Hogs move forward after successful opening weekend

The Razorbacks return to campus to play Kent State at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 9.
Arkansas running back Raheim Sanders (5) runs for a touchdown against Western Carolina during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

A glance at the SEC football standings might be a bit surprising after one week of football.

It seems things are a bit topsy-turvy.

Vanderbilt is 2-0 on the season at the top of the SEC East, and LSU is 0-1 at the bottom of the SEC West.

What’s going on?

It’s just the weirdness of early season scheduling for SEC programs. Vanderbilt won their Week Zero game against Hawaii, as well as defeating Alabama A&M, 47-13, last Saturday. By virtue of winning two games, they get to sit atop the SEC for a second week in a row and are just four victories away from bowl eligibility.

While I have very little if any love in my homer heart for LSU, the Tigers do earn some respect for actually playing a competitive ballgame in their season opener, unlike the bulk of their SEC brethren who feasted on cupcakes the opening week of the season.

Florida State whipped the Tigers, 45-24, in a game that was competitive into the third quarter when the Seminoles began to exert their will over LSU.

Certainly the blowout loss was a tough pill to swallow for the Tigers and their faithful, but a Week 1 loss to a quality opponent doesn’t spell doom and gloom for the rest of the season. Remember, LSU lost a closer game to FSU a year ago and still worked their way into the SEC title game.

Teams like South Carolina, Florida and LSU, who absorbed Week 1 whippings, certainly have a road map for improvement that their fellow SEC squads don’t have. As coaches have chided and reminded players for decades, game tape doesn’t lie.

Arkansas wide receiver Jaedon Wilson (13) runs past Western Carolina defensive back Va Lealaimatafao (8) to score a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

All three of those squads know the exact areas in which they need to improve, and the big red “L” on their records make that message all the more emphatic.

The Tennessee Vols probably have the most to be proud of among SEC programs. They annihilated ACC opponent Virginia, 49-13, for the SEC’s only victory over a Power Five opponent on the opening weekend of the season.

Every other SEC victory, including Arkansas’ 56-13 rout of Western Carolina, fall into the category of mission accomplished but little else.

Like most of the SEC victories over the weekend, it’s hard to know what to make of Arkansas’ season opening win.

Probably the best thing that came out of it was that most if not all of the players who dressed out for the game got to play and actually performed pretty well. Arkansas’s back-up defenders did allow a late score, but reserve linebacker Brad Spence intercepted a pass and raced 85 yards for a touchdown to basically erase those points.

It was also encouraging to watch the second-team offense efficiently put points on the board when Jacolby Criswell zipped a crisp 14-yard pass to freshman Davion Dozier for a touchdown. It’s been a long time since Arkansas’ second-team offense has looked that good in a game.

All of that happened because the Razorbacks’ starters took care of their business for the most part.

Veteran quarterback K.J. Jefferson looked sharp, throwing to seven different targets who made catches in the passing game. The protection was pretty good, except on a couple of plays. On one Jefferson suffered a blind-side sack, which Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said was the result of a faulty check at the line of scrimmage.

A couple of bad snaps got away from the sweaty hands of center Beaux Limmer, but the mistakes weren’t a concern to Pittman. He believes Limmer and Jefferson will get that worked out.

While the Hogs’ passing game was on point, Arkansas’ running game was anemic. Yes, Western Carolina overpopulated the box with their safeties and used some unorthodox stunts inside, but the mixups probably had as much to do with the Hogs having to shuffle their offensive line because of the absence of three-year starting guard Brady Latham.

Arkansas had trouble with the Catamounts extra numbers and their stunts, which means the Razorbacks will likely see more of that as the season progresses. Liberty stymied the Hogs’ offense with somewhat similar maneuvers last season that led one of those unexpected close losses that Pittman has preached against since the end of last season.

It is somewhat worrisome that a team like Western Carolina gave the Razorbacks’ running game so much trouble when Arkansas’ schedule is littered with much more talented opponents.

That said, the Razorbacks’ rushing attack was pretty vanilla and focused on running between the tackles. Arkansas could have called plays to stretch the Catamounts’ defense out, but there was really no reason to show that.

Arkansas starting tailback Raheim “Rocket” Sanders also danced and stopped too often in the back field instead of being his own blocker in certain instances. Stopping mid run to change directions might work on rare occasions, but Sanders doesn’t excel when he bobs and weaves. He’s better at just plunging ahead.

Arkansas offensive line coach Cody Kennedy and Pittman will get the malfunctions up front sorted out, and I’m guessing Sanders and his running mates will also make necessary adjustments to get the Hogs’ offense humming this week for Kent State, which lost to Central Florida, 56-6, last Saturday.

Kick-off and punt returner Isaiah Sategna of Fayetteville had a big day with two punt returns for 51 yards and two kick-off returns for 46 yards. He also caught two passes for 14 yards. Sategna’s speed and elusiveness is going to be a true asset for the Hogs as the season progresses.

Arkansas should roll over Kent State this Saturday at 3 p.m. The Hogs should once again play a lot of young players after putting the game away early.

After that, the Razorbacks’ season begins for real as BYU visits Fayetteville for a 6:30 p.m. ESPN2 matchup on Sept. 16. BYU defeated Sam Houston State, 14-0, last Saturday and faces Southern Utah at 2 p.m. on Saturday.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Overall: 1-0   SEC: 0-0   Streak: W1

Sept. 2 – Arkansas 56, Western Carolina 13
Sept. 9 – Kent State (3 p.m. SEC Network)
Sept. 16 – BYU (6:30 p.m. ESPN2)
Sept. 23 – at LSU (TBA)
Sept. 30 – Texas AM at Arlington, Texas (TBA)
Oct. 7 – at Ole Miss (TBA)
Oct. 14 – at Alabama (TBA)
Oct. 21 – Mississippi State (TBA)
Nov. 4 – at Florida (TBA)
Nov. 11 – Auburn (TBA)
Nov. 18 – Florida International (TBA)
Nov. 24 – Missouri – (3 p.m. CBS)