Hogs look to add gravy to their season against LSU

Arkansas linebacker Grant Morgan is a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, a semifinalist for the Burlsworth Trophy, and a semifinalist for the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award.

Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Everything tastes better with gravy, and that’s what the Arkansas Razorbacks are playing for Saturday when they visit Baton Rouge, La. to face the LSU Tigers at 6:30 p.m. in Tiger Stadium.

Sam Pittman’s Hogs (6-3, 2-3 SEC) earned their meat and potatoes last week with a thrilling come-from-behind 31-28 victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs to become legitimately bowl eligible for the first time since 2016.

Yes, the Razorbacks received a bowl bid last year with just three victories under relaxed conditions because of the covid-19 pandemic, but an outbreak of the virus in TCU’s program nixed the game before it could be played.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. LSU
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13
Where: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Nov. 20 — at Alabama, 2:30 p.m. (CBS)
Nov. 26 — Missouri, 2:30 p.m. (CBS)
Bowl game — TBD

Barring some type of catastrophe, the Hogs will go bowling this holiday season. When and where is yet to be determined, and that’s where the gravy comes in.

Every Razorback victory during the final three weeks of the regular season will only add to the Hog’s bowl resume and move them up the pecking order in the bowl selection process. Every win adds a bit more flavor to the Hogs’ postseason menu, just like slathering some creamy gravy on your morning biscuits.

Though the Razorbacks are currently in sixth place in the SEC West, there is still a good bit of football to be played this season. The Razorbacks have an outside chance of earning a New Year’s Day bowl birth by running the table this week at LSU, Nov. 20 at Alabama, and Nov. 6 against Missouri in Razorback Stadium, as unlikely as that may seem.

The big obstacle to such a fairy-tale ending to the regular season is that trip to Tuscaloosa to face No. 3 Alabama (8-1, 5-1). The Hogs haven’t beaten the Crimson Tide since 2006, the year before Nick Saban took over the program. Arkansas has only rarely played Alabama close during that span.

But first things, first. Arkansas’ date with LSU (4-5, 2-4 SEC) is daunting enough for the Hogs. The Bayou Bengals hold a five-game winning streak over the Razorbacks, dating back to Arkansas’ 31-14 upset of the No. 9 Tigers in Death Valley in 2015, which just happened to be Pittman’s final season as the Hogs’ offensive line coach before he matriculated to Georgia.

This has not been an ideal season for LSU. Head coach Ed Orgeron, who served on the Razorbacks’ strength and conditioning staff under coach Ken Hatfield in from 1986-87, will guide the Tigers the remainder of the season, but his contract has already been bought out for a total of $18 million because of the program’s displeasure with outcomes and incidents on and off the football field.

Earlier in the week, Orgeron reminisced about his time at Arkansas and gravy.

“Think about this, I made $25 every two weeks, that was my check,” Orgeron said. “It was a great experience. My first time in Division I football. They let me be a strength coach, assistant strength coach.

“I lived in the dormitory, and remember going [to the cafeteria]. You get to eat so I go and eat. Then, I walk there on a Saturday morning, and I saw something white, a big bowl of white stuff. I ask my partner. I said, ‘what is that?’ He said, ‘that’s gravy.’ I said nuh-uh. Gravy ain’t white where I’m from.”

The big question going into Saturday’s game is what kind of impetus do the Tigers have to play. LSU challenged mighty Alabama last week, giving the Crimson Tide all they wanted in a 20-14 contest. Despite the fact that Saturday’s winner will take possession of the Golden Boot Trophy for the following year, LSU has never really seen the Razorbacks as a rival. That distinction belongs to Alabama competitively and Ole Miss traditionally.

Straight up, LSU has the more talented roster, but that doesn’t mean the Tigers are a better team than the Razorbacks, who have already matched or exceeded the expectations of the majority of their fanbase with six victories this season.

Again this game is gravy for the Hogs. A victory only enhances what has been a solid season.

Oddsmakers have made Arkansas a slight 2.5-point favorite in the contest. The expectation is for another competitive ballgame.

The Tigers threw a bevy of blitzes at Alabama, which made things tough for the Crimson Tide’s sophomore quarterback Bryce Young. One should expect LSU to try and shake up Arkansas’ sophomore starter K.J. Jefferson in a similar fashion.

How well Jefferson handles the pressure will be key to the Hogs’ fortunes.

“When teams are blitzing like LSU does — and they’re very successful getting in the backfield causing chaos — the main thing is just getting the ball out of my hands as quick as possible,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson’s greatest pressure release, of course, is junior All-American candidate Treylon Burks, who continues to climb up Arkansas’ all-time receiving list at eighth place with 2,113 yards for his career. Burks has 48 catches for 799 yards and eight touchdowns this season.

“People keep total blitzing us and all-out blitzing us, and KJ keeps throwing it to him [Burks],” explained Pittman following the MSU victory last Saturday.

The Hogs’ head coach said he expects the Tigers to bring pressure, but not exactly in the way they did against Alabama.

“I anticipate that they’ll use some of the things that they did against Alabama,” Pittman said. “But I think any great coach, which Coach Orgeron is, they’ll do something in the same look but different results.”

The best way for the Hogs’ to mitigate LSU’s pass rush, which is tied for second in the SEC with Texas A&M and 14th in the nation, is to run the football. The more successful the Hogs are on the ground, the more successful they will be overall.

Arkansas leads the SEC in rushing and ranks fourth in the nation with an average of 248.3 yards per game. Bruising sophomore Dominque Johnson started against MSU and gained 107 yards on 17 carries, but he is not the only weapon in the Hogs’ backfield. Junior Trelon Smith, freshman Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, and freshman A.J. Green give the Hogs a strong stable of backs. Jefferson is no slouch running the ball, either as the squads’s third-leading rusher with 433 yards behind Smith (476) and Sanders (460).

The Tigers held Alabama to just 6 rushing yards last week, so it will be interesting to see if the Razorbacks can ground and pound the Tigers into submission.
Defensively, what tact will Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom take against the Tigers is the big question going into the game. Arkansas has mostly counted on a three-man front with an eight-man umbrella zone this season, but will he opt for a four-man front this week against the Tigers more balanced offense?

It’s doubtful. The Hogs’ bend-but-don’t break approach has served them well for the most part this season, but it has produced white-knuckle games against Ole Miss and Mississippi State. That could be the case again this week against the Tigers.

Again, LSU has more talent, but Arkansas has been the more consistent and better team this season. Expect the game to be close with the team fortunate enough to have the ball last to get the victory.