There was nothing all that surprising about the final score in the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 37-10 loss to No. 4 Georgia last Saturday. Kirby Smart’s squad beat his former protege Sam Pittman’s Hogs just about as expected.
The same can’t be said for the outcome of the LSU-Mississippi State game. Mike Leach’s Bulldogs not only shocked the whole state of Louisiana by whipping the defending national champion Tigers, 44-34, but also the entire football-watching nation.
We already knew the Razorbacks had the toughest college football schedule in Western history, but I don’t think many outside of Mississippi State’s locker room expected the Bulldogs to burst out of the gates in such a stunning fashion.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Mississippi State
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3
Where: Starkville, Miss.
TV: SEC Network Alt
Oct. 10 – at Auburn
Oct. 17 – Ole Miss
Oct. 31 – at Texas A&M
Nov. 7 – Tennessee
Nov. 14 – at Florida
Nov. 21 – LSU
Nov. 28 – at Missouri
Dec. 5 – Alabama
Pittman might ought to have an air-raid siren blaring during warmups this week in practice rather than MSU’s fight song.
Under Leach’s direction transfer quarterback K.J. Costello went from being a no-namer in most circles to the all-too-early contender in the Heisman Trophy race by running LSU’s usually formidable defense ragged with an SEC record-setting 623 yards passing in his first game with the Bulldogs.
My question and every other Razorback fans’ is how good will this kid be with another week of practice under his belt.
Seeing the final score of Mississippi State’s victory had to be a sobering moment for Razorback fans. The Bulldogs were one of the teams most Arkansas fans thought the Hogs might have a chance of beating on its murder’s row schedule.
Surely, the Bulldogs would still be struggling with the intricacies of Leach’s offense in the second game of the season? Maybe the Hogs could be opportunistic and go into Starkville, Miss. and steal a game before the Bulldogs had fully acclimated to Leach’s system?
Unfortunately, that’s not going to be the case. If the Razorbacks do return to Fayetteville with a victory this weekend, it will be a hugely surprising upset. Tuesday morning the Bulldogs are a 17-point favorite and have vaulted to No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25. I am in no way an expert on odds making, but I see the line moving up during the week as the money starts rolling in on the Bulldogs, unless Mississippi State faces some kind of Covid-19 disaster this week.
As for the Hogs, there are still more questions than answers coming out of the weekend. For two and a third quarters, the Razorbacks’ defense gave a monumental effort. It was really the best an Arkansas defense had looked since having a top-10 unit in 2014, but as the Hogs continued to struggle on special teams and offense, that effort wore down and finally out as Georgia got a handle on its quarterbacking situation with backup Stetson Bennett at the controls.
No doubt, Arkansas’ kicking game coordinator Scott Fountain will be looking hard for answers this week. There was nothing special about the Razorbacks punt- and kick-return units in the opener, allowing Georgia to start drives between the 40s throughout the second half. Georgia also blocked a punt which is totally unacceptable, even once in a season.
Part of the issue, though, was Arkansas’ offense that found no breathing room in the second half as Georgia continued to squeeze the Razorbacks like a vice. Arkansas’ running game was stonewalled all day. Other than quarterback Feleipe Franks’ improvised 49-yard touchdown pass to Treylon Burks, the Hogs were basically stymied in the passing game too as Georgia generally tackled Arkansas’ receivers where they made the catch.
For the Hogs to have pulled off an upset or even to have been in striking distance, they would have had to have played a nearly perfect game, and that wasn’t the case with three interceptions.
Franks threw two, one on a ball that sailed on him and the other on a play where Arkansas’ receivers messed up their routes. The third was on a half-back-type pass from Burks that he should have thrown out of bounds with his intended target bracketed by defenders. It amounted to a punt, though.
Razorback fans had to be enthused by the effort on defense, particularly in the first half. The ineffectiveness of Arkansas’ offense and their struggles in the kicking game had as much to do with the defensive collapse in the third and fourth quarters as anything.
Pittman noted Monday that the defense needs to substitute more to remain fresher, but the offense’s inability to establish anything against a stout Georgia defense was complicit in the Razorbacks’ wearing down on defense.
Pittman knows that, but he’s not ready to abandon the up-tempo nature of his offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ offense after a tough outing that was frankly expected.
When asked Monday if the Razorbacks would settle into a more conventional rate of offensive play to protect the defense, Pittman shook his head and said no. He’s not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater just, yet.
Longtime Razorback fans will remember that is exactly what Houston Nutt had the Hogs do back in 2006 when Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense spit and sputtered through the early portion of what turned out be a 10-4, SEC West championship season.
Though he wasn’t able to run his preferred offense exactly as he wanted, Malzahn excelled as a play-caller in a season where the skill and talents of Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, and Peyton Hillis were maximized on a run to the SEC title game.
Unfortunately, this Razorback squad isn’t blessed with that type of backfield talent — few and arguably no other Razorback teams have been — or with a mature offensive line. The Hogs are expected to start two redshirt freshmen in Brady Latham (6-5, 284) and Beaux Limmer (6-5, 293) at the offensive guards and two sophomores Ricky Stromberg (6-4, 311) at center and Noah Gatlin (6-7, 307) at tackle along with senior Myron Cunningham (6-6, 325) at the other tackle. That’s a lot of youth and inexperience for a position group that tends to thrive on mature and experienced bodies and minds.
Mississippi State’s defense isn’t as stout across the board as Georgia’s, but Arkansas’ self-inflicted issues on offense have to be cleaned up this week if the Hogs are to even have a chance of running with Leach’s high-octane Bulldogs.
I’m assuming the Razorbacks will play better on special teams. They must. You don’t dedicate a coaching position — a coordinator’s position at that — to special teams like Pittman has to have the results that showed up on the field last Saturday no matter how good the opponent was.
Defensively, Razorback defensive coordinator Barry Odom has his work cut out for him. The Razorbacks really did look good, flying around the field, hitting, and tackling in the first half, but that said, Georgia’s quarterback play in the first half was subpar.
That will not be the case Saturday at Starkville based on the Bulldogs’ first game under Leach with Costello flinging the ball. Just ask LSU fans.