Rushing game to be pivotal in Hog-Aggie Halloween showdown

Everyone loves a big pass play.

There’s nothing like seeing a receiver like Treylon Burkes make a one-handed touchdown grab like he did two weeks ago in the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 33-21 victory over Ole Miss.

It was as former Razorback coach Ken Hatfield used to say “a thing of beauty.”

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Texas A&M
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31
Where: College Station, Texas
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Nov. 7 – Tennessee
Nov. 14 – at Florida
Nov. 21 – LSU
Nov. 28 – at Missouri
Dec. 5 – Alabama

Except Hatfield’s Razorback teams were often called the Ground Hogs after his first season when leftover Lou Holtz-recruit Brad Taylor put the flex in Arkansas’ Wishbone offense with his strong arm as a senior.

Though Arkansas has had a number of prolific passers dot its history like Bill Montgomery, Joe Ferguson, Taylor, Clint Stoerner, Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson, the best Razorback teams have fielded strong running games, featuring backs like Harry Jones, Bobby and Bill Burnett, Dickie Morton, Ike Forte, Ben Cowins, Gary Anderson, James Rouse, Barry Foster, Madre Hill, and Darren McFadden among others.

While first-year Razorback coach Sam Pittman’s Hogs are off to a surprising 2-2 start in this Covid-19 infected and affected season, Arkansas’ running game has yet to live up to expectations because of the stout schedule featuring only SEC teams and a slow start by starting back Rakeem Boyd.

Georgia stuffed Arkansas’ running game in the season opener, and the following week Boyd went down with an injury that has sidelined or slowed him ever since. Boyd did play against Ole Miss, but the rust on his game was evident.

Boyd, who topped 1,000 yards rushing last year and has more than 2,000 yards in his two previous seasons with the Hogs, has been limited to 88 yards on 33 totes this season

Backup Treylon Smith held his own while Boyd was hurt. He’s rushed for 221 yards on 56 carries for a 3.9 yards per carry average behind an offensive line that has yet to come into its own this season.

Pittman, a career offensive line coach prior to this season, expects more from the Hogs running game that is slowly coming together, but it’s a matter of getting the unit to work as one.

“We’ll just have to continue to practice and get better,” Pittman said when asked how the Hogs can rev up their rushing attack. “We’ve been trying so we may need to… certainly we have enough runs and all those things.

“We just have to get better. Our backs have to be better. Our line has to be better. Our tight end has to better. Wideouts have to get to safeties better. I mean to have a running game, you have to have all 10 guys in there getting after it.

“Everybody on our team has to get better. Our backs have to break tackles. I mean that’s part of being a good back. All those things we have to continue to work on.”

The running game needs to come together if the Razorbacks (2-2) hope to upset the No. 8 Texas A&M Aggies (3-1) Saturday at Kyle Field in College Station. The contest is set to be televised on the SEC Network at 6:30 p.m.

The Aggies are ranked seventh in the nation at stopping the run allowing just 75.5 yards per game and just 2.75 yards per carry. The Aggies’ front seven is stout and their safeties are big and come down hill hard, playing the run like linebackers.

A&M’s defense showed up strong in a 28-14 win over Mississippi State, constantly applying pressure to the Bulldogs’ quarterback and racking up six sacks.

Senior defensive tackle Jayden Peevy was named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week after recording five tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery against Bulldogs. The Aggies will seek to clamp down on the Hogs offense, which averages just 373 total offense per game.

If Boyd and Smith can find a way to pick up yards on the Aggie’s stout front, it will make it that much easier on Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks to feed the ball to receivers Treylon Burks, Mike Woods, De’Vion Warren, and Trey Knox.

Franks has become more and more comfortable at the controls of the Razorbacks’ offense each week, but an effective running game would only make his job that much easier and Arkansas’ offense that much more potent.

The Razorbacks have thrived off their defensive play this season and their knack for intercepting passes. Arkansas ranks first in the country with 10 interceptions and is tied for first with three defensive touchdowns. The Razorbacks lead the SEC in third down conversion defense (32.4%), red zone defense (61.1%), passing efficiency defense (109.16), turnovers gained (13) and turnover margin (1.50).

However, none of the teams Arkansas has faced run the ball as effectively as the Aggies do behind a senior-laden offensive line and one of the SEC’s best back in Isaiah Spiller, who is averaging 6.72 yards per carry and has 430 rushing yards on the year.

Veteran Aggie quarterback Kellen Mond said his team counts on running game to spark the entire offense.

“It is a really key and important piece,” Mond said. “One of the things that we’ve done very well over the past couple weeks is that communication. Our offensive line, that chemistry and communication that they continue to have [is key], along with the receivers blocking down field. I think the whole run game has been really well for us because we’ve had all those pieces and a lot of people being unselfish, we need to continue doing that this week.”

The Razorbacks have excelled at slowing down opponents’ passing attacks by funneling everything into the middle of the field, but as strong as Georgia and Auburn’s ground game were, they aren’t as punishing as the Aggies’ rushing attack.

A&M’s rushing success sets up play-action opportunities for Mond, whom Pittman said Monday seemed like he had been quarterbacking the Aggies since well before the turn of the century.

It will be interesting to see what Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom has in store for the Aggies. Arkansas has been most effective this season working out of a three-man front, but that seems to be an unlikely deployment against a team that likes to run downhill like the Aggies.

Under Odom the Hogs have been adept at disguising their defenses, giving quarterbacks fits when scanning the Razorbacks’ back seven. It will be interesting to see what Odom has cooked up for Mond and whether the Hogs can execute it our not. Much will likely depend at how effective the Razorbacks are against the run.

As well as the Hogs have played, this Aggie team looks too tough for them on paper. We’ll just have to see how things go on the field.

Maybe Pittman and the Razorbacks can pull off a Halloween surprise on an A&M squad that looks like it might be the second or third best team in the SEC going into Saturday night’s game.