On the mend: Open date helping Hogs to heal for stretch run

Arkansas’ Oct. 29 game at Auburn will kick off at 11 a.m. on SEC Network.

Just beyond the midpoint of the season, the Arkansas Razorback aren’t where they want or many of their fans expected them to be, but thanks to last Saturday’s 52-35 victory over the BYU Cougars, Sam Pittman’s Hogs appear to have righted the ship after a three-game losing streak.

The Hogs (4-3, 1-3 SEC) are enjoying a much needed open date this week to heal their bodies, minds and perhaps souls after a brutal stretch of football where managing a concentration of injuries in the secondary became the overriding issue facing the Razorbacks after KJ Jefferson shook out the cobwebs from suffering a head injury against Alabama on Oct. 1 that put him on the shelf for the Hogs’ unsuccessful trip to Mississippi State on Oct. 8.

As demoralizing as being blown out by Alabama, 49-26, and Mississippi State, 40-17, were, that 23-21 loss to Texas A&M on Sept. 24 is the one that’s likely going to haunt these Razorbacks and their fans whenever we think back on this season.

Should’ve, could’ve and would’ve is always hard to deal with.

That said, last Saturday’s get-right victory over the Cougars was just the tonic the Razorbacks needed going into this open date, and it gave fans just the type of hope they needed to enjoy this week instead of spending it grousing about their team.

While the Hogs lick their wounds with a few days off, fans can get revved up for what one hopes will be another back-half of the schedule revival that the Razorbacks enjoyed last season when the Hogs won five of their last six games.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Auburn
When:  11 a.m. Saturday Oct. 29
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.
Streaming: SEC Network

Remaining Schedule

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

The first game is down with the BYU game in their pocket with five more to go. If you believe in things like the Football Power Index, it says the Razorbacks are favored in just two of their final five games.

According to the FPI, Hogs have a 45% chance to win at Auburn on Oct. 29, a 78% chance to whip Liberty on Nov. 5, a 35% chance to upend LSU on Nov. 12, just a 28% chance to upset undefeated Ole Miss on Nov. 19, and a 53% to defeat Missouri on Nov. 25 at Columbia, Mo.

After last year’s 9-4 season, I don’t think any Hog fan is ready to settle for a 6-5 regular season at this point, no matter how poorly Arkansas’ defense is playing or is rated.

Arkansas’ injury situation in the back end of their defense is serious. Five of their top eight defensive backs at the beginning of the season were injured going into the BYU game, and Malik Chavis, who started at cornerback suffered one of those above-the-shoulder injuries that are usually called concussions in the first half. Linebacker Bumper Pool also looked like a shadow of his usual self, gutting it out to help his team.

While I don’t have a steel-trap memory, I don’t remember a single position group being as ravaged by injuries for so long at Arkansas since 1980 when the Hogs’ offensive line saw four of five starters at the beginning of the season miss considerable time, including preseason All-American George Stewart, who has gone on to have a distinguished NFL coaching career.

In 2003, running backs Cedric Cobbs, Fred Talley and De’Arrius Howard all were injured in a loss at Ole Miss, but two of the three were back for the next game.

The Hogs finished 7-5 in 1980, Lou Holtz’ fourth season, thanks to a 34-15 win over Tulane in the Hall of Fame Bowl. The 2003 Razorbacks rebounded under Houston Nutt from three straight losses to Ole Miss, Florida and Auburn to go 9-4 with a win over Missouri in the Independence Bowl. The only loss after the losing streak was to LSU, which won the BCS National title that season under Nick Saban.

Last Saturday, Pittman got so frustrated with the number of pass-interference penalties the Hogs’ worn down secondary had drawn midway through the second quarter that he told defensive coordinator Barry Odom to go back to his three-man rush, double-cloud coverage scheme that Mississippi State had punished the week before to force BYU to run the football.

The ploy worked. By keeping everything in front of them, the Hogs gained some traction, forced two fumbles and picked off a pass, which were key in Arkansas winning a track-meet of a football game.

It was fun to watch as Jefferson piled up a career day, completing 29 of 40 passes for 364 yards and five touchdowns, while Rocket Sanders also had his best day as a Hog after overcoming a fumble to gain 175 yards on 15 totes for an amazing 11.7-yard-per-carry average. Receiver Matt Landers also had a breakout day with 8 catches for 99 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Playing safety Hudson Clark reaped SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors, making 11 tackles, an interception and recovering a fumble that was forced by cornerback Dwight McGlothern.

Without knowing how well the Hogs will rebound from their injuries, it’s hard to guess how these final five games will go. I believe Arkansas could win any one of those games, but the SEC is a tough conference. I could also see them losing any of the contests, too, particularly if the injury bug continues to bite.

On paper the two toughest games — Ole Miss and LSU — are in the friendly confines of Razorback Stadium. That should give the Hogs some extra juice.

The next game up, though, at Auburn, is a tough one. Arkansas hasn’t had the best of luck against the Tigers. The Razorbacks should have won the last two games in the series, but officials robbed them of the game at Auburn in 2020, and last year, the Hogs may have played their worst game of the year against the Tigers at home.

The Razorbacks had better carry the same mentality and physicality to Auburn that they took to BYU plus some. However beleaguered the Tigers may be next week concerning the controversy with head coach Bryan Harsin, Auburn is a more talented and a more physical team than BYU and honestly probably than Arkansas. The Hogs can take nothing for granted at Auburn or in any of their last five games if they hope to win.

While Jefferson’s marvelous play in which he shook off three would-be sackers to get free to zip a dart to tight end Trey Knox (4 catches, 66 yards) for a 36-yard gain is highlight for the ages, it came against inferior athletes to the ones the Hogs see week after week in SEC play.

All four of the Razorbacks’ SEC games will likely be tougher and more physical than last week against the Cougars. The contest against Liberty might be, too.

If the Razorbacks can heal up in the secondary and avoid taking any opponent lightly, Hog fans might be in for a very interesting final five weeks to this season, but the Razorbacks aren’t talented enough to play less than their best and expect to win the rest of the way.

That irritating loss to Texas A&M made that fact clear in late September.