The relentless 2022 Arkansas football schedule has started to stiffen with freshly ranked Mississippi State up next in Starkville, Miss., this Saturday.
The 11 a.m. CT kickoff will do little to soften the clang of the cowbells as Mike Leach’s Bulldogs are on the uptick while the Razorbacks are reeling from a disappointing matchup with the now No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide. Juggling injuries new and old at key positions, the Vegas oddsmakers currently list Arkansas as an 8-point underdog as of Tuesday after the line opened at Bulldogs, minus-6.
The home field advantage, a hot quarterback against a shoddy secondary and an iffy KJ Jefferson will do that.
Mississippi State is coming off a shellacking of a not very good Texas A&M squad to whom the Hogs lost in Week 4 in Arlington. Four turnovers (three inside the red zone) helped the Bulldogs keep the game comfortable, as a blocked field goal and an interception were both returned for touchdowns. The Aggies moved the ball fairly effectively against Mississippi State, but too many mistakes inside the 20 kept them from being competitive.
The Razorbacks are at a similar junction as last year, when they came out of the gate 4-0 with some name brand wins only to be pasted 37-0 by the eventual national champion Bulldogs of Georgia. They then dropped a shootout in Oxford and were a no show against Auburn in Fayetteville. Head coach Sam Pittman and crew righted the ship by winning six of their last seven with the only loss to national runner-up Alabama.
The 2022 version of Arkansas football had solid wins over a still-ranked Cincinnati squad and got off to SEC play on the right foot, cruising over South Carolina. The Razorbacks avoided nuclear meltdown with a late rally over FCS-level Missouri State in Bobby Petrino’s return to Fayetteville (they’ve since lost handily to South Dakota State and North Dakota). Red flags were plentiful after that win, with turnovers thwarting scoring chances and a pass defense that more closely resembled a frat guy, flag football team than an SEC unit.
Then Alabama showed up showcasing four- and five-stars all over the field. Despite making it interesting in the third quarter, the Hogs faded while Tide ball carriers ran wild in the final 15 minutes. The final score if Bryce Young would have played the entire game surely has kept Barry Odom sleepless. He had already thrown for 178 yards in a little over a quarter before falling awkwardly on his shoulder and sitting out the rest of the game.
So where do the Razorbacks team go from here?
With KJ Jefferson’s status in question, that answer isn’t very clear. The staff has not declared him to be in full blown concussion protocol, but one has to believe after the Tua Tagovailoa controversy in the NFL last week, they are being extra precautious. And they should be.
Arkansas’ Offense vs Mississippi State’s Defense
The natives have been restless this week after Jefferson was replaced by what those outside the program considered to be the third-string quarterback, Cade Fortin. Last year’s backup, Malik Hornsby, didn’t receive any snaps at quarterback or receiver. After all the hype given to his dynamic speed and implementation into the Kendal Briles’ offense, the fascination – at least within the coaching staff – has fizzled.
As far as the Hornsby at quarterback fuss goes, I am 100,000% positive if he was the answer to move the ball while down a few scores, Pittman and Briles would have inserted him into the game. Nothing in his past performances would lead anyone to believe he was going to sling it all over the yard to get the Razorbacks back into the game. In previous appearances, any sign of pass rush would have him tucking and running. Not the best plan against Alabama or most SEC defenses.
The whole movement of him to receiver with all these gadget plays to get him the ball have also largely been ineffective. The Texas A&M game undoubtedly took a turn for the worse when Hornsby was inserted and Briles called three straight plays for him.
The Razorbacks had all the momentum in the world and were marching down the field to go up 21-0 behind a bruising running game when the Hornsby package appeared. It included a screen pass batted down when everyone in the stadium knew the ball was going his way, a trying-to-be-tricky reverse and a no gain shovel pass later was the start of the Razorback offense going into a cave until the fourth quarter.
Nothing against the kid or his skillset, it just doesn’t appear to be a fit for Arkansas’ identity of power running the football and play action passing. He attempted to transfer after last season only for Pittman to break his rule of allowing a portal player to come back into the fold. Pittman says Hornsby is handling the situation well, but time will tell. I suspect he sees the field somehow, someway this weekend. Maybe just as a decoy or maybe we get to see his sprinter speed in the open field.
If Jefferson can’t go, Fortin should see a lionshare of the snaps at quarterback, as he offers more in terms of passing and, in his previous stops at North Carolina and South Florida, has proven to be an effective runner. Having your Razorback debut against Alabama’s vaunted defense is a tough road to hoe for anyone, especially a guy who hasn’t played a snap this season. Thank the Hogs failing to show up against Missouri State for that one.
I can envision him being capable against Mississippi State’s heavy blitz scheme with short, accurate, quick reads. The guy has played some ball with a handful of starts at UNC and USF and was an ESPN four-star recruit coming out of high school. Fortin is not your typical walk-on quarterback and, if Jefferson has to sit out this game, should be more effective once he settles in.
Arkansas’ Defense vs Mississippi State’s Offense
A glass-half-full guy would say our pass defense was pretty awesome for three quarters against Alabama. Reality is Bryce Young was on pace to blow past his 550 yards he threw for last year against the Hogs and the secondary often looked too slow, too out of position and often distantly chasing Tide skill players.
The Razorback defense couldn’t defend the run in the fourth quarter, giving up chunk plays galore. Not sure if that was tied to doing the pregame warmup twice in an effort to solve the third quarter woes of games past games or just outmanned from a physicality standpoint. Not to come off as sour grapes, but there were some OBVIOUS holds that were not called on some of the home run plays, but there were also smallish Razorback defenders being completely swallowed by Alabama blockers. And those who weren’t blocked were often taking poor angles and got their doors blown off in a foot race to the other end zone.
Mississippi State doesn’t run a big-play offense, as the Air Raid will dink and dump their way down the field. They did have a 75-yard touchdown pass against Texas A&M, but that is not the Bulldogs’ bread and butter. Mississippi State also runs the ball a tad better than previous seasons under Leach, but rest assured, the Razorbacks are going to have to be ready for a bevy of screens, dumps and slants as Leach will typically put the ball in the air 40-50 times a game.
Quarterback Will Rogers, now in his third season in the Leach offense, has a ton of experience and will be ready for the Hogs to drop eight into coverage, which worked well in 2020, but was less effective in 2021 even though the Hogs eked out a win. Last season, Rogers completed 36 of 48 passes for 417 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. You have to believe he’s out for revenge when it comes to Arkansas.
The trick will be can defensive coordinator Barry Odom disguise his coverages to play with Rogers’ mind enough to coax some bad throws on Air Raid predetermined reads? In the loss to LSU, he threw for only 214 yards on 24 completions as the Bulldogs scored just 16 points in Baton Rouge. He’s been much better at home, but against inferior competition.
With no preseason All-American Jalen Catalon directing traffic on the backend, the secondary has been a mess. Especially without a healthy Myles Slusher. He was obviously playing hurt against Alabama, as he was twice burned by Tide speedsters with a noticeable gimp in his stride. He came out in the second quarter and never returned. The key for the Razorback secondary is keeping receivers in front of them and tackling in space because if they don’t improve there, Mississippi State will have a field day.
The pass rush, whether by blitz or by a defensive line in his face, will be critical. It is every game, but if Rogers is allowed to throw with steady feet on his schedule, it will be a long day for the Hogs. One would suspect assignment football has been a focus in practice this week and I expect the Razorbacks to be a little better there. A shorthanded secondary playing two former walk-ons doesn’t allow me to be too confident they will significantly slow the Air Raid down. Just keep them out of the end zone.
Final Thoughts – Arkansas vs Mississippi State
With Jefferson’s status unknown, the ability to make a prediction as to how this game will go is tough. Maybe he is just fine and Pittman is playing a little cat and mouse. Maybe he’s not and a backup is going to have to produce.
He’s obviously the straw that stirs the drink and nobody has seen enough of Fortin to know if he can move the ball consistently. I saw some poise and some moxy out of him against Alabama, which should carry over to this week if he’s needed. The full playbook will be at his and Briles’ disposal versus the trying-to-catch-up-quick, hope-and-pray plays that were run last week.
There are still plenty of weapons available, but I’m not convinced rotating four tailbacks is the way to go (and I think all four are really good SEC backs) as it seems to break the rhythm. Rocket Sanders has been fantastic, but can’t play the whole game. But sitting for several series in a row feels clunky. Good problem to have in some regards, but let’s see if the offense maintains any early momentum once the rotation begins. I do know the fanbase has not seen the best version of the Razorback offense thus far and it’s due to get rolling.
Defense has been and will continue to be a concern. The defensive line and linebackers appear to be solid with Drew Sanders being a force. The secondary lacks capable playmakers past Slusher and reliable cornerback Dwight McGlothern and with Slusher dinged up, that could be a massive problem against pass-happy Mississippi State and next week’s opponent BYU. Home run plays are often the result of a blown assignment(s) by the defense.
Opposing quarterbacks have to like what they see on film, so Odom and his defensive staff have to coach up the able bodies ready to play and get creative on how to slow down future opponents. Sacking Rogers could be challenging, as a key to the Air Raid is to find a matchup to exploit and decide to go there pre-snap. Quick throws, dink and dump.
Mississippi State is going to complete a lot of passes and likely throw for a bunch of yards. But the flaw in the Air Raid can be its inability to operate in the red zone. As the field condenses, the quarterback’s pre-snap reads can get fuzzy with personnel everywhere and not enough space to run routes. Also, Air Raid teams typically struggle to run the ball. MSU ranks 13th in the SEC in rushing, ahead of only Kentucky.
So far, the 2022 Bulldogs have been super effective in the red zone by scoring 16 of 17 times inside the 20 yard line, with 15 of those scores being touchdowns. The Razorbacks could be chasing all day if Mississippi State is able to operate with that kind of success Saturday. At some point, the secondary has to start playing better and there’s no time like the present.
And rest assured Pittman and Briles know an effective defense against pass-happy, rhythm teams is an offense that can keep them off the field. Sustained drives, with or without Jefferson, are critical – like really, really critical. Quick three-and-outs will allow Rogers and his weapons to get clicking against a weary defense. Not a winning formula.
If the Hogs can make the game “boring” with some double-digit play, methodical drives, they should have a shot in the fourth quarter to get back on track with what started as a promising season. If the Razorbacks from the past three games show up, the Bulldogs will run away with it and the cowbells will be deafening. Davis Wade Stadium can be a tough place to play when the Bulldogs are rolling, but I expect the Razorbacks to come out with a little more fight than they’ve shown the past few weeks.
Whether that results in a win or not is hard to say given the circumstances. You have to like their chances if the basics improve. We’re talking ball security, sound assignment football on defense and eliminating special teams gaffes.
Believe it or not, the same thing that works in pee-wee football matters in big-time college sports. Especially when you have the talent, and Arkansas certainly does.
Hear from former Hog DJ Williams on the game at 4:45 here:
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…