QB, pass defense pose big questions for Hogs

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) throws a pass against Cincinnati during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Will he or won’t he?

That’s the question that will likely haunt Arkansas Razorbacks fans until sometime Saturday morning.

The “he,” of course, is starting quarterback K.J. Jefferson, and the question is will he start or even play in the Hogs’ showdown with Mike Leach’s No. 23 Mississippi State Bulldogs (4-1, 1-1 SEC).

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman deemed Jefferson, who absorbed a couple of blows to the head last Saturday in the Hogs’ 49-26 loss to Alabama, as day-to-day.

So he has not been ruled out of Saturday’s game. Jefferson was at practice Monday, according to reports, but his level of participation is not known. We will probably be left guessing until Saturday, unless Pittman decides to make a comment Wednesday night on his radio show.

He could do that, but it’s doubtful that he would. Whether Jefferson plays or not Saturday, Pittman’s probably going to attempt to keep that information under wraps in order to keep Leach and his defensive staff guessing.

Next up for the No. 20 Razorbacks

Opponent: at Mississippi State
When:  11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 8
Where: Davis Wade Stadium, Starkville, Miss.
Streaming: SEC Network

Remaining Schedule

Oct. 15 – at BYU
Oct. 29 – at Auburn
Nov. 5 – Liberty
Nov. 12 – LSU
Nov. 19 – Ole Miss
Nov. 25 – at Missouri

If Jefferson can’t play, it seems redshirt junior Cade Fortin (6-3, 218) will start. The transfer from South Florida entered the Alabama game when Jefferson was shook up, and Pittman said with a grin following the game that he had functioned as the Hogs’ backup for a number of weeks.

Junior Malik Hornsby had been listed as Jefferson’s backup on the depth chart released by Arkansas Media Relations prior to the first game, but that chart is rarely up-to-date beyond the first game, if then. It’s more of a guide than anything set in stone. The super-quick Hornsby has played some this season, but at receiver.

Expect Arkansas to be careful with Jefferson. If he is healthy, he’ll play, but if he is iffy, expect him to sit out. No one wants a situation like what happened in Miami with Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa on their conscience.

I personally liked what I saw out of Fortin in his fourth-quarter work against Alabama. His passes were on target when he wasn’t just letting go to avoid a sack. He hit receivers with catchable passes in stride, which has been an issue for Jefferson this season. Now, don’t misunderstand that. Jefferson is unquestionably Arkansas’ man if he is healthy.

Fortin’s time on the field against Alabama was a limited sample size when the game was well outside of Arkansas’ reach, but Fortin did complete 4 of 7 passes for 35 yards, on a nine-play, 46-yard drive that went to the Alabama 12 before stalling on fourth down.

If Jefferson is out for the game, maybe Fortin and Hornsby could collaborate at quarterback as Zak Clark and Matt Jones did back in 2001. That combination revived the season and led to one of the stand-out games in Razorback history, the Hogs’ 58-56, seven overtime win over Ole Miss and quarterback Eli Manning in Oxford, Miss.

A brother-in-law quarterbacking situation probably would be too much for Arkansas to cobble together in a week, but it’s fun to reminisce about Jones and that epic game for a moment or two with the Hogs heading over to the Magnolia State even if this game will be in Starkville rather than Oxford.

The Bulldogs’ defense is blitz-happy under the mentorship of defensive coordinator Zach Arnett, which only makes matters worse for the Hogs if Jefferson is out this week.

One hopes Jefferson will be ready to go for the Hogs’ trip to Provo, Utah next week to face No. 16 BYU (4-1). The game will be played at 2:30 p.m. Central time, and will be televised by either ESPN or ABC.

If the quarterback situation isn’t difficult enough for the Razorbacks to navigate, Arkansas’ secondary is in disarray because of injuries and the entire defense is having tackling issues, particularly in space.

Now, Alabama will make a lot of defenses look bad this season when they play at top form, but Arkansas’ back end struggles have occurred all season, not just against the Crimson Tide.

Man-to-Man pass coverage was an issue going into the game, but Arkansas’ rush defense was exposed against Alabama went their starting quarterback Bryce Young went to the sidelines with a shoulder injury. Alabama caught Arkansas’ linebackers and secondary over-pursuing, which opened the gates for three, 70-yard touchdown runs in the fourth quarter.

Arkansas successfully used a three-man rush and a zone to stymie the Bulldogs two years ago in Pittman’s first win as a head coach against Leach’s pass-happy scheme in Starkville, but last year’s game came down to the Bulldogs missing a late, long field goal in Fayetteville to preserve a Razorback victory.

If the Razorbacks are going to win this weekend against Mississippi State, it will likely be in a track meet. I’m not sure the Hogs can keep up with the Bulldogs with the way Mississippi State’s offense is humming with or without Jefferson.

MSU quarterback Will Rogers is tied for second nationally among active players with four games of five or more passing touchdowns. He is the only active quarterback with multiple games of six or more touchdowns through the air. He also leads the nation in passing yards (8,430) and is third in passing touchdowns (66).

Rogers has thrown for 300-plus yards and at least three touchdowns in 13 of his 27 career games. Rogers has 915 career completions, which is six shy of the current SEC record (921) set by Georgia’s Aaron Murray (2010-13).

Rogers is also four passing touchdowns shy of Dak Prescott’s (2012-15) MSU career record (70). He’ll break the completion record Saturday unless he gets hurt. Hog fans have to hope he’s still trailing Prescott for the touchdown passing record after Saturday.

The Razorbacks are going to have to perform better in all phases to be in this game than they have, honestly, at any point this season. That’s a tall order for a team that could be without their starting quarterback, and one that’s having critical issues on defense this deep into the season.