The Mirror Magic Barry Odom Worked on the Razorbacks’ Defense is Wearing Off

Barry Odom

Watching Ole Miss score at will in the second half brought up bad memories of Columbia, Missouri, last year, when Arkansas’s 49 points after a converted two-point conversion in the final minute still wasn’t good enough to beat Missouri’s Tigers, who kicked the game-ending, game-winning field goal for 51. Saturday at Oxford, Mississippi,

Arkansas did exactly what it needed to do in a similar, wild affair — scoring with no time left on the clock before trying, like at Columbia, the two-point conversion that would give the Hogs an amazing win.

It failed, leaving Ole Miss in front 52-51. A heavy rush by two Ole Miss Rebels off the Hogs’ right side put the rolling quarterback, sophomore K.J. Jefferson, in retreat, and with an instant to make a decision with the ball, and no doubt resorting to what he’s done repeatedly in practice, he tried to give Treylon Burks a high ball to pull in amid four Rebels defenders, but it sailed.

It would have not counted if completed; the officials noted what fans can easily see if they watch the replay: left guard Brady Latham was 2 yards in the end zone as the pass was delivered, an illegal lineman downfield. Arkansas would have been penalized, would have kicked the PAT to tie, and who knows what happens in overtime?

Nobody, especially Hogs head coach Sam Pittman and the rest of the Razorbacks’ sideline, expected that to work out well, an overtime against mostly unstoppable Matt Corral and the Rebels’ offense. Even if Arkansas could exchange touchdowns with Ole Miss in the first two overtimes, it was going to come down to two-point attempts from the third overtime on, a new NCAA overtime rule in place. Might as well do it now with the momentum. 

Razorbacks’ Defense vs Ole Miss

Arkansas’s defense required Ole Miss to pretty much stop itself, and only the Rebs own illegal-man-downfield penalty late in the fourth quarter allowed the Hogs to regain possession for a drive to tie the score at 45 with 1:22 left. 

Two plays later, Corral had Braylon Sanders, again, running free behind the Arkansas secondary for another go-ahead score. Amazingly, given enough time, 67 seconds, Jefferson and the Hogs responded with a nine-play, 75-yard drive, setting up the dramatic do-or-die play.

The difference in last year’s game at Columbia was, the Tigers rallied from three scores down thanks to the suddenly porous Razorback defense in the second half. Missouri could run, easily, through enormous holes. For pass attempts, if the Hogs dropped back to defend, the Tigers QB, Connor Bazelak threw underneath for chunk yardage amid poor tackling Razorbacks. If the Hogs came up to defend the short stuff, Missouri threw over them.

Remember, this was Barry Odom’s Razorbacks defense that surprised everyone in the first four weeks of Covid-racked 2020, first by upsetting Mississippi State and Mike Leach’s air raid (which had itself shocked everyone the week before by blasting LSU in Baton Rouge) with the rush-three, drop-eight approach in Starkville. 

They rallied to almost take down Bo Nix and Auburn on the road, then returned home from that heart-breaker to put Corral in a stupor in Fayetteville, forcing six interceptions and a fumble. Later, the defense held its own against talented but underachieving Tennessee in Fayetteville, too, picking up the third and last win of the 2020 season. By the end of the year, though, the beaten-up Razorback defenders couldn’t stop Missouri and laid down for eventual national champion Alabama.

2021 has begun the same way for Odom’s defense with two stunning upsets (at least stunning to the national observers) in crushing Texas in Fayetteville and halting Texas A&M in the annual Arlington, Texas, neutral-site showdown, Arkansas’s first win over the Aggies in 10 years and made even more sweet this weekend with A&M’s shocking 41-38 upset of No. 1 Alabama in College Station, Texas.

But Georgia, which had a capable quarterback in Stetson Bennett, playing in place of starter J.D. Daniels, a pass-first signal caller, pulverized the Hogs’ three-man defensive front last week in a 37-0, run-heavy romp, one in which the Bulldogs saved most of their passes for their 34-10 win at Auburn on Saturday. 

Ole Miss saved nothing on Saturday. They dumped it all out there for the world to see, and the Razorbacks’ defense came off looking like a farce. Only the fact that Ole Miss’ identical approach, a 3-2-6 set, gave up 676 yards, a UA-record 39 first downs and 51 points made it a little more palatable for the fan base, we suppose. Arkansas couldn’t defend the pass and couldn’t tackle well. Somehow, the offense rose to the occasion and made it a game.

Lane Kiffin said Saturday’s game plan was 12 months in the making. They studied everything about the 3-2-6, including some different run calls used against Iowa State, which also has successfully employed a three-lineman, two-linebacker set in becoming a contender in the wild, offensive-happy Big 12. Corral had said in many interviews that his Arkansas disaster last year was the biggest motivator leading into this year. Safe to say, the game was always circled on the Rebels’ schedule by Kiffin and Corral.

That said, the Arkansas defensive backs still had three balls on their hands yesterday for possible interceptions and failed to hold on. They forced no fumbles. The Hogs have just one forced turnover — Montaric Brown’s interception that sealed the A&M win — in the past month. 

Some coaches believe turnovers are mostly luck, but Ole Miss was tackling and trying to strip the ball from the Hogs’ young backs, getting a turnover from freshman Raheim Sanders, who otherwise had a phenomenal game, averaging 8.2 yards a carry and gaining 139 yards.

Arkansas Defense Had a Fraudulent September?

One hates to label the Arkansas defense “a fraud,” knowing how much effort these players are expending.

Still, the pummeling by Georgia and the inability to even slow the Bulldogs’ running game, coupled with Saturday’s fiasco, is cause for more than a little worry at the halfway point of the season. Odom took the best pieces he had last year and cobbled together a defense that gave Hogs a fighting chance. 

It was exceptional against shaky offenses in the first four weeks. (The Hogs ran a four-front against run-heavy Rice and Georgia Southern, but stuck with the three-front against Georgia, which took the invitation and buried them).

It seems now that Odom has been doing it all with mirrors, hiding serious weaknesses that brilliant SEC coordinators (of which Arkansas’s Kendal Briles is one, rest assured) eventually see and attack relentlessly. Last year against Ole Miss, walk-on cornerback Hudson Clark had three interceptions, earned a scholarship the following week, and was Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Week for his amazing day. 

He certainly plays as hard as any Hog has, but no one is expecting him to land on an All-SEC team. When a starting defensive back went off hobbled late Saturday, Clark was inserted and Corral immediately went right at him for a big gain, only to see that play wiped out by the Rebels’ critical illegal-man-downfield call.

But one Razorback who did have eyes for all-conference honors, Brown, was badly burned twice Saturday, including the Rebs’ final touchdown pass to Sanders for 68 yards.

Also, the defense’s best player, sophomore safety Jalen Catalon, must be hobbled. There’s no other explanation for his fall-off from what was expected to be an all-league year and an early jump to the NFL. 

He donned a green jersey throughout August and early in the week before some of the September slate; Pittman won’t reveal any players’ injuries, however. But Pittman did mention that the defense is “banged up, battling through broken hands” and other hurts without specifying which player. Whether it’s a bad hand or a bum shoulder, we’re not seeing Catalon at his best.

When Catalon isn’t at 100%, the entire defense will suffer. He missed the first half at Missouri in 2020 because of a controversial ejection against LSU two weeks before, and even with his return for the second half at Columbia last year, the defense wasn’t the same. 

Grant Morgan, who had a brilliant senior year, had a knee injury and was done by that point (he’s come back as a “super” senior this year, but it must be hard to duplicate everything he managed in 2020).

Arkansas’ tackling has progressively worsened since the Texas victory. Pittman called Saturday’s tackling the worst of the season. Catalan has always been one of the bigger offenders of choosing the hard “hit” over a wrap-up tackle, but he had plenty of company on Saturday. 

Yes, Pittman assured, they practice tackling; but how does one simulate a 6-1, 225-pound human with 4.5 or better speed in preparation for Saturday in the SEC? You don’t. Tackling dummies and sleds can only provide so much. The inherent ability surfaces on game day, and the better man usually wins the matchup more often than not.

Then, there were times the Hogs were in no position to tackle. Those special runs Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby designed for the Hogs’ three-man front often left, for example, a monster left guard knocking a smallish linebacker out of the hole, and the safeties — still cautious of the Rebs’ passing game and not reading their keys properly — didn’t fill their run gaps quickly enough. Snoop Conner, running third on the Rebels’ depth chart, had carries untouched of 51 and 34 yards for easy scores in the second half.

Arkansas worked way harder for its offense and points than did Ole Miss. It seems to boil down to this: Ole Miss is better manned athletically on its defensive side, particularly in the defensive front, though to be fair the Rebels were missing their “Catalon” on Saturday in Jake Springer. 

When Hog defensive end Tre Williams went out with an arm injury, not to return, Arkansas had lost by far its best pass rusher and edge defender. Massive nose tackle John Ridgeway, like Williams an off-season senior grad transfer who has also bolstered the Hogs’ defensive line significantly, regularly takes on double-teams, and the ability of the centers and guards the past two weeks have been notably better than what he saw in the season’s first month.

The linebackers are the same hard-playing, give-everything guys they’ve had for years, it seems. There’s not a Dre Greenlaw or Scoota Harris available either. In fact, it doesn’t appear anyone else is there, which, if it doesn’t concern folks now, surely doesn’t bode well for next season when they’re gone.

Razorbacks’ Offense Nearly Saved the Day

The offense, embarrassed as much as the defense was at Athens, bounced back for a phenomenal game against its defensive-alignment counterpart and put up unbelievable numbers, including Jefferson at times looking Cam Newton-like with a 6-yard dive over the goal line in the first half or ball wizardry and moves to run it in from 9 yards out to tie the game at 45.

His passing is a work in progress, but it’s getting closer, as you can see in the full breakdown here:

Jefferson, who ran for 85 yards and threw for 326, will learn from Saturday, too. He sailed a sure touchdown pass over Razorback receiver Warren Thompson in the end zone in the third quarter when momentum seemed to be shifting after Kiffin had foolishly tried a fourth-and-1 run from his 34 that the Hog defense stopped, its biggest play of the game. 

Arkansas stalled and settled for a field goal to tie the game at 24. It was all touchdowns for either side after that. Arkansas scored on 8 of 8 trips in the red zone, converted 7 of 13 third-downs, and both fourth-down tries. Ole Miss, with 52 points, only had three drives reach the red zone, where they converted. Those big plays by Ole Miss were killer for Arkansas.

Pittman noted the fight of his team, in every facet. There will be no finger pointing at the defense by the offense, or vice versa, ever. That’s how a program maintains its internal integrity. Anyway, these players know as well as anyone what they really have. They’re not going to say that Odom may have run out of cards to play, but it’s obvious he’s without many aces hiding in his sleeve. Arkansas has to figure out the best way to stop SOMETHING by a well-balanced foe, and it probably would center first on running.

As a former Hog, Rick David, said to me after the game, the keys are: Stop the run, tackle well, and run the ball. Arkansas did just one of those well Saturday. The Auburn game this Saturday (11 a.m., CBS) looms larger than ever for these Razorbacks. 

Pittman said one of the team’s goals is still prominently in view: Win their home games. Hold serve against Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri, and include the expected win they should manage against UAPB in Little Rock on Oct. 23, and Arkansas equals its most wins in the past nine years. It becomes bowl eligible before Halloween. Steal won next month at LSU, which is watching the Ed Ogeron era crumble, and this wild regular season could finish with nine wins, which was unthinkable by most observers and experts in August.

Jim Harris has covered the Arkansas Razorbacks since 1976 for such publications as the Arkansas Gazette and websites like ArkansasSports360.com. He appears every Saturday night on KTHV, Channel 11’s “The HogZone.”

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