Celestial X-Factor Adds Wrinkle to Arkansas’ 5 Keys for Shocking Alabama

KJ Jefferson, Sam Pittman, Arkansas football, Arkansas vs Alabama
photo credit: Nick Wenger / Craven Whitlow

There are numerous examples of solar eclipses being interpreted as omens in ancient mythology. The Razorbacks are hoping Saturday’s event foretells good fortune for their annual Arkansas vs Alabama matchup.

After 16 years of suffering in the series, they could certainly use any help they can get — whether it be from divine intervention or elsewhere. That’s especially the case this year, when Arkansas enters the game on a four-game losing streak and as a 19.5-point underdog.

Even though the narrow path of the “ring of fire” solar eclipse won’t reach any further east than Texas, much of the game will still be played during a partial solar eclipse. In Tuscaloosa, Ala., it will start about 20-30 minutes before the 11 a.m. kickoff, peak at 12:07 p.m. and end at 1:42 p.m.

Not surprisingly, it’s the first time an Arkansas football game has been played during a solar eclipse.

As for the Crimson Tide, they haven’t looked quite as dominant as years past, but that’s a pretty high bar and they seem to be hitting their stride following an early-season loss to Texas. Now 5-1 and sitting atop the SEC West, Alabama is ranked No. 11 in the AP Poll and has a 90.6% chance to beat the Razorbacks, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

Needless to say, it would definitely “shock the world” if Arkansas managed to go down to Tuscaloosa — where it has won just three times in 15 tries and not since 2003 — and came out on top.

For that to happen will require much more than prayer and a rare celestial event. We’ll be following along with live updates from Arkansas vs Alabama below, with our five keys to the Razorbacks pulling off the upset following that…

LIVE UPDATES: Arkansas vs Alabama

Pregame Tidbits

Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman is in the house, according to Jackson Fuller of the Southwest Times Record.

The Razorbacks will be without starting linebacker Chris Paul Jr. and cornerback Jaylon Braxton, as they did not travel. Cornerback Dwight McGlothern, defensive tackle Cam Ball and safety Alfahiym did make the trip, but their availability remains to be seen.

Running back Rocket Sanders will not play against Alabama, it was announced on the UA pregame radio show and on College Gameday.

9:15, 1Q – Arkansas 3, Alabama 0

The Razorbacks strike first with a 55-yard field goal by Cam Little. It’s his fourth kick of at least 50 yards in the last three games.

2:05, 1Q – Arkansas 6, Alabama 0

A promising drive stalled out thanks to a first-down sack, but Arkansas still got within Little’s range for a 49-yard field goal.

0:58, 1Q – Alabama 7, Arkansas 6

Facing a third-and-15, Jalen Milroe found Kobe Prentice running wide open down the middle of the field for an easy 79-yard touchdown.

END of 1Q – Alabama 7, Arkansas 6

8:52, 2Q – Alabama 14, Arkansas 6

The Crimson Tide converted a third-and-16 on their way to another touchdown, with this drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Milroe on a “Tush Push” play.

4:41, 2Q – Alabama 21, Arkansas 6

Arkansas’ secondary is nowhere to be found. Milroe caps this drive with a 29-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Amari Niblack.

HALF – Alabama 21, Arkansas 6

7:47, 3Q – Alabama 24, Arkansas 6

Alabama ran right through the Arkansas defense until stalling out in the red zone. Will Reichard’s 30-yard field goal pushes the Crimson Tide’s lead to 18.

0:33, 3Q – Alabama 24, Arkansas 13

A face mask penalty prevented Arkansas from going three-and-out once again and the Razorbacks made the most of it. KJ Jefferson hit Isaiah Sategna for a 5-yard touchdown to cap the drive.

END of 3Q – Alabama 24, Arkansas 13

10:59, 4Q – Alabama 24, Arkansas 21

KJ Jefferson appeared to be sacked, but escaped and found Var’keyes Gumms for a 25-yard gain. A few plays later, he found Rashod Dubinion for a 14-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion to Andrew Armstrong pulls the Razorbacks within a field goal.

FINAL – Alabama 24, Arkansas 21

1. Contain Alabama QB Jalen Milroe

The 49-26 final score of last year’s Arkansas vs Alabama game is a bit deceiving.

With Bryce Young out with an injury, the Razorbacks scored 23 straight points after falling behind 28-0 and appeared to have the Crimson Tide on the ropes.

They were one play away from forcing a three-and-out and getting the ball back with a chance to take the lead and momentum firmly on their side…but backup quarterback Jalen Milroe got loose on a 77-yard run to move the chains on third-and-15.

Two plays later and that was all she wrote. Jahmyr Gibbs added touchdown runs of 72 and 76 yards, but it was the long run by Milroe that dashed Arkansas’ hopes of a miraculous comeback.

Now the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback, Milroe is still capable of changing a game with his legs. His overall rushing numbers – 57 carries for 158 yards (2.8 yards/carry) in five games – don’t jump off the page, but that doesn’t factor in Alabama’s offensive line struggles.

He’s been sacked a whopping 21 times this year. Take out those plays and he has 300 yards on 36 carries. That 60 yards per game and 8.3 yards per carry. If he gets out of the pocket and into the open field, Milroe can make you pay – as Arkansas experienced last year in Fayetteville.

2. Limit the Long Ball vs Alabama

A top-100 dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school, Jalen Milroe has always been known as a capable runner. Where he’s improved the most this year is in the passing game.

He’s completing 67.6% of his passes this season and averaging 10.4 yards per attempt, which ranks second only to LSU’s Jayden Daniels in the SEC.

That is aided by Milroe throwing an excellent deep ball. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, he is 15 of 23 (65.2%) passing for 560 yards, 7 touchdowns and no interceptions on throws at least 20 yards downfield. His 98.8 PFF passing grade on deep balls ranks second nationally – again behind Daniels (99.9).

His main target on those passes is Jermaine Burton, who is coming off a 9-catch, 197-yard performance against Texas A&M. He’s got 17 receptions for 386 yards and four touchdowns this year. Isaiah Bond is also a threat, with 275 yards and two scores on 19 catches.

The good news for the Razorbacks is that Sam Pittman said they “feel pretty good” about Dwight McGlothern returning to the field after missing last week because of a concussion. The preseason All-SEC selection has six interceptions since the start of last season and is the highest-graded cornerback in the country with an 89.9 PFF grade this year.

Unfortunately, it looks like Arkansas will be without safety Alfahiym Walcott and cornerback Jaylon Braxton because of injuries suffered in the Ole Miss game. The latter of those is coming off the best game of his young career, so it’s a particularly tough blow.

In their place, Lorando Johnson is likely to slide over to cornerback again with Hudson Clark moving to nickel. Malik Chavis is probably the top candidate to start at safety in that scenario, while freshman T.J. Metcalf could play some nickel to either relieve Clark or allow him to move back to safety.

It’s not exactly an ideal situation against a passing attack that can be as explosive as Alabama has been, but Pittman still likes how his secondary stacks up.

“We know Alabama has outstanding wideouts and a guy that can get it to them, but I feel good about it,” Pittman said. “Obviously if we don’t feel good about man-to-man coverage, we’ll do some type of zone and we can drop eight and do some different things to try to help the guys.”

3. Arkansas Can’t Shoot Itself in the Foot

Close games have been the Achilles heel of the Sam Pittman era of Arkansas football, as the Razorbacks are just 5-12 in games decided by one possession since 2020.

That includes three losses this year – by 7 to BYU and Ole Miss and by 3 to LSU. What makes those games even more frustrating is the fact that Arkansas had double-digit penalties in each of them. No other FBS team has more than two one-possession losses in which they committed at least 10 penalties.

Facing a team as talented and as good as Alabama, the Razorbacks can’t give yards away and expect to have a chance to win.

Of course, they’ve proven they can lose without being flagged once – they did it against Texas A&M last month and even did it in the Arkansas vs Alabama series in 2019 – but it wouldn’t hurt if they at least significantly cut down on them Saturday.

“In order for us to win, whether it be Saturday or forward, we have to concentrate on what we can do better,” Pittman said. “We’ve got to cut down on the pre-snap penalty. It’s not post-snap. It’s pre-snap penalties. … If we do that, I think we can play with anybody, but we haven’t done it consistently yet.”

Arkansas enters the weekend tied for 118th nationally in penalties per game (7.7) and tied for 111th in penalty yards per game (64.0).

Not shooting yourself in the foot also means not making any special teams mistakes or turning the ball over. Turnovers were devastating last week, as KJ Jefferson’s two interceptions were particularly costly in the loss to Ole Miss.

4. Arkansas Needs to Find Success on First Down

One reason Arkansas has struggled to find its footing offensively this year is because it has been miserable on first down.

The Razorbacks are averaging just 5.09 yards on first down this season, which is the second-worst mark in the SEC – slightly better than Mississippi State’s 5.06-yard average.

“We’re just putting ourselves in a hole all the time,” Pittman said. “We’re not winning first downs. A gain of three would get us to second-and-7. We’ve been playing a lot of second-and-10, second-and-12, second-and-13. So I think that would help us with more drives, sustaining some drives.”

A closer look at the numbers reveals a potential solution. Put quite simply, Arkansas might try to pass more on first down. Let us explain…

The Razorbacks rank dead last in the SEC with 2.87 yards per carry on first down. South Carolina is second-worst in that category at 3.05 yards per carry, while Vanderbilt is nearly a full yard better than Arkansas at 3.84 yards per carry.

Despite that lack of success, Arkansas has run the ball on 66.3% of its first-down plays – the second-highest rate in the SEC. Only Alabama – which averages 4.51 yards per carry – runs it on first down more than the Razorbacks.

Of course, those numbers can be somewhat skewed by first-down sacks – more on those in key No. 5 – or designed pass plays that turn into KJ Jefferson scrambles, but they’re not particularly close to the SEC averages of 57.8% of first-down runs and 5.04 yards per carry.

When the Razorbacks do pass on first down, they’ve actually been pretty successful. They’ve completed 73.2% of their attempts, which is second only to Missouri (75.9%), and are averaging 9.45 yards per attempt – above the SEC averages of 67.6% and 9.31 yards.

5. Protect KJ Jefferson in Arkansas vs Alabama

Sacks have been a serious issue for the Razorbacks this season, as they are tied for 122nd nationally with 3.83 allowed per game. Alabama, meanwhile, has racked up 22 sacks, which is tied for fourth nationally.

That’s not exactly a great recipe for Arkansas.

“They have, in my opinion, great defensive ends and they’re a problem,” Pittman said. “It’s a problem if somebody has one that can wreck your game plan, let alone three, maybe four.”

Dallas Turner leads the way with 6.5 sacks, which ranks first in the SEC and is tied for third in the FBS. Arkansas fans may know him better as the freshman who surpassed Drew Sanders on the depth chart two years ago, leading him to hit the transfer portal and end up in Fayetteville.

Then there’s Chris Braswell, who’s fifth in the SEC with 4.5 sacks, and Justin Eboigbe, who has 2.5 sacks. That means the trio has combined for 13.5 sacks in six games.

“We have to have a way to move the pocket,” Pittman said. “We’re going to have to have a way to chip both sides. We need some help. That’s nothing negative against our guys up front, it’s just a lot of guys need help against those caliber of rushers. We can’t let them change the football game simply because those guys are on the field.”

If the Razorbacks are going to pull off the upset, they need KJ Jefferson to play like the KJ Jefferson of 2021 and 2022.

There have been flashes, but that hasn’t happened consistently so far and Pittman has insinuated that one reason is because he’s been hit in the backfield so much.

“I do believe that he could really thrive and shine if we just protected him a little bit better,” Pittman said. “If you notice in the games, if he does have protection, we’re able to throw and catch well. When he doesn’t, not so much. I think that’s with everybody. But I think he wants to be superman and I think he’s probably pressing a little bit too much right now to make a play.”

How to Watch Arkansas vs Alabama

Date: Saturday, Oct. 14

Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)

Kickoff Time and TV Schedule: 11 a.m. CT (ESPN)

Announcers: Dave Pasch (play-by-play), Dusty Dvoracek (color analyst), Tom Luginbil (sideline reporter)

Alabama’s Rankings: No. 11 (AP) | No. 10 (Coaches) | No. 7 (SP+) | No. 3 (FPI)

Arkansas’ Rankings: NR (AP) | NR (Coaches) | No. 50 (SP+) | No. 32 (FPI)

ESPN FPI: Alabama has an 90.4% chance to win

SP+ Projection: Alabama has a 87% chance to win, favored by 19.6 (proj. score: 36-17)

Odds/Betting Line: Alabama, -19.5 | O/U 44.5 (BetSaracen)


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