Now that COVID-19 has had the last laugh, and Feleipe Franks looking like a lock to enter the NFL Draft, the biggest question left in the 2020 Razorback football season is whether Jonathan Marshall will join him or return for 2021.
The AP All-SEC defensive lineman was a revelation this season, helping spearhead an attack that could disrupt the run games of opposing offenses when that was the focus. In an otherwise forgetful season finale, Marshall and defensive teammates, along with a wet turf, showed out against Alabama’s superstar tailback Najee Harris by holding him to 3.3 yards per carry — less than half of his 5.9 average on the year.
Marshall was a big reason that Arkansas was set to win the Texas Bowl that was canceled today. Too many TCU players, unfortunately, tested positive for the coronavirus. Also unfortunate: TCU decided to announce its results this afternoon, right as Arkansas was set to leave for Houston. That left practically no time left to schedule a replacement.
Translation:— Barstool Arkansas (@BarstoolUA) December 29, 2020
“we don’t want any smoke” https://t.co/RwbLxTDF4h
“Don’t you think TCU probably had a good idea earlier in the week that it might be trending in this direction,” analyst Danny West asked sports radio host John Nabors. “A little bit of heads up might’ve been nice, right?
“So maybe you could get out in front of it and potentially reschedule or schedule another opponent. I think the timing of it was pretty unfortunate. Arkansas was literally getting on an airplane about to head that way. And I think the buses had already made it to Houston.”
When Vegas looked at this game and made TCU a 4.5 favorite, they saw two teams going in opposite directions in November and early December. They saw a Horned Frogs team that had won five of six games and an Arkansas squad that had lost four games in a row.
But most Vegas insiders don’t look deeply enough at context. Few cared that Arkansas’ recent losses were at the hands of nearly perfectly balanced offenses (Florida, Missouri, Alabama) or because the Hogs had been smited by the COVID-19 and referee gods (LSU).
TCU, however, isn’t a balanced offense.
It’s a “one-trick pony” based on the ground game, as former Razorback quarterback Clint Stoerner put it. On the season, TCU averaged 214.7 rushing yards per game behind dual-threat quarterback Max Duggan and running backs Darwin Barlow, Zach Evans and Kendre Miller — all of whom averaged at least 5.9 yards per carry.
Their plan coming into the Texas Bowl should have been to ground and pound between the tackles, but Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom had two weeks to scheme against that.
Odom had a mostly healthy roster of defenders to deploy, since no positive cases for the Hogs were announced heading into the game. That meant Marshall and fellow run stuffers like Isaiah Nichols, Xavier Kelly, Dorian Gerald, Zach Williams and Eric Gregory would have been ready to crowd the line of scrimmage and keep TCU to short gains on early downs, forcing them into passing plays where the Frogs are much weaker.
The key, as Stoerner saw it, was to force Duggan into passing plays where he had to face seven or eight defenders in coverage while star linebackers Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool covered ground in the mid-range game. “If they stop the run early and force them into those situations, it’s advantage Arkansas in a big, big way,” he said on the Buzz 103.7 FM.
Sure, TCU has a few weapons at wide receiver. The 6’4” Quentin Johnson is especially dangerous. But, as a group, they aren’t as formidable as what Arkansas’ better SEC opponents deploy.
“I think Arkansas is the better football team,” added Stoerner, now a Houston-based SEC and NFL analyst. All they needed to do was stop TCU early on downs and keep Duggan from breaking long ones (just as they contained Auburn’s Bo Nix earlier in the year). “At that point, Jalen Catalon and company go and make plays, and I think it’s advantage to Arkansas.”
The table was set.
Arkansas’ defense was ready to feast. Beat reporter Otis Kirk knew it, too:
People have asked me who I thought would have won the bowl game. I picked Arkansas in my story the other day. The truth is Arkansas was healthiest they have been since the Georgia game. We will never know now, but when I do my score pick I was going with Hogs 42, TCU 21.— Otis Kirk (@OtisKirk23) December 29, 2020
While Barry Odom’s defenses could be shredded against well-balanced offenses this year, they proved more than up to the task when handling other “one-trick pony” offenses like Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
The fact TCU is a ground-based attack instead of an aerial one would not have changed the final result.
Listen to John Nabors’ full podcast on the cancellation and other timely issues below. He and Danny West discuss:
Whether a replacement game could be found (at the 7:40 mark)
If Jonathan Marshall will return in 2021 (11:30)
The significance of Myron Cunningham and De’Vion Warren coming back (12:00):
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