Hogs’ opener is a road map for improvement

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) runs past Cincinnati defensive back Ja’Quan Sheppard (5) as teammate Matt Landers (right) blocks on a touchdown run during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

The great thing about season-opening victories against a formidable opponent is that it gives coaches and players a road map for improvement that no amount of practice can provide.

That’s the logic behind the old adage that a team makes its most improvement between its first and second game.

Arkansas Razorback coach Sam Pittman referenced that cliche Monday in his media conference following the Hogs’ 31-24 victory over then No. 23 Cincinnati Bearcats.

By now, the outcome of that game is in the rearview mirror for Pittman, his coaches, and the Hogs. The coaching staff turned that page sometime Sunday. The Razorbacks (1-0) did after Monday’s film review in team meetings. All their collective thoughts are now trained on corrections and preparations for Saturday’s 11 a.m. SEC opener against the South Carolina Gamecocks (1-0).

Fans have the luxury of reveling in the victory or perhaps dwelling on some issues that were exposed by the first game a little bit longer.

First, the score for last Saturday’s game was, again, 31-24. It will be that for all time; however, if you examine the outcome of the game, the Razorbacks could have possibly tacked on another touchdown if they had wanted or needed to.

After Razorbacks end Domenick Jordan made the play of the game by forcing and recovering a fumble on a sack of Bearcats quarterback Ben Bryant, the Hogs’ offense dominated the final 5:39 of the game.

Domenick, who had two tackles in the game, earned SEC Defensive lineman of the week honors for that play. Bumper Pool’s 13 tackles also earned him SEC Defensive Player of the Week, as he continues to move toward the top of the Razorbacks’ all-time tackles chart.

Next up for the No. 16 Razorbacks

Opponent: South Carolina
When:  11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 10
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
Streaming: ESPN

Remaining Schedule

Sept. 17 – Missouri State
Sept. 24 – Texas A&M at Arlington
Oct. 1 – Alabama
Oct. 8 – at Mississippi State
Oct. 15 – at BYU
Oct. 29 – at Auburn
Nov. 5 – Liberty
Nov. 12 – LSU
Nov. 19 – Ole Miss
Nov. 25 – at Missouri

Razorback quarterback K.J. Jefferson rambled 14 yards for a first down on a third-and-nine at the Arkansas 26. When he picked up another first down with a 6-yard run on a third-and-two with 2:22 left, the dye was cast. Barring a tragic turnover, the Hogs were going to win.

Some coaches at that point would have gone for style points and tried to tack on another touchdown in a vain attempt to impress those that didn’t watch the slobber-knocker of a football game. That’s not Sam Pittman’s style. The Hogs ran out the clock and took a classy victory.

Arkansas won a tough, physical game, but it was a contest that could have gone the other way without a few key plays.

Domenick’s strip sack was huge, but so was Dwight McGlothren’s first-quarter interception. The Bearcats were moving the ball in decent-sized chunks on both drives, but defensive coordinator Barry Odom’s troops proved opportunistic with those two critical takeaways.

McGlothren’s interception turned the tide of the game early, setting up Jefferson’s first touchdown run for a 7-0 Razorback lead in the first quarter. That Oskie and the subsequent touchdown set the tone of the game.

Folks need to remember those two huge defensive plays were absolutely critical in winning the game before they moan and groan about the defense’s performance. The Bearcats did tally 438 yards of total offense, and yes, they had receivers open down field that Bryant either missed or couldn’t find. Corrections will be made this week, and hopefully we’ll see improved play by the Hogs’ back end against South Carolina and on from there.

Cincinnati might not be a top 5 team now like they were last year, but with their physicality, the Bearcats would fit into the middle if not upper middle of the SEC pack. They might not lose again this year. Luke Fickell’s Bearcats are going to mix well in the Big 12.

So it was an opportunistic victory for the Razorbacks that did come with a cost. Starting nickel back Myles Slusher and pre-season All-American safety Jalen Catalon left the game with injuries that could keep them out of Saturday’s game. Neither were reportedly on the practice field Monday during the media’s viewing period.

Catalon was on the sideline without his shoulder pads in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s game. He did not have a sling or an ice pack on his shoulder. He wasn’t on crutches or wearing a boot.

Pittman keeps injury information close to the vest during the season, so no meaningful update on their health was given Monday. Pittman has a couple of more media appearances this week, but why would he give an injury update to be used by South Carolina if he wouldn’t make a meaningful comment on Monday?

Keep them guessing. It’s gamesmanship that came in vogue with Nick Saban’s return to the SEC in 2007 from the NFL.

If programs like Alabama and Georgia aren’t going to give injury updates, why should Arkansas or any SEC team?

I suppose if either injury is of the season-ending variety that might be announced next week, that info would be hard to keep under wraps. But maybe not?

The fact that the Hogs cashed in on both those turnovers for scores was great news. Good football teams make opponents pay for their mistakes. Arkansas did that.

K.J. Jefferson put up impressive stats in a physical game. Pittman and offensive coordinator Kendall Briles would probably take his stat line every week. Jefferson completed 18 of 26 passes for 223 yards and 3 touchdowns. He rushed for a net of 62 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.

Pittman and Briles might want him to run a little less than that, but K.J.’s legs are a vital part of the offense. In a late second-quarter drive, he had several errant or poor throws. It looked like his calves might have been cramping up, but he stayed on the field. If you’ve had that issue before, you know it’s hard think much less compete athletically when those muscles seize up.

K.J. is a play-maker for the Hogs and should only get better as he continues to hone his game this season.

Arkansas’ running backs looked good. Raheim “Rocket” Sanders had 177 net yards on 20 carries, but freshman Rashod Dubinion and A.J. Green looked good in their short stints on the field. Green had a manly 6-yard carry where he hit the hole with his sprinter speed and then ran through a defender with that same power.

Dubinion showed why he had earned praise for his practice from Pittman with a nice 13-yard carry and an excellent run after the catch for a 29-yard gain. Man, he showed some wiggle with a slight stutter move that juked a Cincinnati defender out of his socks.

Pittman said he would like for Green and Dubinion to get a few more carries, and Sanders a few less to maximize their production. Late-season starter Dominique Johnson is practicing on a limited basis. He’s returning from knee surgery earlier this year. With Arkansas’ injury policy, we probably won’t know when Johnson will play until he trots on the field.

Arkansas’ receivers had good days that will likely get even better as the offense gets into sync. Matt Landers (3 rec. for 43 yards) and Jadon Haselwood (3 rec. for 42 yards and a TD) showed exciting talent, and Warren Thompson also played well with 2 catches for 22 yards.

Unfortunately, two of Thompson’s targets came when it appeared Jefferson might have been cramping up. Thompson had no chance of catching either throw. The one in the end zone might have been Jefferson just throwing that ball away because Thompson, while slightly open, was bracketed by defenders. It would have taken an NFL throw to make it in in that window with Jefferson rambling to his right.

Tight end Trey Knox had an up and down game with a couple of holding calls and giving up a sack of Jefferson, but the positive outweighed that. He scored two touchdowns, one on a jump pass from Jefferson and the other on and excellent catch and sprint down the visiting team’s sideline that included a fine block by wide receiver Ketron Jackson to spring him. In all, Knox made 6 catches for 75 yards.

South Carolina also had mixed results last Saturday in their 35-14 victory over Georgia State. The Gamecocks’ special teams shined with two blocked punts that were returned for touchdowns and two field goals to tally 17 of their 35 points. That alone would have been enough to top Georgia State. So it’s Beamer Ball 2.0 with head coach Shane Beamer, picking up where his dad Frank Beamer, longtime coach at Virginia Tech, left off.

Beamer, Pittman, and Arkansas special teams coach Scott Fountain all worked together closely at Georgia in 2016-17 before moving on from Kirby Smart’s Georgia program. Beamer was tight ends and special teams coach, while Pittman was offensive line coach and Fountain served as special teams analyst working with Beamer for the Bulldogs before taking on those coaching duties full time.

Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler found himself running for his life in the game, and that pressure led to mixed results in his stat line. He completed 23 of 37 passes for 62.2 percent, 227 yards and a touchdown, but he also suffered three sacks and threw two picks.

The Gamecocks rushed for 79 yards in the contest with Jaheim Bell leading the way was 39 yards on 7 carries. Starter MarShawn Lloyd gained 30 yards on 11 carries. Lloyd also caught 2 passes for 31 yards.

Jalen Brooks led South Carolina in receiving yards with 88 yards on 4 catches, while Antwane Wells Jr. caught 7 passes for 55 yards.

The Gamecocks gave up 200 yards rushing to Georgia State and 111 yards passing. Arkansas is an early 8.5 point favorite.