday speaking specifically about MSU’s ability to make plays in Leach’s Air Raid offense, but it applies to the entirety of Arkansas’ effort on Saturday. Mistakes will be made on the field, but there is no time to dwell on the micro defeats in a game, especially against an attack like the Bulldogs’.
“You have to flush and let it go,” Pittman said of mistakes in the heat of a game. “This is the SEC. People are going to make plays on you on offense, defense, special teams.
“Our big deal we talk about are adjustments. Trust the coaches. We’re going to try to adjust to what we saw. Be truthful with the coaches when you come off [the field]. If you got beat or physically whipped, let us know. We are not trying to chase ghosts. ‘I thought I saw this; I thought I saw that.’ We talk about the faster we can get adjusted, the better off we’ll be. Let’s not wait for the end of the game or halftime to make an adjustment.”
One mistake LSU may have made in the heat of their loss to Mississippi State was getting into a passing contest with the Bulldogs and their strong-armed quarterback C.J. Costello, a transfer from Stanford.
Costello completed 36 of 60 passes for an SEC record 623 yards along with five touchdowns. He completed passes to 10 targets including seven to Osirus Mitchell for 183 yards and two touchdowns and eight to stud running back Kylin Hill for 158 yards and a touchdowns.
The Hogs plan to rotate heavily in the back end in an attempt to keep defenders fresh.
“We’re going to take 15, 16 guys from nickel, to safety and corner to the game,” Pittman said. “We’re going to roll over in there three deep, and we need to.”
For a more conventional opponent, Pittman said the Hogs would take 13 defensive backs. The difference will be made up by taking fewer linebackers for this game.
“If we let him sit back there, he’s going to pick us apart,” Pittman said about the need for putting pressure on Costello. “If we don’t sack him, we’ve got to get him moving around. We have to move him. We have to pressure him, and I’m excited to see what our scheme does.”
Offensively, Pittman said the Razorbacks have to depend on their rushing game despite it and lead back Rakeem Boyd being stonewalled against Georgia.
“We can’t be one dimensional,” Pittman said. “We need to get [Rakeem Boyd] rolling… We’ve got to get him going. We’ve got to make sure we don’t have mental breakdowns and be more consistent [on the offensive line] and more aware of movement than possibly we were last Saturday.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of running room against Georgia. We’ve got to do better. I thought Treylon [Smith] came in and ran hard and well. Bottom line, we’ve got to stay course, keep running hard, and good things will happen for us.”
That won’t be easy against a Bulldog squad that returns a potent defense that rang up seven sacks against LSU.
“They have a lot of team speed, and a very good schematic,” Pittman said of MSU’s defense. “They do a lot of movement and do a lot of line games. Their guys are quick and fast. It does cause a lot of problems because it’s not just one of them… When there are so many guys that can get to the quarterback, you have to play fair ball at that point and certainly we’ve been working on those type of stunts and blitzes this week.”
Pittman is looking for an improved offensive effort across the board. Earlier in the week, Pittman said he was irritated that Franks had to worry so much about getting his teammates in the right spots that he couldn’t focus on getting a pre-snap read of the defense. The point being the better the other Hogs know their business, the better decisions Franks will be able to make under center.
“At some point players have to go out and function,” Pittman said. “Again I think we played one of the best defenses in the country, and hopefully our performance will get better, and I think it will.”
While the corona virus did take a toll on Arkansas’ offensive line depth in the preseason, Pittman feels the Hogs are settling in after several returned to practice last week.
“We are trying to get some continuity, and it’s been hard with injuries and the virus, but we are going to go with the seven or eight that are ready and try to build continuity,” Pittman said.
Arkansas struggled in the kicking game against Georgia, particularly in punt and kick coverage, allowing the Bulldogs to gain favorable field position between the 40s, which eventually wore down the Hogs’ defense.
Pittman said Arkansas hadn’t stood still after the poor effort.
“There have been some changes [in personnel],” Pittman said Thursday. “Special teams is a lot about desire, want to and personal one-on-one battles that you have. We emphasized it. We changed some personnel where we thought we had some mismatches. Hopefully [special teams] will be better. I expect them to be.”
After the Razorbacks’ opener, it’s hard to know what to expect from the Hogs this weekend.
I loved the way they battled Georgia in the first half. The defense played with an attitude that we haven’t seen in a while at Arkansas. They played on their toes rather than on their heels.
However, they got to get more help from the offense, which frankly seemed confused at times. A great defense can do that to a team, and based on the way Georgia played last year and how they looked last Saturday. Georgia may be the fiercest defense the Hogs will see until the final game against Alabama on Dec. 5. At least we hope.
That said MSU isn’t going to be a slouch on defense. Going into the game, I wonder if it is possible for the Razorbacks to remain close against an offense that shredded LSU like so much pulled pork last weekend. Another offensive performance like the on the Razorbacks produced last week will yield another embarrassing blowout.
Franks, Boyd, Burks and the rest of Kendal Briles’ Razorback offense has to step to the front this week and not only find a way to possess the football but also score points.
If they can’t, Hog fans may be looking at a very long night in Starkville.