FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas football squandered an excellent defensive performance by putting together another offensive clunker Saturday afternoon.
A week after spending most of a loss to Liberty in neutral, the Razorbacks mustered a season-low 249 yards of offense and never really got into gear at all in a 13-10 loss to No. 7 LSU inside a frigid Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The only times during head coach Sam Pittman’s tenure that Arkansas had fewer yards and points than it did against the SEC West-leading Tigers were in losses to eventual national champions Alabama in 2020 and Georgia in 2021.
“For the second week in a row, we couldn’t get anything going offensively,” Pittman said. “In all honesty, we couldn’t block, we didn’t break tackles, we couldn’t block for the run, we couldn’t protect him and we didn’t break any tackles until late in the game.”
It didn’t help that star quarterback KJ Jefferson was held out because of a shoulder injury or that the Razorbacks’ vaunted rushing attack was once again bottled up — more on those issues later — but LSU also got a historic performance from freshman phenom Harold Perkins Jr.
Ranked as high as the No. 4 overall prospect in the Class of 2022 by ESPN, the Texas native seemingly took advantage of the absence of veteran right tackle Dalton Wagner (back) and was constantly in Arkansas’ backfield, finishing with eight tackles, two forced fumbles, one pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.
“He’s outstanding,” Pittman said. “He’s great. I mean, he’s really good. We knew it coming in. … He’s a great player. He’s what I thought he was.”
Half of Perkins’ tackles were sacks, with his four sacks matching the LSU single-game mark set by Chuck Wiley in 1995. He came into the game with 3.5 sacks, so he more than doubled that total, and had one in each of LSU’s last two games — wins over ranked foes Ole Miss and Alabama.
“If they blitz, you have to throw in the zone,” Pittman said. “He’s coming, just throw where he’s not. We couldn’t do that. So, I mean, we’ve got to block the guy better.”
Perhaps most impressively, two of the freshman’s sacks against Arkansas were of the strip-sack variety. That includes the play that sealed the win for LSU, as he popped the ball loose just before Cade Fortin could throw a pass on the Razorbacks final drive. The Tigers came up with it with 1:19 left and a pair of kneel downs ran out the clock.
Even on Fortin’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Matt Landers, Perkins was right in his face and delivered a big hit as he let go of the ball.
“They were bringing nickel fire with him off the edge, so he was coming off the edge a lot, which I think that’s a good spot for him to blitz from,” Stromberg said. “He’s a fast kid. He had a wonderful game, he had a great game.”
However, the Razorbacks issues extended far beyond just Perkins.
Fourth-Down Decisions by Sam Pittman
As much trouble as it had trying to block LSU’s stud freshman, there were other times Arkansas simply couldn’t get out of its own way. That was evident on a couple of puzzling fourth-down decisions.
It started early. With the Razorbacks up 3-0 and the ball in great field position thanks to a fumble by the Tigers, they left points on the field by going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 3.
Instead of taking the points with a chip-shot field goal, Sam Pittman went for a knock-out blow — a call that defied logic. It was a very cold day and Arkansas was playing with a backup quarterback. Even Pittman, when asked about the decision in postgame, said all signs were pointing to it being a defensive battle.
“I thought points were going to be hard to come by — we didn’t have KJ and things of that nature down there,” Pittman said. “We got them down here, (so) let’s score a touchdown because I thought we were going to have a struggle on offense. We already had them down there. We could go up 10-0, and we didn’t make it.”
“I thought the worst thing, you know, we’ve got them pinned back here. I know you’re giving up three points at that point but I just thought the risk to reward was better going for the touchdown there.”
The second time Arkansas went for it on fourth down was just as, if not more, costly in the grand scheme of things.
Facing a fourth-and-2 near midfield, Pittman opted to leave his offense on the field rather than punt and pin LSU deep in its own territory. It proved to be a disastrous call, as Hornsby slipped and fell while running backwards. The play lost 12 yards and gave the ball back to the Tigers.
“First of all, we thought we had a play that was going to work,” Pittman said. “We’d worked on it, really a short-yardage play and I thought it would work. The other thing is I thought we needed a little spark and I felt like we could make it. I mean, nobody goes for it if you don’t.”
Instead of needing to put together a long drive, which had been difficult to do against Arkansas’ defense, LSU covered 40 yards on five plays to score its only touchdown of the game.
A strong case could be made that the two questionable fourth-down decisions cost the Razorbacks 10 points — a lot in a game decided by three points.
Arkansas Football Quarterback Situation
Making matters worse for Arkansas’ offense was the fact that KJ Jefferson was not available because of a lingering injury that has been described as a clavicle bruise.
His status was up in the air all week following a subpar performance against Liberty and midweek comments by Sam Pittman that he was still severely limited in practice. After a conversation between the two Thursday afternoon, Pittman told the team Friday morning that they’d be going with a backup quarterback.
“He hadn’t practiced in two weeks much and we decided the best thing for him would be to rest,” Pittman said. “Hopefully, he’ll be ready by Monday and he’ll be ready for Ole Miss. It was either that and do the same thing and each week have the same result with a guy who can’t practice, and we’re trying to get him healed up.”
With Jefferson out, redshirt sophomore Malik Hornsby made his first career start. Unfortunately for him, it went about as bad as it possibly could.
He helped the Razorbacks move the ball against Mississippi State, when he came off the bench and replaced an ineffective Cade Fortin, and had a couple of explosive plays, but that wasn’t the case against LSU. Hornsby completed just 4 of 9 passes for 24 yards and added only 37 yards on 18 carries.
“I really don’t know what the difference was,” Pittman said. “At Mississippi State, he had a long run and a long pass. I feel bad for him because he didn’t have the success that I thought he would or anybody in the locker room thought he would, but he’ll bounce back.”
With Hornsby running the show, Arkansas managed just one field goal on eight possessions that covered a total of 108 yards. The other seven possessions included four punts, two turnovers on downs and a fumble.
Looking for a spark, the Razorbacks turned to walk-on transfer Cade Fortin, who began his career as a scholarship quarterback at North Carolina and South Florida, plus started the aforementioned Mississippi State game. It was a move that Pittman said he didn’t really consider until he did it, which was on Arkansas’ third possession of the second half.
“I don’t think I decided to make the change to Fortin until I did,” Pittman said. “Obviously, I kept thinking we might just spit a big play or something of that nature, but it wasn’t happening.”
Fortin led the Razorbacks on their only touchdown drive of the game, throwing a strike to Matt Landers streaking down the sideline for a 40-yard score. That was sandwiched between a pair of three-and-outs and was made possible by a nice 29-yard catch by Landers on third-and-17 earlier in the possession.
The strip-sack by Harold Perkins Jr. prevented him from getting a real crack at a potential game-tying or game-winning drive in the two-minute drill, but Fortin finished 8 of 13 for 92 yards and one touchdown, while rushing for 17 yards on five carries.
“You’ve got to have help around the quarterback,” Pittman said. “I mean, I don’t care who the quarterback is. If you don’t have help around him, none of them is going to play good.”
Razorback Run Game Stifled Again
One of the things that could have helped Arkansas’ quarterbacks, whether it was Malik Hornsby or Cade Fortin, was a dominant run game.
However, much like last week against Liberty, the Razorbacks struggled to get things going on the ground. For the second straight game, they posted a season low in rushing yardage, finishing with 133 on 46 carries – a measly 2.9 per attempt.
In the back-to-back losses to the Flames and Tigers, Arkansas has averaged 138.5 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. Before those games, it was averaging 244.5 and 5.1 yards in those categories, respectively.
“We’re not blocking them and we’re not breaking any tackles,” Pittman said. “I don’t think we broke a tackle until the fourth quarter. It’s hard to have a good rushing game… Look at their back. (Josh Williams) carried us 8, 10 and 12 yards at times. Made guys miss in the hole.
“We have to block better and we have to make guys miss. We’re not doing that at any position, so we have to get better.”
Looking Ahead to Next Week
Still needing one more win to get bowl eligible, Sam Pittman took the approach Arkansas football fans have come to expect from the third-year coach.
He is still optimistic the Razorbacks can put it all together when a ranked Ole Miss team — that narrowly lost to Alabama 30-26 on Saturday — comes to town next week. A major source of that optimism is the fact he believes his starting quarterback will be healthy.
Even including the Liberty game, when he clearly wasn’t himself, KJ Jefferson-led offenses have averaged 34 points this season, compared to 13.5 points when he’s out.
“We’re going to go get after Ole Miss next week,” Pittman said. “Hopefully KJ will be healthy. We’ve got to find some good. Our defense played extremely well. We’ll get a healthy KJ back — you talk about motivation, that’d motivate me. Your best player on your team can come back and play? That would motivate all of us.”
Check out the highlights from Arkansas football’s loss to LSU:
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