FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. _ The coin has two sides. It always does. Half the time you’re going to get heads. Half the time you’re going to get tails. How it turns out depends on your perspective.
Is the glass half-full or is it half-empty?
That’s the question right now for Arkansas football. Head coach Sam Pittman’s post-game press conference after Saturday’s season-opening 38-17 win over Rice was a spin off that same old maxim. At times the Razorbacks’ second-year coach was glowing about his team’s ability to rally and fight off frustration. Other times he was frustrated, troubled, even, about his team’s overall performance.
Given his predisposition, though, count on the half-full.
Arkansas was not good Saturday, despite covering the 19 1/2-point spread. The Razorbacks had just 373 yards of total offense to Rice’s 303. That’s the same Rice team, by the way, who hasn’t beaten a power-conference school since 2013. That power-conference school was Kansas, whose fans, in turn, rushed the field Friday night after a three-point win over FCS South Dakota. Not exactly a powerhouse program.
Pittman won’t linger long on Arkansas’ football troubles. Probably no longer than the time it takes to review film on Sunday. Things have to be fixed. Pittman knows that.
“We’ve got a lot to improve on,” he said. “I told the team we were going to face adversity. I didn’t know it was going to be the entire first half. I’m so happy we won, but we didn’t field a very good football team today. We’ve got to get a lot better.”
And in a hurry.
Arkansas vs Texas
No. 21 Texas visits Fayetteville later this week after beating No. 23 Louisiana by 20 points in its season opener.
Even if the Longhorns weren’t ranked in the top 25, a certain segment of Arkansas football fans believe there is no more important game than Texas. Not LSU and battle for The Boot. Definitely not Missouri and the Battle Line. Not Alabama and its supremacy atop the SEC.
Beat Texas and little else matters. As long as Arkansas doesn’t pull a Chad Morris redux, a win over the Horns would largely count as a successful season.
Arkansas won’t be favored to do that. Nor should it be, as the Rice game proved. But to take Pittman’s positive spin, it could happen.
For that ‘could’ to become ‘did,’ there is no way Arkansas can play like it did against the team from Houston. The team from Austin will roll by three-plus touchdowns if a repeat performance is on the docket.
KJ Jefferson and Matt Jones
It starts, frankly, at quarterback.
Arkansas signal-caller KJ Jefferson had two diametrically opposed halves. In the first, he went just 4 for 11 for 21 yards. He flashed some potential running the football as a lane as wide as Interstate 49 opened on a quarterback draw for the Razorbacks’ first touchdown, a 34-yard run to paydirt.
His passing, meanwhile, left plenty to be desired. Throws were too hard, too high and at the knees. His receivers, including All-American Treylon Burks, dropped at least two passes at their hands, which didn’t help matters, too.
But when Jefferson connected with Tyson Morris for a 31-yard, one-handed grab down the left sideline in the third quarter, Jefferson was born anew. He went 7 for 9 the rest of the way and tacked on another rushing touchdown to go along with his insurance score to Morris in the fourth quarter. He would have added a third score on the ground were it not for freshman wideout Ketron Jackson Jr.’s holding call on a 65-yard would-be score.
If tha KJ Jefferson shows next week, an upset could be in the cards. If the Jefferson from the first half-hour shows, though, Texas could have a repeat of the last time the two teams met in the regular season: a 52-10 Longhorns win in 2008.
That isn’t to say the whole season rests on the legs and arm of the Razorbacks’ redshirt sophomore quarterback. But go through recent history. When Arkansas gets good, healthy quarterback play, the Hogs win.
Even last year, with Feleipe Franks at the helm, the Razorbacks managed three SEC wins. Two more should have happened as Arkansas was bamboozled out of one against Auburn and its defense collapsed in a should-have-been victory against Missouri.
Three wins in league play may not sound like a lot, but given the barren cupboard Morris left for Pittman in the now-coach’s first year, it was a boon. Five wins would have been the stuff of legend.
The truth is Arkansas hasn’t had a quarterback like Jefferson in a generation, as this stat makes abundantly clear:
His ability to run brings another dimension to the Razorbacks’ offense. Twitter was ablaze Saturday against Rice on nearly every tuck-and-run Jefferson had.
The comparisons to former Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones are apt. Jones, too, was a mediocre passer. But get that 6’6” strider on his horse in the open field and it was magical. Jefferson’s gallop across more than half the field in the fourth, the one called back, was deja vu a la Jones. Jefferson’s 6’3”, 240-pound frame is big enough to stave off arm tackles and long stride enough to outpace linebackers and some safeties.
Here’s ample proof of that:
“It’s his team now,” Pittman said of his quarterback. I think that (the crowd and hype for the game) might have affected him. … I’m so glad that he had a better second half and he ran the ball. I think his confidence is back, but I think all of us would have a little bit of nerves going into that game. We have so much that we can improve on and so much that we have to.”.
Those Matt Jones years were considered mixed results at the time. In retrospect, compared to what the Arkansas football program slid into during the 2010s, they were basically halcyon days. Other than two anomalous seasons in the Bobby Petrino era, they were nearly the best Arkansas football in the SEC has had to offer.
Keys for Arkansas Football
In Arkansas vs Texas, the defense should be able to hold serve, too.
Other than a big play, Rice’s 41-yard touchdown pass to August Pitre III in the second quarter, Arkansas’ defense was stout, if not stellar. Subtract that single play from the equation, a play on which cornerback LaDarrius Bishop was caught eyeballing the backfield, and Rice managed just 261 yards of total offense. That total would have been the second lowest against an nonconference FBS team since 2016.
Even with it, the Arkansas defense made plays. All-American safety Jalen Catalon intercepted two passes. Montaric Brown picked another. The Razorbacks had seven tackles-for-loss. Most all of it came without the services of All-SEC linebacker Grant Morgan, who was ejected in the first quarter for targeting.
Texas, however, isn’t Rice. The Longhorns beat Louisiana by a similar score, 38-18 but the difference was that Texas got up 21-6 and never looked back. Louisiana, unlike Rice, didn’t truly threatened.
So take Arkansas’ Saturday game for what you will. The boo birds were out in the first half. The cheers were epic in the second. But Sam Pittman is figuring for an improved Week 2.
KJ Jefferson’s jitters are out of the way (it was his first game in front of a large crowd in two years, after all, thanks to COVID-19 limiting spectators last year). Pittman’s are, too. The Arkansas football head man knows he has to improve as much as his team does.
“He’s going to get better, he knows,” Pittman said. “He’s a smart kid. He knows he’s got to play better. Hell, I’ve got to coach better. … You’ve got to look in the mirror on things going wrong. That’s coaching.”
The first step is admitting there’s a problem.
In case you need a refresher on what a bad, bad man Matt Jones was, see this. In a 38-28 takedown of No. 6 Texas on the road, he racked up 102 yards on eight rushing attempts as part of a 241-yard effort.