Petrino’s return, top-10 ranking, evening kickoff makes for big weekend for Hog fans

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) scrambles out of the pocket against South Carolina during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Events have conspired to make the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 6 p.m. game Saturday with Missouri State bigger than anyone could have imagined.

Tickets are actually in demand for a game with a nonconference opponent, and if you can secure a pair without paying a premium, you should snatch them up. You might not find another opportunity.

The Hogs are hot, hot, hot right now, and folks who haven’t had a ton of interest in the program, maybe since the halcyon days of the Bobby Petrino era are hankering to attend a game, any game.

The Razorbacks have turned some heads, and thanks to a number of upsets last weekend and some programs being over-ranked, the Razorbacks have vaulted from No. 19 in the nation to open the season to No. 10 in the Associated Press Poll in mid-September, thanks to two notable victories over Cincinnati and South Carolina.

That top-10 ranking is significant. It makes it the second year in a row that the Razorbacks’ football, basketball, and baseball programs have each been ranked in the Top 10 for at least a week. That’s something Arkansas athletics directory Hunter Yurachek and all Razorbacks — players, coaches, alumni, and fans — can take great pride in. To borrow a slogan from another era, it’s “uncommon.”

The mood right now in Fayetteville is electric. The air seems fresher, the water clearer, the sky bluer when the Razorbacks are on a roll. It’s just a fun time to be On the Hill.

The 6 p.m. kickoff should make for the best tailgating atmosphere thus far this season. It should be an all-day affair with the revelry spilling over into the night in and around Razorback Stadium.

Next up for the No. 10 Razorbacks

Opponent: Missouri State Bears
When:  6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
Streaming: ESPN+

Remaining Schedule

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

Now I’d be negligent not to note that some if not most of the excitement for the this game is because of the return of Petrino to Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Anticipation is high.

Some are excited to see the architect of the last great period of Razorback football once again. Petrino guided the Hogs to 10 wins in 2010 and then 11 in 2011.

Others are likely ready to boo him or make fun of him because of the ridicule he brought on the program for his indiscretions with a female UA employee, which led to his 2012 dismissal when the Razorback football program was climbing in status.

There’s been rumors that some students and fans might opt to wear neck braces to make fun of Petrino, who appeared in a media conference wearing a neck brace shortly before he was put on administrative leave and ultimately fired.

Hog fans can have their fun with the return of Petrino, but as my dad told me long ago, it’s always better to show your class rather than your, uh, derrière in public. I’ve not always managed to live up to that standard, but it’s a good rule of thumb to keep in mind.

Razorback head coach Sam Pittman only spoke of respect for Petrino and the good things that he accomplished during his time as the Razorbacks head coach, though he said he does not remember ever meeting Petrino in person. Pittman even said that he used the success that Petrino had at Arkansas as an example of what can be accomplished in Fayetteville while he is recruiting.

Petrino is no joke of a coach. His Bears are No. 5 in the FCS. While his team shouldn’t have the physical wherewithal to upset a program like Arkansas, there is no doubt he’ll have something schemed up for the Hogs in the passing game. If we’ve noticed opponents running free and open in the Hogs’ first two games, there is no doubt Petrino has, too.

Petrino will have plays dialed up to exploit Arkansas’ weaknesses. Whether Missouri State has the talent to execute it against the Hogs, remains to be seen.

Now, one thing about those open receivers running free. It doesn’t matter that they are open if the opposing quarterback doesn’t have time to get the ball to them.

Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom’s calling a much more aggressive defensive game plan this season. The Hogs are doing a lot of things to bring heat and make quarterbacks antsy and uncomfortable.

The Razorbacks are applying a number of stunts and line games up front and are brining a variety of blitzes from the edge as well as up the middle.

So far we’ve seen linebackers like Drew Sanders, who earned co-SEC Defensive Player the Week honors, walk up to the line and come off the edge, and we’ve seen his partner Bumper Pool shoot through gaps up the middle. Safeties have come on blitzes, too.

This is very different from the umbrella zone Arkansas deployed most of the time the last two seasons which funneled the football to the middle. The Razorbacks still have that tool in their pocket, but with greater depth and better athletes, Odom is more capable of mixing things up this year than in the past.

Dirty Laundry

Pittman said Monday cleaning up penalties will be a necessity for the Hogs. In two games, Arkansas has been penalized 17 times for 185 yards. Pittman would like to cut that in half. Three of the Hogs’ penalties were 15-yarders on third down on the defense. One might have saved a touchdown, but that is still too many.

K.J. Jefferson has been amazing so far this season quarterbacking the Hogs, but he was close to making a critical mistake when he extended his arm to try to break the plane of the goal line but lost control of the ball. He was out of bounds, but had he fumbled the football into the end zone, it would have resulted in a touchback and been South Carolina’s ball at the 20. That’s a rule he and other Razorback runners need to know.

Some Stats

Jefferson has a quarterback efficiency rating of 173.5. He’s completed 36 of 47 passes (76.6 percent) for 385 yards (192.5 ypg.) with no interceptions and 4 touchdowns. He’s also averaging 64.5 mpg. rushing with 2 touchdowns.

Raheim “Rocket” Sanders is leading the SEC in rushing with 273 net yards for an average of 136.4 ypg. That’s good enough for fourth in the NCAA. He’s scored 2 touchdowns and is averaging 6.2 ypc. Sanders also has 6 catches for 42 yards.

Jadon Haselwood is leading the Hogs in receptions with for 72 yards, while Trey Knox, who missed much of the South Carolina game with an ankle injury, has 7 catches for 80 yards. Matt Landers also has 7 catches for 88 total yards. Warren Thompson has 5 catches for 58 yards.

Three Hogs are averaging more than 10 yards a catch with Landers at 12.6 ypc., Thompson at 11.6 ypc., and Knox at 11.4 ypc. Haselwood and Malik Hornsby are averaging 9.0 ypc.

Putting the Cart Before The Horse

It’s probably good that the Petrino plot line is in place for this week’s game, or fans might be looking forward to the Hogs’ trophy-game showdown with No. 24 Texas A&M at Arlington, Texas next Saturday. The game time for it has been set for 6 p.m. Sept. 24.

It’s still more than two weeks out, but some are already anticipating the Crimson Tide’s invasion of Razorback Stadium on Oct. 1. I’m not playing or coaching, so I have the luxury of putting the cart before the horse.

Kickoff hasn’t been set for it yet, but if the Hogs can win the next two, and No. 2 Alabama can beat Louisiana-Monroe this week and Vanderbilt on Sept. 24, the showdown between what will be two top-10 teams will be one of the biggest ever held in Razorback Stadium. It might wind up being the largest crowd ever in the stadium.

I guess the 1969 Texas game will forever be remembered as the biggest game held in Razorback Stadium. President Richard M. Nixon attended the game, and named Texas the national champions on the spot.

I’d rate the 1965 Texas game next, followed by the 1977 Texas game. The 2010 game with Alabama, in which Petrino coached the Razorbacks, probably would be No. 4.

There have been many other highly emotional and pivotal games at Razorback Stadium, but none with such lofty possible implications. A you might remember, many of the Razorbacks’ biggest games were held at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock until recent years.

Despite the Aggies loss to Appalachian State last week, Texas A&M is a very talented team and the Aggies will see upending Arkansas as a path back to respectability next week. That game’s going to be a slobber-knocker.

But if everything falls in place, the Arkansas-Alabama game will be a momentous early October weekend in Fayetteville.

I’m not sure the Hogs are up to pulling off that kind of upset yet under Pittman, but I do look forward to the possibility and the party beforehand.