Hogs headed to BYU for critical non-conference tussle

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman gestures to his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

It’s get-right week for the Arkansas Razorbacks, or at least, it needs to be.

A three-game losing streak has a fan base that had high expectations after last year’s nine-win season mumbling, grumbling, and in some cases losing their religion.

The Razorbacks’ 40-17 loss to Mississippi State was a game that most Hog fans had marked down as a victory before the season started, and Arkansas getting roughed up in Starkville has some fuming. The fair-weather variety aren’t only ready to jump off the band wagon but also are aiming to light it aflame as they go.

Thankfully saner heads are prevailing on the Hill. Sam Pittman and his staff certainly aren’t happy or satisfied with the results of the last few weeks, but they are back to work, attempting to improve. The goal is a road victory over a tough BYU Cougars squad before next week’s much needed open date.

BYU plays host to the Razorbacks in their first game in Provo, Utah at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN.

Injuries have played a significant role in the Razorbacks’ woes, particularly at Starkville. The Hogs were without five of their top eight defensive backs midway through the first quarter, and starting quarterback K.J. Jefferson was sidelined with headaches from a blow to the head absorbed in the Hogs’ 49-26 loss to Alabama on Oct. 1.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Brigham Young
When:  2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15
Where: LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, Utah
Streaming: ESPN

Remaining Schedule

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

After a slow start, the Hogs moved the ball against Mississippi State, but on the critical plays, the Razorbacks failed to execute or were even manhandled by a more physical Bulldogs’ squad. Defensively Arkansas couldn’t stop MSU’s running game and failed to make plays even when Bulldog quarterback Will Rogers threw the ball to them.

However, the Razorbacks have suffered as much if not more from self-inflicted mistakes this season that allowed a victory over Texas A&M to drain like water through their fingers on the final Saturday in September at Arlington. That 23-21 loss to the Aggies digs into the Hogs’ side more and more as the season progresses. Penalties and poor play by aspects of Arkansas’ special teams compounded matters there and last Saturday at Starkville.

Everyone knew the Hogs’ schedule from late September until next week’s open date might be brutal with only one home game in the four-game stretch and that being against then No. 1 Alabama. The Crimson Tide remain undefeated but have dropped to No. 3 in this week’s poll. Unfortunately, the Hogs have been their own worst enemy at times.

Arkansas, of course, has dropped out of all the polls this week as have the Cougars (4-2), who lost a gut-wrencher last week to Notre Dame, 28-20. So this is a get-right game for BYU, too. The Cougars have the extra benefit of being at home.

The point spread has been all over the place with this game early. Arkansas opened as a 2.5-point underdog, but when word began to spread that Jefferson would play this week and that BYU quarterback Jaren Hall was banged up, most lines adjusted. The Razorbacks are now favored by 1.5 points. There could be further movement, but oddsmakers expect the game to be close one way or the other.

Arkansas has been so sporadic offensively this season that I’m not sure what to expect even with Jefferson in the game. The Hogs were dominating A&M early, but that weird three-yard line lunge by Jefferson that turned into a nearly length of the field fumble return by the Aggies was like a kick to the groin that the Hogs have yet to fully recover from.

I expect Arkansas to rely heavily on Rocket Sanders and their run-game against the Cougars, but the game may come down to whether or not Jefferson can connect well enough with his receivers down field to keep the Cougars’ defense honest. So many are questioning Arkansas’ receivers, but if you look at Jefferson’s passing, he’s not been on-time with a number of his throws. Receivers are having to stop and adjust to catch his passes. He’s not hitting them in stride often enough to allow them to be play-makers.

Defensively, injuries have done a number on the Razorbacks, but it would be naive to think that is the lone issue. After six games, we can see that Hogs aren’t what anyone expected them to be on the defensive side of the ball. The Razorbacks are ranked among the worst teams in the nation in pass defense (307 ypg.), and total defense (454 ypg.). The Razorbacks are allowing 32 points per game. With those numbers, it’s surprising the Hogs are .500. The only mitigating factor is that Arkansas played a very challenging schedule.

Some issues are tough or even impossible to correct like injuries and physical capabilities. However, the mental errors that have held the Razorbacks in check at various points this year can be corrected.

Certainly instruction by the coaches is a factor, but it also falls on the players to execute and perform up to their capabilities mentally as well as physically when it is their moment. No one in their right mind expects perfection, but there’s a standard Arkansas has had trouble meeting so far this season.

After this trip to Provo, the Razorbacks’ schedule isn’t easy. However, three of the Hogs’ five remaining games are at home, and Ole Miss is the only squad on that schedule that is currently ranked in the AP Top 25. There are games that can be won with improvement.

It would be fantastic if such a trend can begin against BYU. A victory over the Cougars might be the tipping point between a mediocre season and a good or even fine one.

That’s not just going to fall into place. The Razorbacks have to execute and play well enough to make it happen. As we’ve seen so far this year, no one is going to just roll over for the Hogs.