Four games into this season, Arkansas’ defense looked like world beaters.
At that time, in a stretch in which the Hogs should have gone 3-1 if not for a fumble miscall at Auburn, Arkansas ranked:
- No. 4 in the SEC in scoring defense (25.5 points per game)
- No. 1 in interceptions per game (2.5)
- No. 1 in opponent third-down conversion rate (32.35 percent)
- No.1 opponent red-zone score percentage (61.1 percent)
Barry Odom, Arkansas’ first-year defense coordinator, was a leading candidate for the Broyles Award given annually to the nation’s best assistant coach. He would be the first current Arkansas assistant to win the award named after Frank Broyles, the legendary Razorback head Hog whose coaching tree included future all-timers like Hayden Fry, Barry Switzer, Jimmy Johnson, Johnny Majors and Joe Gibbs.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was so impressed by Arkansas’ defensive turnaround from the clown show that John Chavis trotted out in previous seasons that he said “Barry’s the coach of the year with what he’s done.” (Apparently, Malzahn forgot that Odom was an assistant.)
Gene Chizik, an SEC analyst and Malzahn’s former boss, sang Odom’s praises too: “These guys will strike. They know where they’re supposed to be. They’re playing a reaction game and they are knocking folks around . . . They were fast. They were physical. They never let the ball get behind them. These guys played and had fun today. Incredible effort by Barry Odom.”
Fast forward four games and things have cooled considerably on the Arkansas-as-one-of-the-SEC’s-best-defenses front. The Hogs have lost three of their last four games. In those contests, they gave up 42 points (Texas A&M), 63 points (Florida) and 27 points (LSU).
Arkansas’ defense has largely gone with bend-but-don’t-break tactics geared toward stopping SEC spread offenses. It helps allows offenses to get small gains early in their series but (in theory) forces a way off the field on a third down.
While Arkansas is still one of the nation’s best intercepting teams, and has produced tackling machines in Bumper Pool, Grant Morgan and Jalen Catalon, it’s no longer at or near the top in many other SEC defensive rankings. Odom’s defense is No. 10 in overall yards allowed and points allowed per game, in large part because Arkansas has been weak against the run, allowing 179.0 yards per outing.
This second-half season slide is a big reason that Arkansas enters Saturday’s game against Missouri as +120 underdogs according to the odds from Sports Betting Dime.
“Barry Odom’s defense has been lauded for most of the year and, to be fair, he has worked a miracle based off of how terrible the Hogs were last year, especially on defense,” wrote Nate Edwards of SB Nation’s Missouri site.
“But, if we’re being frank, his 2020 Arkansas boys are…fine? Maybe even slightly bad?”
Mizzou, however, could be just what the doctor ordered.
It is, of course, where Barry Odom played and coached for two decades before being fired after last season. If anybody knows how to exploit the tendencies of the Tigers’ offense, he should — although intricate knowledge of the other team’s tendencies hasn’t exactly worked out for Arkansas this year.
The Hogs “lost” to Auburn (Chad Morris), and were beaten badly against Georgia (Sam Pittman) and Florida (Feleipe Franks).
Still, Eli Drinkwitz’s Missouri squad presents a few weaknesses on offense that Arkansas on paper can exploit. The Tigers’ offensive line has gelled well in recent games, but anybody would look good against powder puffs like South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
On Saturday, quarterback should be an advantage for Arkansas. Grad transfer Feleipe Franks is among the SEC’s best quarterbacks, only clearly behind Heisman candidates Mac Jones and Kyle Trask, while Missouri counters with a redshirt freshman in Connor Bazelak who lit up LSU but was underwhelming in the following games vs. Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina.
Barry Odom’s Worst Called Game So Far?
In Arkansas’ last game, against LSU, it also faced a freshman quarterback in TJ Finley.
Finley, just a true freshman, picked Arkansas apart with 271 pass yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and 64.3% completion rate to lead the Tigers back for a close win. In LSU’s previous game against Auburn, Auburn had pressured Finley into bad throw after bad throw by forcing him into uncomfortable positions on the run. When Arkansas brought pressure in the second half (albeit usually on first or second down instead of third down), Finley tended to float his passes.
But Odom didn’t bring enough pressure, especially in the first three quarters when playing three linemen up front and eight linebackers and defensive backs in coverage. Much too often, as SEC analyst Jake Crain put it, “it looked like TJ Finley was throwing from the same spot that he throws from when they run seven on seven. It looked like he had thrown off that platform a bunch, whether it was left, whether it was right, whether it was deep… he looked very comfortable and it looked like he had been there before.”
Arkansas had prided itself on turnovers all year, but couldn’t force one from LSU when they it was badly needed. Nor could they reach Finley in the backfield, only sacking him once for five yards.
“I was surprised that the pressure was not brought to try and force TJ Finley into making a mistake or forcing a three and out,” Crain continued. “It doesn’t have to be a turnover — maybe it’s a sack to make it second and 19… It was almost like once Arkansas got that 21-20 lead in the third quarter, you’re like, ‘Okay, LSU is not going to score. It’s raining. We can drop eight, play coverage and be fine.’”
Yes, Arkansas missed a lot of players due to COVID-19, most notably six regular contributors on the defensive line. Still, the Razorbacks have 17 defensive linemen on their roster. Crain points out the coaching staff had a few days to prep the second and third stringers to step in and learn the game plan. Even if those backups weren’t as talented or as experienced, they are still Division I student-athletes who can grasp the right scheme and go through reps to execute it.
Hear Crain discuss LSU-Arkansas and Odom’s playcalling at 2:57:
Against Missouri, Arkansas will have most if not all of its top defensive players on the field. Odom, like he did earlier in the year, will have a more complete arsenal to work with. One notable exception will be safety Jalen Catalon, who must sit out the first half because of a bogus targeting call against LSU.
In the first half of the season, Arkansas’ defense was known as an aggressive, ball-hawking, disruptive force nobody wanted to face. It’s now gotten to the point where Missouri football writers are calling it middle of the road to “slightly bad.”
Forget the storyline of Barry Odom going back to Missouri.
What matters most in this game is Arkansas’ defense going back to what it was.
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