Positive outcome against BYU could tip scales for Hogs’ season

The game marks the first meeting on the football field between the two teams.
Arkansas running back Raheim Sanders (5) follows a teammate’s block to get past a Mississippi State defender during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. Mississippi State won 40-17. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

In the grand scheme of college football and even the SEC, the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 2:30 p.m. game Saturday against the BYU Cougars in Provo, Utah may seem like it amounts to “a bucket of warm spit,” as Texas politician John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner once opined about the vice presidency to fellow Lone-Star state politician Lyndon B. Johnson.

Johnson had recently ascended from the role of Vice President to be the President following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963 when Garner, who had served as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s V.P. for eight years, made the crass comment.

While the outcome of this non-conference matchup between unranked programs might or might not make Sports Center, this game is of the utmost importance to the Hogs, who are on a three-game losing skid.

It’s big for BYU, too. As an independent who will soon be joining the Big Eight, the Cougars (4-2) would no doubt enjoy bragging rights over an SEC program, even an unranked one, and a victory would move them one step toward bowl eligibility.

Yet, the Hogs (3-3, 1-2 SEC) seem a bit more desperate at the moment. After giving away a game to Texas A&M during the last week of September, the Razorbacks have been trounced the past two weeks by Alabama and Mississippi State in contests Arkansas fans had dreams of winning during the summer, particularly the MSU matchup.

This is a game in which Sam Pittman’s Razorbacks need to make a stand in hopes of getting back on the winning track before an open date and their their final-four SEC games against Auburn, No. 9 Ole Miss, LSU and Missouri with a non-conference game against Liberty thrown in for good measure.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Brigham Young University
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

Injuries have weighed heavily on the Hogs in recent weeks with five of their top eight defensive backs either injured now or out for the season. The head injury to starting quarterback KJ Jefferson last week compounded matters.

With Jefferson, the Razorbacks possibly could have won a shootout with Mississippi State and their hot-shot quarterback Will Rogers, but with Jefferson watching from the sidelines, neither Arkansas’ offense nor its defense was up to the challenge.

Jefferson is reportedly ready to go for Saturday afternoon, and the Hogs’ training staff should have the Razorbacks prepped and ready for the altitude. Provo’s elevation is about 3,000 miles higher than Fayetteville’s.

A victory Saturday over the Cougars would resuscitate Razorback fans’ hopes for a solid finish to the season after the doldrums of early October knocked the wind out of their expectations.

Already some fans are turning their attention more toward basketball with perhaps the most promising Hog hoops season in nearly three decades knocking on the door like eager trick-or-treaters.

Coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks hold their annual Red-White game at 2 p.m. Sunday in historic Barnhill Arena before playing exhibition games Oct. 24 against Rogers State in Walton Arena and at Texas on Oct. 29.

The Red-White game won’t be streamed so seats might be hard to get.

Beating BYU would refocus some wavering fans back on football even with an open date on hand next week.

What should we expect Saturday?

With the way Arkansas’ defense has played this season, it had better be a track meet of sorts for the Hogs to keep up. That has to be the expectation of Razorback fans until the defense actually rises up to prove that it can stop an opponent.

The key seems to be whether or not the Razorbacks’ can generate enough of a passing attack to allow its running game to be effective.

Against Mississippi State, Arkansas moved the ball enough to get into scoring position three times, but inexperienced quarterbacking by Cade Fortin and Malik Hornsby along with a stout performance by Mississippi State’s front seven turned the Hogs away.

Had Jefferson been able to play, circumstances might have been different.

“He’s a special player. He’s big and he can fly,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “He has it all, so we have to be fundamentally sound assignment-wise because of the way he can punish you if you make mistakes. So, we can’t afford to make a lot of mistakes against him, because he can punish you with his arm and his legs. He makes a huge difference for their team.”

Jefferson has thrown for 1,096 yards and 9 touchdowns in five games with just 1 interception and rushed for 312 yards and 4 touchdowns.

BYU starting quarterback Jaren Hall has also had his injury struggles this season, but his head coach said he will be ready to go.

“He’s got no choice,” Sitake said. “He’s gotta go. This is midseason football, so he’s gotta be ready to roll.”

Hall has passed for 1,558 yards and completed 129 of 188 passes for 68.6 percent completion rating. He is likely licking his chops in anticipation of facing the Razorbacks’ porous defense that is allowing 307 passing ypg., 454 ypg in total offense, and 32 points per game.

The outcome of Saturday’s game will set the mood for the back half of the Razorbacks’ season. A victory would instill some optimism of another fine finish like last season that led to a New Year’s Day Bowl and the Hogs’ first nine-win season in a decade.

A loss would cast some doubt on where the Razorbacks sit as a program at the midpoint of Pittman’s third year as coach.

Arkansas’ injury struggles shows the program might not be as far along as we had hoped. The return of so many super-seniors last year seems to have given all onlookers a false sense of the team’s depth going into the season.

However some of Arkansas’ struggles have just been misfortune with so many injuries concentrated in the secondary. If the injuries had been more spread out, the issues wouldn’t be as great.

But like in poker, a coach has to play the hand that is dealt. The Hogs and Pittman could use a good hand this Saturday in Provo and a great game from Jefferson and the Razorbacks’ stable of running backs, too.

SEC West Standings

Ole Miss6-02-0
Miss. St.5-12-1
Texas A&M3-31-2

SEC East Standings

S. Carolina4-21-2

This week’s games (Oct. 15)

11 a.m. – Auburn at No. 9 Ole Miss (ESPN)
2:30 p.m. – Arkansas at BYU 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
2:30 p.m. – Vanderbilt at No. 1 Georgia (SEC Network)
2:30 p.m. – No. 3 Alabama at No. 6 Tennessee (CBS)
6 p.m. – LSU at Florida (ESPN)
6:30 p.m. – No. 16 Miss. St. at No. 22 Kentucky (SEC Network)