PROVO, Utah — It’s no secret that Arkansas football has struggled on defense over the first half of 2022.
Indeed, that may be an understatement. Through six weeks, the Razorbacks are allowing 32.2 points and 454.8 yards per game — marks that rank 108th and 121st in the FBS, respectively.
The latter of those numbers would be the worst in school history, topping the 451.7 yards allowed during the SEC-only 2020 season, while the former would mark the fifth time in six years Arkansas has given up at least 32 points after doing so a grand total of once before that stretch.
Yes, the apparent lack of adjustments in last week’s loss at Mississippi State frustrated many fans, but head coach Sam Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom have tried several things to right the ship on that side of the ball in the last few weeks, including moving Odom from his perch in the press box down to the sideline.
“With where we’re at injury wise back there…we just felt like we needed him down there to inspire and coach on the sideline, face to face, things of that nature,” Pittman said. “I don’t know if it will or not. Could this week again just simply because there’s a possibility we might play some young kids.”
Arkansas Football Injuries in the Secondary
It’s hard to ignore the injuries, even though it may sound like an excuse.
Preseason All-American safety Jalen Catalon and veteran cornerback LaDarrius Bishop were lost for the year in the first two games of the season. Talented nickel back Myles Slusher has now missed three games with two separate injuries and sounds unlikely to play this week, too.
Transfer safety Latavious Brini has been banged up, as well, and then versatile defensive backs Jayden Johnson and Khari Johnson went down last week at Mississippi State. Their status for the BYU game remains up in the air.
With so many players going down in the secondary, another change Arkansas made — out of necessity — was moving Hudson Clark from cornerback to safety. He made his first start at the new position against the Bulldogs.
“At first it was a little different view, because you’re in the middle of the field,” Clark said. “But Coach Odom, Coach (Dominique) Bowman, they’ve really helped me get in the film room and see the play first there, and then when it comes on the field, it’s easy.”
Freshman wide receivers Sam Mbake and Quincey McAdoo have also moved to cornerback and could see the field on defense before the end of the season.
Wearing Down the Razorbacks
Another thing Arkansas football has struggled with defensively has been stopping their opponents when given the chance.
Teams have converted a whopping 43.4% of their third downs against the Razorbacks this season, which is tied for 105th in the country. That number is exacerbated by the fact that they’ve also allowed teams to convert 6 of 9 fourth downs — a 66.7% rate that is tied for 99th.
Factor in those fourth-down conversions and opponents have moved the chains more than half the times Arkansas has had a chance to get off the field. Making it even worse is that the Razorbacks have even allowed foes to convert at a 40% rate (16 of 40) when facing third-and-8 or longer.
All of those extra snaps have led to the defense wearing down in the second half the last two weeks.
It was obvious in the Alabama game, as the Crimson Tide ripped off three runs of 70-plus yards, but less so against Mississippi State. However, the Bulldogs averaged 5.8 yards per carry after halftime compared to 3.9 in the first half.
“We’ve got a lot of guys having to play a lot of reps,” Pittman said. “Part of that is, obviously we are not doing as well on offense. Part of it is, they have to get off the field.”
Challenge Through the Air in Arkansas vs BYU
Things don’t get any easier for Arkansas this week. The defense will be tasked with slowing down a BYU team averaging 6.7 yards per play, which ranks 24th nationally, all while playing at elevation and in front of a hostile crowd who will be chomping down on 18-inch chocolate-slathered “CougarTails”.
The Cougars are particularly dangerous through the air, despite their passing attack ranking 43rd at 264.3 yards per game. That number has been partially skewed because of injuries, as this week could be just the second time BYU’s top two receivers — Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua — are on the field at the same time. Meanwhile, quarterback Jaren Hall has practiced all week after being limited the previous week.
As a team, BYU ranks in the top 25 nationally in passer rating (162.2, 23rd) and completion percentage (68.6%, 17th), plus has 15 touchdown passes with only two interceptions through six games.
“They’re fairly balanced on offense,” Pittman said. “I know one thing, they can throw the football, and we’re certainly concerned about that.”
On the ground, the Cougars are averaging 154.5 yards. That ranks 68th, which doesn’t appear too impressive, but they are also averaging 5.01 yards per carry — which is tied for 27th in the FBS, so they are effective when they do run it.
“We’re not treating it any different than an SEC team,” defensive back Hudson Clark said. “They’re fast, they’re physical, their receivers catch mostly everything we’ve seen and they finish blocks. They’re really a good opponent we’re about to face.”
BYU Quarterback Jaren Hall’s Health
Most of the attention in Arkansas has focused on the health of KJ Jefferson, who is expected to return to action after missing last week’s game with a presumed concussion, but BYU starter Jaren Hall has also been banged up recently.
After being shaken up in the second half against Utah State a couple weeks ago, Hall didn’t practice much at all leading up to last week’s game against Notre Dame. He still played, though, and was far from his usual self, completing only 9 of 17 passes for a season-low 120 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Prior to that game, Hall was completing 70.2% of his passes for 287.6 yards per game with 12 touchdowns and only one interception. He also has 81 rushing yards after picking up 307 yards on the ground last year.
“He’s really a dynamic football player,” Arkansas defensive end Jordan Domineck said. “He knows how to run, he can sit in the pocket and throw if we don’t pressure him. He’s able to get out of the pocket and make something happen with his feet.”
Facing a talented quarterback like Hall is a scary proposition for the Razorbacks. All of the aforementioned injuries have led to them having one of the worst pass defenses in the country, ranking 127th at 307.0 passing yards allowed per game.
However, Pittman made sure to point out that stopping Hall and BYU’s passing attack won’t rest solely on the back end of the defense. He said the pass rush needs to return to its early-season form to make him uncomfortable in the backfield.
The Razorbacks led the country in sacks at one point, but have slipped to eighth after notching just one total sack in the last two games combined.
“We’re going to have to pressure him because I believe he’ll pick us apart if we don’t,” Pittman said. “We’re going to have to stop the run and then we’ve got to pressure him, because if we don’t, I think he’s really good and a really accurate thrower and his receivers are big.”
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