Hog fans should take time to wallow in Mississippi State victory with Auburn on horizon

Joe Foucha and Bumper Pool both earned SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The Arkansas Razorbacks turned the page on their 21-14 victory over Mississippi State after a review of the film and have their minds locked in on Saturday’s 3 p.m. date with No. 13 Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

That’s how it has to be for first-year head coach Sam Pittman, his staff and the Hogs. They can’t wallow in their victory any longer if they hope to have a chance against Auburn, a 16.5-point favorite.

However, there’s nothing wrong with Hog fans holding onto that wonderful feeling they had Saturday night when the Razorbacks halted their 20-game SEC losing streak with a gutsy defensive performance and just enough production on offense to come back home to Fayetteville a winner in SEC play for the first time in two and half seasons.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Auburn
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10
Where: Auburn, AL

Remaining schedule

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

It’s a good feeling. The sun’s a little brighter, the air’s a little fresher, and the vibe in general all across The Natural State is just a little bit more juicy when the Razorbacks win.

Certainly, if we pick the Hogs’ performance apart we can find dozens of concerning things that could trip them up later this season — as soon as Saturday — if they aren’t corrected and improved, but as fans that’s not really our worry. It’s OK to be excited about the Razorbacks’ success without worrying about what this Saturday will bring for a few more days.

Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek gave Pittman the game ball Saturday night, and that’s something he’ll no doubt cherish for years to come. Pittman toiled long and hard as a great assistant coach for decades before getting his opportunity to be a head coach on the major college level. That maturity has shown in various ways since he took over the Razorback program last December.

What Pittman knew when he took the job was how important putting together a coaching staff would be to reviving the Razorback program. Now, don’t get me wrong. The Razorbacks haven’t arrived with one win over a frankly overrated Mississippi State squad, but everyone of us saw Saturday night the difference in having an experienced and motivated defensive coordinator who knows how to direct his staff and guide his players in a game plan rather than one who was living off a reputation built in seasons gone by.

Razorback defensive coordinator Barry Odom and his staff put together an excellent game plan for Leach’s Bulldogs. Yes, it was borrowed from what Washington did to Leach’s Washington State’s teams in the recent past, but a coach knowing what needs to be done and actually getting a defense to accomplish it are two different things.

Odom and staff guided the Razorbacks to execute a plan against a program that had whipped Arkansas seven out of the previous eight seasons.

It was a masterfully executed plan that has me excited about Arkansas’ defensive prospects for the first time in a long time. The Hogs are leading the SEC in interceptions with four and turnovers gained. The Razorbacks currently rank second in the league in red zone defense (0.625). I understand it’s very early in what might be a brutal season for the Hogs, but that’s all the more reason why Arkansas fans should enjoy the success of last Saturday.

The Razorbacks rushed just three lineman and dropped the back eight into a variety of zone coverages that frustrated Mississippi State quarterback C.J. Costello. The game plan might have reminded longtime Hog fans of the bend-but-don’t break efforts that Ken Hatfield’s Hogs used to stymie Texas A&M in the back-to-back Cotton Bowl seasons of 1988 and 1989. As the old “A-Team” character Hannibal, played by George Peppard, used to say, “it’s beautiful when a plan comes together.”

Razorback linebackers Bumper Pool (20 tackles) and Grant Morgan (15 tackles) had a field day taking down Bulldog receivers and backs as the Hogs’ defensive backs forced Costello to check down all night.

When Costello got a bit greedy, the Razorbacks made them pay. Greg Brooks Jr.’s first-quarter 69-yard Pick 6 gave the Hogs the cushion they needed for the victory, and Joe Fuqua nabbed two other Costello throws in a highlight performance. Fuqua and Pool’s work earned them SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors.

One might opine that Arkansas’ defense might not have been as effective if Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill had not been injured early in the game. It’s a fair point. He burned LSU for 158 yards receiving in MSU’s season opener, and he would not have been an easy tackle catching passes underneath, but injuries happen, and teams must adjust. Just ask Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles.

First-half injuries to running back Rakeem Boyd and receiver Treylon Burks had the Hogs’ offensive coordinator working left-handed nearly the entire game. Boyd and Burks are arguably the Razorbacks two most talented and explosive offensive players. Their injuries no doubt impacted Briles’ plans and contributed to the sputtering play of the offense that had too many three-and-outs for anyone rooting for the Hogs’ comfort.

However, Briles and grad-transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks did not panic and made just enough happen for the Hogs to squeak out a much-needed and well-deserved victory.

Plaudits to senior wide receiver De’Vion Warren for stepping up big for the Razorbacks with four catches for 100 yards, including a 52-yard career-record catch and a touchdown reception. His big night has him ranked second in the SEC and seventh nationally in yards per catch at 25.6. That’s the way a senior steps up to help his teammates.

Franks was patiently effective at quarterback, completing an efficient 20 of 28 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns. He played within himself and didn’t try to force anything, which he had a tendency to do as a starter at Florida and even in the Razorbacks’ opener against Georgia.

While it’s fun to bask in that victory, tougher challenges do loom for the Razorbacks, much tougher ones.

The Bulldogs never really tried to run the ball at the Hogs. As great as Arkansas executed on defense last Saturday, I’m not sure how they would have stood up against a solid SEC running game. No doubt, Auburn will test the Hogs on the ground this week.

While the offense did just enough to get the win at Starkville under tough conditions with Burks and Boyd ailing, Briles must find a way for his unit to be more effective on first down, avoid so many three-and-outs, and put more points on the scoreboard. I’m not sure the Hogs’ defense will be able to hold a more balanced offensive attack to just two touchdowns.

Though Georgia squashed Auburn, 27-6, last week, expect the Tigers to be much more potent offensively against the Hogs. We know Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn loves sticking it to the Razorbacks after that difficult 2006 season he spent as offensive coordinator to Houston Nutt. Former Razorback head coach Chad Morris who is acting as a play-calling Robin to Malzahn’s Batman no doubt has similar animosity about his time in Fayetteville.

Ever wonder why Batman wears dark colors to blend into the shadows, while Robin is dressed in bright red, yellow, and green? Robin’s basically a day-glow flak jacket. Offensive coordinators at Auburn have served that same purpose for Malzahn.

Morris’ offense struggled mightily against Georgia, but that’s going to be a weekly occurrence for teams facing Kirby Smart’s stout Bulldogs this season. No doubt Malzahn and Morris see this as a get-right week for the No. 13 Tigers.

I’m not sure the Razorbacks have the offensive ammunition to withstand a shootout with Auburn, but I am highly interested in seeing what type of defensive game plan Odom devises for the Tigers.

Offensively, the Razorbacks, who start an incredibly young and inexperienced offensive line, need to build off their successes against the Bulldogs, but the Hogs desperately need to find a way to establish their running game against what is likely to be a stout Auburn defense. An effective running game would make it so much easier for Franks to keep the chains moving

At the moment, I don’t particularly like the Razorbacks’ chances against Auburn, but I felt the exact same way about Mississippi State this time last week.