Who Really Deserves the Blame for the Razorbacks’ Recent Struggles

Kendal Briles and Barry Odom don't deserve the lion's share.

Scott Fountain

Immediately after Arkansas’s third straight loss of the season, a 38-23 “upset” on Saturday at the hands of unranked Auburn at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, much of Hog Nation took to social media to vent about the defeat: their reasoning centered on SEC officiating and one-sided calls, naturally, and Razorback offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, especially. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom wasn’t spared much, either, though his defense allowed 21 points less than a week earlier in Mississippi.

Unlike Auburn, though, Odom’s defense didn’t score a touchdown, and in fact failed to force a fumble for the fifth straight game. Montaric Brown’s interception late in the first half seemed to ignite the Hogs’ fight to get back in the game.

Unfortunately, it was just the defense’s second takeaway (the other also being a Brown interception to clinch the win over Texas A&M) in more than a month.

A week earlier, Briles’ play-calling and the execution of his offensive stars had led to 51 points and 676 yards of total offense, a school-record 39 first downs, and a day in which K.J. Jefferson not only redeemed himself for the whole team’s faceplant at Georgia, but restored his standing as one of the SEC’s best threats.

Against Auburn, however, Briles’ play selection was judged lacking as it didn’t allow Jefferson a chance to outshine his counterpart, Auburn’s Bo Nix, who had a near-perfect day.

Quite a turnaround from the week before, when Briles was the coordinator Hog Nation wanted to keep and Odom, whose defenses had shut down Texas and Texas A&M to national acclaim in September, was the one the faithful had determined had lost it with the fizzle they saw in 2020.

So it goes in Razorback land, as it does in college football from coast to coast: The blame for losing or credit for winning all falls on the coaching staff, and at Arkansas the Razorbacks already face an uphill struggle taking the field every Saturday with SEC officials. (I grew up hearing the blame put on the all-Texas Southwest Conference officials, and Lord knows they did seem to blow their share of calls, as do the SEC guys. At least Hog fans don’t shower the field with plastic water bottles and golf balls at the slightest provocation like the put-upon Tennessee fan base in the clip below.)

Truth is, and not to fully repeat last week, Barry Odom’s been disguising the deficiencies and doing the best with what he’s got since he arrived as Sam Pittman’s defensive coordinator and coaching right-hand man. 

Barry Odom’s Plan

To defend the pass adequately, Odom felt Arkansas needed to play mostly zone and drop eight defenders, at times playing a back line of three safeties, and it worked marvelously early last season in ending the program’s 20-game SEC losing streak. This year, the Hogs beefed up their defensive line with graduate transfers to complement their adequate-at-best linebackers and did a surprisingly good job stopping the run for the entire month of September. 

However, it was a key point that should have been noticed throughout by the Hog faithful, that Arkansas did not face a quarterback who could beat them while receivers still seemed to run free in the gaps of the zone coverage and sometimes got beyond the three deep safeties.

Multidimensional offenses expose even the best defenses now. Alabama won the national title last year and yet gave up 48 points at Ole Miss. Teams simply can’t cover everything if the offense can do it all. Offenses have the advantage, and offensive holding often appears to go ignored. Seven-on-seven games regularly break out on fields where teams used to run 60 times a game and throw maybe 20.

Even Georgia, as great as it is on defense, has a hole here and there that, like in the case against Kentucky on Saturday, can be exposed — obviously Georgia is not going to give up 52 points, much less more than 13 on most Saturdays. 

A team like Arkansas, already with what seems like never-ending talent and depth issues on defense, must pick its poison. In preparation for Georgia and the expectation of seeing passer J.D. Daniels at quarterback, and do-everything quarterback Matt Corral of Ole Miss the following week, Odom’s roll of his not-loaded dice was to defend the pass and bend to the run. As we know now, they were broken, and any confidence that might have carried over from September was erased.

A sudden lack of discipline and “gap integrity” may have cost the Hogs worse than Barry Odom could have imagined, especially against Ole Miss in giving up 324 yards on the ground. 

So even he knew — without social media or Sam Pittman having to tell him — that he had to take from the secondary to beef up the defensive front against Auburn, which was considered a stronger running than passing team through the first half of the season.

The additional help up front, giving Arkansas six men in the box and gambling with safety help, allowed the Razorbacks to hold Auburn to 3.9 yards per carry from its talented tandem of Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter. That was outstanding. 

That Wiley Bo Nix

Just the same, Arkansas couldn’t willy-nilly blitz quarterback Bo Nix (called “low-ceiling” last week by Clint Stoerner) because of his ever-improving, dangerous scrambling ability. His ability to buy time to find elusive receiving targets with backyard ball perplexed LSU two weeks ago, and at times was effective even in a 34-10 loss at home to Georgia’s superhuman defense.

But the trade-off was one less Hog in coverage, even more space than usual in the seams and two other major problems: Star safety Jalen Catalon, obviously playing injured, was done for the season with shoulder repair this week, and a new hamstring injury kept starting cornerback LaDarrius “Day-Day” Bishop on the sideline all day Saturday.

The Hogs also were down some upfront muscle and speed in senior lineman Markell Utsey, who was hurt (undisclosed location of injury) in Wednesday’s practice.

Nix shredded the Hogs’ pass defense for 12 of 14 completions in the first half; he “cooled off” to a mere 9 or 12 in the last 30 minutes. Auburn jumped up by two scores, 14-3, in the game’s first 20 minutes, which may have taken the sell-out crowd of 73,370 out for a spell. 

Jefferson, brilliantly using the clock as the first half wound down, led the Razorbacks to half-ending and second half-beginning scores to turn the momentum around, both touchdowns coming on passes (11and 30 yards) to Treylon Burks.

The Razorbacks, on the game, converted 10-of-19 third downs against Auburn, including 7-of-11 third-down tries of 6 yards or longer. That was the most effective third down rate against Auburn this season.

But they couldn’t leverage those conversions to build a buffer on the scoreboard.

Razorbacks’ Offense Hits Speed Bump

But up 17-14, the Hogs had two possessions to move up by 10.

They not only failed, but managed to gift-wrap the Tigers a touchdown when Jefferson was sacked and stripped in his end zone. 

So, some fans blame Briles for those failures. In fact, Auburn sacked Jefferson twice in a row inside the 12-yard line by rushing four and keeping LB close as a spy on Jefferson, against the Hogs’ five-man front and a tight end helping — four on six. The senior left tackle, Myron Cunningham, lost his man for the sack and strip of Jefferson, while center Ricky Stromberg had been beaten on the previous play.

This was a constant throughout the day. Briles called plays that would total 460 yards (a nice balance of 232 rushing, 228 passing). But on the decisive plays, it was Auburn’s defense that was more often the winner, particularly against the Razorback linemen. 

That is merely the better, faster, stronger athlete winning. There are no magic wands of Sam Pittman and Briles to wave over that offense, just as there aren’t any for Odom to wave over the defense.

As Pittman would attempt to explain after the game, they have players and they can run misdirection plays and they can get the ball in their playmaker Burks’ hands at times, and they can get their mostly young backs into creases when teams worry more about Jefferson’s big-arm ability, but this is what they have. “They whipped us physically on both sides of the ball,” Pittman said.

Razorbacks Drop Too Many Balls

Briles didn’t drop the ball when he dialed up the perfect play call that had senior wideout De’Vion Warren all alone at the Auburn sideline deep in Tiger territory, and he didn’t hold when Warren’s shoulder pad grab while blocking negated several more yards on a sideline pass completion few plays before the drop. 

Briles didn’t muff a slew of other passes that helped halt drives. The Warren drop came just before the fourth-and-3 failure. A first-quarter drop at the sideline by Warren Thompson led to a Cam Little field goal to get Arkansas on the board.

We’ll remind you, in case you forgot during that 4-0 start: The Hogs also had a bad habit of dropping passes then. They just didn’t come against the quality of opponents they’re facing now. They’re more meaningful, more critical.

So, it’s hard to understand the fans’ frustration other than they want something or someone to blame and look for their easiest target. Were those really the wrong plays called on those two fourth-down attempts in Auburn territory when the game was in the balance? From these eyes, it looks like the calls were good, the execution was poor. 

On fourth-and-1, even with Jefferson in the shotgun formation and handing it off to the exciting, improving freshman Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, the play was blown up when Auburn’s nose tackle did what any well-coached defensive lineman does on fourth-and-1: He went low and submarined the center, and the other Tigers linemen followed suit, and proved once against that low man wins. 

Sanders still appeared to get the ball awfully close to the first-down line, but the line judge ruled him a couple of chain lengths short and the replay booth wouldn’t overturn the judgement. (Arkansas fans also hollered en masse when an apparent fumble in the first quarter deep in Tigers’ territory was ruled by replay as forward progress being stopped when the runner, Bigsby, was lifted off the ground by Jashaud Stewart.)

In the third quarter, Arkansas faced a fourth-and-3 from the Auburn 29, down 21-17 after a Jefferson fumble in his end zone that resulted in a Tigers touchdown. The Hogs answered gallantly on the ensuing drive, overcoming the receiver’s offensive holding call and wide open pass drop. Still, it came down to another fourth-down gamble against a defensive line that won the first quarter and seemed to be regaining its edge.

The play call, it appears from Pittman’s explanation later, was for Jefferson to pitch the ball to a speed back running right, but instead Jefferson kept toward a hole in the middle that closed fast — all holes closed faster Saturday than they had in any game this season save Georgia, Auburn’s ability on that side is a significant step up from the Ole Miss defense. 

Jefferson got nothing, and Auburn then immediately went for the home run and connected, Nix to Demetris Robertson for 71 yards, the ball settling into Robertson’s hands just beyond the reach of cornerback Hudson Clark. 

Surely Clark would have never been left out on an island in coverage against faster receivers. One of the safeties must have bit on Nix’s play-action fact. It had worked earlier on Auburn’s first drive of the game, when Nix again put the perfect amount of air under a deep throw to Ja’Varrius Johnson on a deep corner route for a 39-yard score. Catalan’s replacement, Myles Slusher, might have peeked into the backfield on the play-action fake, and Greg Brooks Jr., covering Johnson, had given up inside leverage on the deep cross. 

There needed to be two Hogs in position to defend the ball, and they weren’t there. Auburn, in this case and a few others, had too much speed.

But too many of the faithful believe that if the players were just coached better, they’d succeed.

Should Treylon Burks Return to Special Teams?

Maybe they should start blaming bad luck. One play that didn’t cost Arkansas the game but had a big part in it with a major shift in field position came in the third quarter, when punt catcher Nathan Parodi chose not to field a punt near the Hogs’ 30 — coming off the field he told Pittman he lost it in the sun. 

Games that start at 11 a.m. will put that sun in an awkward position throughout the three-hour game time, and Arkansas lucked into three straight 11 a.m. starts, with another this coming Saturday in Little Rock against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

Failing to field that punt ended up seriously costing the Hogs, as the ball bounded to the 11. After a short run by Sanders and the consecutive sacks of Jefferson by a riled-up Auburn defense, the second sack dislodging the ball from the quarterback, the Tigers were back in front to stay.

This would lead to maybe the one glaring question worth asking since Week 2 of the season: While the sure-handed Parodi is to be thanked for being able to catch punts he can see, why is Arkansas wasting at least one major weapon for gaining an edge? 

The Razorback staff has often said it wants the ball in Treylon Burks’ hands as much as he can get it. Then special teams coordinator Scott Fountain and Pittman should return him to punt returner. That’s where he started as a freshman, when reeled off nearly 11 yards per return.

The staff should also quite trying to teach him how you want him to catch punts because the way he did it (with a wide receiver’s form) didn’t “look right.” Put Burks, or somebody, back there who CAN catch and CAN get 10, 15 or more yards on a return, or pose a threat to break one for a touchdown.

The line for winning is so thin for Arkansas week in and week out against this schedule. Pittman, Fountain and the rest of the staff need to be examining any edge they can get to steal more yardage and perhaps and extra score or two to make the difference. 

Give opponents a reason to fear an Arkansas punt return the way Alabama did with Heisman Trophy winner Devonta Smith last year.

CBS Commentators play Blame Game, Too

Arkansas fans who watched the game via CBS’ broadcast Saturday could use the CBS commentators, former coach Rick Neuheisel and former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, as ammunition in their critique of the coaching: Neuheisel, in particular, wondered why Arkansas was playing a safety in deep coverage on Auburn’s final meaningful possession, the Tigers up 8, instead of committing all out to man-to-man coverage and playing “zero coverage” — that is, the free safety instead of deep playing up on a receiver man-to-man, and more defenders added to “the box.”

Fair question.

Sam Pittman, unlike Bobby Petrino well before him as UA head coach, does all the talking for his staff and the coordinators don’t meet with the media after the game or during the week. So I’ll take a stab at what Odom might say if he could: Without Jalen Catalon playing, and committing, say, Simeon Blair to man-to-man coverage in that position, that is not a winning strategy. Neither, of course, was playing Blair 20 yards deep on the snap in which Nix still ran the quarterback draw, faked Blair nearly into a collision with defensive end Eric Gregory, and put the finishing cap on Auburn’s 38-23 win with his 23-yard scoring run..

Again, the Razorbacks are doing this right now with four starters on defense who began their careers at walk-ons. This is no slam on walk-ons. It’s great when a Brandon Burlsworth comes from nowhere to become an All-American and NFL Draft pick. It’s great to see walk-ons have key roles as backups, or maybe see one blossom into a star on the team. 

Linebacker Grant Morgan had an amazing, completely unexpected senior year last year, and he’s back off injury for his “super senior” year. He and sixth-year linebacker Hayden Henry are giving every drop they’ve got to give as Hogs.

While Arkansas has 4- and 3-star defensive backs sitting on the bench, sophomore former walk-on Hudson Clark will do what the coaches ask more often, it seems, than any other defensive back on the team and at least attempt to be in the right place. Yes, he’s targeted often, but he’s not the only Arkansas DB that opponents have a bead on.

All these and plenty other walk-ons should have a place on the roster and in providing depth, but in the SEC no team should be relying on four former walk-on defensive starters, along with two more on offense and believe the program is “back.” The fans shouldn’t either. They should bide their time and allow this staff to replenish the roster as it should be.

That Pittman and his staff coached Arkansas to a 4-0 start, with two wins over teams with many more high school all-Americans, and has competed deep into the fourth quarter these past two weeks against Ole Miss on the road and a much more talented Auburn team at home Saturday, is incredible.

But some of the faithful would rather blame the coaches for the failure to win this month against a stretch of games that everyone in August knew would be taxing almost beyond belief.

Ahead, the Razorbacks get to play a struggling Arkansas-Pine Bluff in Little Rock on Saturday, with no excuse not to empty the bench early and often (we especially want to see some new linebackers, if there are any, and some little-used offensive linemen), before taking a much-needed week off with a bye week. 

Razorback Injuries

A lot of players need to heal — Pittman doesn’t want to ever sound like he’s making excuses for an 0-3 October, but his team truly is beaten up, and the confidence of late September has been beaten down, too. K.J. Jefferson missed the first two days of practice last week after his heroics at Oxford. 

Who knows if or when starting right tackle Dalton Wagner will return. Starting running back Trelon Smith has been hurting. Spectacular receiver Treylon Burks may be at his healthiest now, which is why he should go be summoned to help give special teams a much-need jolt. Still, he’s taken a beating with the amount of times the Hogs put the ball in his hand on offense alone.

Catalan won’t be back, but the Hogs should get Utsey back in three weeks, and the small rotation of three senior linebackers could use the time to heal for the stretch run. The secondary, which apparently doesn’t have nearly as much depth as forecast in preseason, has aches and pains that need to be tended to as well.

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