Defining “success” is no cut and dry thing.
What many perceive as success early in a head coach’s tenure when taking over a struggling program differs from what comes later. Mike Neighbors, for instance, said in 2019 of the women’s Arkansas basketball program: “You don’t have to win a championship to be a champion here.”
And coming off the Chad Morris era, it sure felt like the Razorbacks were the champion of at least the state of Mississippi after huge wins vs Ole Miss and Mississippi State early in Sam Pittman’s first season helming the Arkansas football program.
Fast forward a few years, and the early success of Neighbors and Pittman has raised the bar for both programs. Simply beating mediocre programs isn’t enough any more. Big-time wins are now expected on a fairly consistent basis.
That change of sentiment came through in the aftermath of Arkansas’ 34-31 loss on Saturday at No. 12 LSU. Such a close road loss to the defending SEC West champion would have put a smile on many fans’ faces in 2018, 2019 or 2020, but no longer for some fans.
And certainly not for former Razorback great Jake Bequette:
Bequette’s critique opened a can of worms, to say the least. Many fans disagree with his apparent black and white thinking on this matter.
“Interesting,” one Tweeted. “Your Razorback teams never won SEC or national titles, but they did improve. More than one thing can be true at once.”
In the spirit of embracing the gray, I looked at where the Hogs improved against LSU compared to their previous two games against Kent State and BYU. No doubt, the offense seemed to find a rhythm and balance. The defense held one of the best offenses in the country to only three points for almost an entire half.
Still, below are four different areas where the Razorbacks must continue to improve to take advantage of the absence of the Aggies’ starting quarterback Conner Weigman in Arkansas vs Texas A&M on Saturday in Arlington, Texas. While the close loss to LSU was heartening for some fans, expect far more to be in Bequette’s camp if Arkansas can’t take advantage of what appears to be their best chance at a victory in a killer four-game stretch away from home.
Arkansas on the Offensive Line
Against LSU, Arkansas moved the ball consistently, other than in the red zone in the first half. It scored 31 points on a good defense.
Statistically, the offense improved only slightly against LSU vs BYU. The Hogs averaged 6.3 yards per play. That is just 0.6 yards per play better than against BYU. In fact, they actually averaged less rushing yards and gave up just as many sacks as they did in their previous game. However, they overcame these issues by running the ball efficiently and not allowing as much pressure against a vaunted LSU front.
They accomplished this in two ways.
First, the Razorbacks passed more often. KJ Jefferson threw the ball 31 times, which was more than both the Western Carolina and Kent State games. It’s actually less than the BYU game, but when going back to look at it, I found that nine of the passes against BYU came within the last two minutes of the game.
Overall, Arkansas had a better balance of run and pass in this game. It passed more on first down and wasn’t as predictable as in other games. This kept LSU from stacking the box against the run.
Secondly, the Razorbacks blocked better, got a better push and either didn’t run against stacked boxes or ran away from the extra defender when they did.
Many were concerned about fifth-year senior and team captain Brady Latham after a subpar performance against BYU. The left guard held up well against LSU’s defense though. I noted him twice for getting to the second level of the defense on big Arkansas runs.
Even when the Razorbacks were outnumbered by defenders, they still found a way to succeed.
For example, with 10:32 left in the second quarter and facing second-and-2, Arkansas ran to the right side. Right tackle Patrick Kutas and right guard Joshua Braun created a large hole, but LSU had an extra safety who went unblocked. Rashod Dubinion ran into the hole and dove over the safety to pick up seven yards.
Dubinion was especially good on the day, rushing 15 times for 78 yards. He had a couple of runs where he broke through contact to pick up yardage. In the third quarter on second and seven Joshua Braun got beat and the defender ended up in the backfield. Dubinion side stepped him and then pushed through his arm tackle to get an 11 yard gain.
According to Pro Football Focus, he averaged 3.73 yards after contact against LSU – up nearly a full yard from just 2.77 yards after contact the first three weeks of the season, against less talented defenses.
In the Arkansas vs Texas A&M matchup, the Razorbacks will need to continue to find the balance that they had in this game. Keeping the Texas A&M defense off balance is essential if they want to move the ball against the nation’s sixth-ranked team in total defense.
Why Arkansas’ Defense Struggled in the Second Half
The Razorback defense looked superb in the first half. They held LSU to 10 points, sacked Jayden Daniels twice and clearly had him off balance, getting him to throw just his second interception of the year. I looked into what changed for the Arkansas defense in the second half.
Were the Razorbacks still mixing up their coverages to confuse Daniels? They were.
Were they still bringing blitzes to pressure Daniels when their four-man rush couldn’t get home? Yes. They brought about the same number of blitzes as in the first half.
Was the defensive line just not getting as much pressure when they didn’t bring the blitz? No, the number of forced throws was about the same.
So what changed? The biggest thing was that Jayden Daniels found his groove. He got rid of the ball quicker and did a better job eluding the pressure that Arkansas brought. Also, in the first half, he had a receiver drop a pass and had a completed pass called back for a penalty. Those things didn’t happen in the second half and, as a result, Daniels went 11 of 13.
Part of the reason Daniels might have found his groove was that the Razorback defense was unable to sack him in the second half despite him facing the same amount of pressure as in the first half.
Also, LSU found a way to run the ball on the Razorbacks. This helped give Daniels more time in the backfield by utilizing run play fakes.
A good example of all this came on LSU’s last drive of the game.
With 5:06 left and at the LSU 25-yard line, Arkansas rushed four defenders. The Razorbacks were in the backfield, but didn’t really pressure Daniels and he completed a pass for 36 yards. From the time he snapped the ball to the time he threw the pass was only three seconds.
Then LSU completed a one-yard shovel pass and got a five-yard run on the next two plays.
On third-and-4, Arkansas blitzed. The LSU running back picked up the blitzer, but John Morgan III beat his man and pressured Daniels. Daniels got the pass off in two seconds. It was a completion for five yards and a first down and put LSU squarely in field goal range.
Against Texas A&M, Arkansas will face Texas A&M’s backup Max Johnson. Starter Conner Weigman was ruled out for the season, according to ESPN.
In Johnson, the Razorbacks will face a quarterback who is not nearly as mobile as Daniels, who ran for 800 yards last season. Johnson has only 131 rushing yards in his four-year career.
The fact that Texas A&M’s quarterback will be less mobile is great news for the Razorback front and should help them get home more often against the quarterback.
The Left Tackle Battle: Andrew Chamblee vs. Devon Manuel
Andrew Chamblee and Devon Manuel have split time at the left tackle position this year. Manuel was injured in fall camp and Chamblee claimed the spot. When the season began, they both split time there, but in the BYU game, Chamblee earned the majority of the snaps. Sam Pittman revealed that may have been because Manuel was still recovering from a stinger. Against LSU, Manuel took the majority of the snaps.
Both still had issues, but as I noted before, the Razorbacks’ run blocking was much improved and both were a part of that. In this game, both Chamblee and Manuel allowed a sack although Manuel showed better protection allowing one in 54 snaps while Chamblee allowed one on just 17 snaps. Manuel allowed his sack against a defensive end, whereas Chamblee’s sack was more of a mismatch, losing to renowned pass-rushing linebacker Harold Perkins Jr.
Based on their snap counts, it looks like Arkansas may be going with Manuel going forward, but I would expect him to be on a short leash. Both players have still struggled with consistency.
This is definitely an area of concern for the game against Texas A&M. The tackle spots gave up three of the four sacks against LSU. Thankfully, the Aggies have not been a prolific sack team this year, totaling only 13 through four games.
Refs Standing Over the Ball
Sam Pittman mentioned one reason for the loss of timeouts and the delay of game in the second half was because the referees were standing over the ball for long periods of time, not allowing Arkansas to get its play started. He later added that this was not an excuse and that they needed to do better. It was hard to tell how true this claim was on the tape, as they don’t show enough to tell.
I’m not certain there is a clear fix for this issue. Officials are supposed to allow substitutions for both sides of the ball. To elucidate, if the offense substitutes any players, the defense is also allowed to substitute. This rule was made in response to hurry up offenses that would sub players quickly and try to catch the defense with too many or too few men on the field.
The problem now is that the play clock continues to run when substitutions are made, so it is up to the discretion of the referee as to when there has been a sufficient amount of time given for the defensive players to get on the field. Clearly Pittman was not happy with the amount given to the LSU defenders. Also, it was clear that the amount of time left was not what Arkansas was used to having to start their offensive play.
In the game, Pittman’s solution was to stop substituting players. He did so after the delay of game penalty with 5:46 left in the game. That worked. Arkansas football didn’t have another penalty for the rest of the game, but either the Razorbacks need to file a complaint with the SEC office or they need to work on quick start plays for this type of situation against Texas A&M.
How to Watch Arkansas vs Texas A&M
Date: Saturday, Sept. 30
Location: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Kickoff Time and TV Schedule: 11 a.m. CT (SEC Network)
Announcers: Dave Neal (play-by-play), Matt Stinchcomb (color analyst), Alyssa Lang (sideline reporter)
Arkansas’ Rankings: NR (AP) | NR (Coaches) | No. 36 (SP+) | No. 34 (FPI)
ESPN FPI: Texas A&M has an 73.0% chance to win
SP+ Projection: Texas A&M has a 74% chance to win, favored by 10.9 (proj. score: 33-22)
Odds/Betting Line: Texas A&M, -5.5 | O/U 54.5 (BetSaracen)
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman meets with the media on Wednesday:
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