Could a healthy Burks, big crowd key a Razorback victory?

Military Appreciation helmets for Saturday’s matchup / Arkansas Razorback Football

With a third of the schedule left to play, this has become a confounding season for the Arkansas Razorbacks, filled with highs and lows.

September was spectacular, featuring three victories over old Southwest Conference opponents Rice, Texas, and Texas A&M with a win over Georgia Southern thrown in for good measure.

But as sensational as September was the for the Razorbacks, October was just as awful.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Mississippi State
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Nov. 13 — at LSU
Nov. 20 — at Alabama
Nov. 26 — Missouri

The Hogs entered October riding high and ranked No. 8 in the nation, but a trip to Athens to face No. 1 Georgia brought all Razorbackers back to earth. The Bulldogs not only beat the Hogs 37-0, but they also beat them up.

The Razorbacks played well offensively in a 52-51 scoring fest at Ole Miss, but the wear-and-tear of the season began to show on defense. Arkansas’ starters can play with all but the elite in the college game, but depth is still lacking in Pittman’s second year on the job.

This fact was even more evident the following week in Fayetteville against an Auburn squad that was hitting its mid-season stride, while the Hogs were flat, just hanging on for a bye week that was on the horizon.

Arkansas out-gained Auburn yardage-wise, but had trouble converting third downs and finding the end zone. The Tigers pillaged Arkansas’ defense with big plays and ran away with a 38-23 victory in a game in which the Hogs were favored.

Overall this season has been a definite improvement over what Hog fans have suffered through in recent years. Pittman’s second squad stands 5-3 on the season but just 1-3 in SEC play going into Saturday’s 3 p.m. contest with the Mississippi Sate Bulldogs (5-3, 3-2 SEC) at Razorback Stadium.

Arkansas has already won more games this season than in two seasons under Pittman’s predecessor as head coach, Chad Morris. The Hogs also have two more victories than they managed against last year’s 10-game all-SEC schedule.

With four games left to play, the Razorbacks have a shot at being bowl eligible for the first time since 2016. The Hogs need just one victory to do it. Each successive win would just move the Hogs up a rung on the bowl pecking order.

Getting that one victory isn’t going to be easy, though.

Beyond Saturday’s matchup with Mike Leach’s surprisingly salty Bulldogs, the Razorbacks have back-to-back road trips to Alabama and LSU. They finish the regular season with a Black Friday matchup against Missouri in Fayetteville.

The Hogs are a five-point favorite against the Bulldogs on Saturday, but it’s hard to see why?

Mississippi State, which is ranked 17th in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, seems to be hitting a stride with successive victories over Vanderbilt and a sturdy Kentucky squad, which they dominated on the line of scrimmage in a surprisingly easy 31-17 victory.

When we last saw Arkansas in a meaningful game, the Hogs were barely holding on for dear life against Auburn in a disappointing performance.

Hog fans must hope an Arkansas squad that started so hot in September and flamed out so quickly in October is rejuvenated for a November run.

Can the Hogs flip the script on their season again?

Much depends on how Arkansas’ defense responds. As spectacularly as defensive coordinator Barry Odom’s defense performed in September, as a group they were M.I.A. in October.

Arkansas’ pass rush evaporated against the likes of Georgia, Ole Miss and Auburn, and with all-star safety Jalen Catalon out for the season with an injured shoulder, more and more tackles were missed with no one home on the back end to clean the mess up.

Odom’s drop-eight, umbrella zone confused Mississippi State a year ago, but that was before Will Rogers was calling the shots at quarterback.

Rogers was simply sensational last week against Kentucky completing 36 of 39 passes against the Wildcats. He has completed 327 of 435 passes this season for 2,890 yards and 19 touchdowns with 7 interceptions in what amounts to a ball-control passing attack.

“They’re very effective with it,” Pittman said of Kentucky’s short passing game. “I think every throw is a run. On third-and-2 [against Kentucky] and it was just a flare to the back and a first down.”

Running backs Joquavious Marks (252 yards rushing) and Dillion Johnson (248 yards rushing) rank among the Bulldogs’ top three receivers. Makai Polk leads the Bulldogs with 63 catches for 603 yards while Marks has 58 catches for 344 yards and Johnson has 42 receptions for 261 yards.

It will be pivotal for Odom to rally his troops to get the Bulldogs off the field in what shapes up to be a high-scoring game if the Hogs’ offense can move the ball against what has matured into a stout Mississippi State defense.
The Razorbacks advance the ball more traditionally with a rushing attack that’s fourth in the nation and second in the SEC with an average of 249 yards a game.

When healthy, quarterback K.J. Jefferson is as effective as any runner the Hogs have with 419 rushing yards on the season. Junior Trelon Smith leads the team in rushing with 459 yards and freshman Rocket Sanders has totaled 434.

However, it appears the Hogs’ largest and most physical rusher sophomore Dominique Johnson (6-1, 235) will get the start against the Bulldogs. While Johnson’s total of 309 yards with 4 TDS is fourth on the team in yardage, his average per carry is a whopping 7.9 yards per attempt. He’s also the Hogs’ best back at pass protection.

“You know the bottom line is whoever you run out there with the first group, those guys are supposed to be your best players at the time they’re running out there,” Pittman said. “And certainly think Dominique has earned that right.

“And Trelon Smith’s doing well. He’ll still play a lot of ball. But we certainly think Dominique has earned that right to be the first guy to run out there.”

That said Mississippi State specializes in stuffing the run, allowing just 89.4 yards a game, which is fifth in the nation and third in the SEC. Kentucky managed just 66 yards on the ground last week and suffered four turnovers.

“Our defense was real active up front,” Leach said of his defense’s Kentucky performance. “We felt it was important to affect the line of scrimmage on defense. We wanted to affect the quarterback. I thought the defensive linemen were able to do both of those things.”

As Pittman said Wednesday something has got to give.

The “X-factor” on the field for Arkansas might be Treylon Burks, the Hogs’ do-it-all receiver, who has had a fine season with 42 catches for 717 yards and 7 touchdowns, with a 17.1 yard-per-catch average. The 6-2, 225-pound athlete has played injured most of the season, but after a week off, he is as healthy as he has been all season.

Look for him to get the ball in a variety of ways Saturday against the Bulldogs, based on what Pittman said this week in his media appearances.

The “X-factor” off the field for the Hogs is the type of environment Arkansas fans create around the game. After four weeks of 11 a.m. kickoffs, the Razorbacks and their fans finally get an afternoon game to enjoy. Razorback Stadium can be electric when Hog fans are feeling right, but the question is will they bring it on Saturday? Their support is meaningful to the Hogs and could compound matters for the Bulldogs. The weather forecast is nearly perfect, calling for sunny skies and a high of 69. It should be an awesome afternoon for football.

Will the Hogs capitalize and punch their ticket to a bowl game for the first time since 2016 or will the Bulldogs punch the Hogs in the mouth and extend Arkansas’ SEC losing streak to four games?

We’ll find out Saturday.