The Arkansas Razorbacks (1-0) are a 37.5-point favorite over the Kent State Golden Flashes (0-1) for Saturday’s 3 p.m. game that will be televised by the SEC Network.
A solid but not spectacular crowd is expected for the Hogs’ first game in their home stadium this year, but if you’ve noticed a bit of a ho-hum feel in the air, you’re not the only one.
The excitement level around town isn’t low, but it’s not exactly electric either.
Based on Arkansas coach Sam Pittman’s comments in media appearances this hasn’t been the most attentive or focused week of practice for a Razorback team that should know better, even if this week’s opponent isn’t a world beater.
Razorback fans far and wide must hope that Pittman’s comments to his squad sink in. We have heard Alabama coach Nick Saban and Georgia coach Kirby Smart explain over the years that their teams aren’t facing an opponent in their next ballgame as much as they are attempting to play up to their own standard of excellence.
Pittman has talked about establishing a similar attitude among his current team a good bit during this preseason. The idea is that if a team plays up to the standard it establishes for itself, the outcomes on Saturdays will be more consistent and constant and not be driven by emotions which fluctuate from week to week.
There will automatically be more emotion for big games. That comes naturally. However, if a team is also attempting to play at a certain standard no matter the variables, there will be a high constant level of play week after week.
Playing at a consistent and constantly high level week after week takes mental toughness and an intestinal fortitude that all of the best football teams have.
Legendary Razorback track, field, and cross country coach John McDonnell always said that perfection was unattainable in athletics, but he did demand that his athletes strive for excellence every time they laced up their shoes for competition or practice.
In his own way, Pittman is asking for his Hogs to strive for excellence, too, in their work habits, practice, preparation, and play. When an athlete or a team does that, there are no regrets — win or lose.
When we’ve heard Pittman speak about last season, his words were tinged with regrets. His Hogs lost four games by three or fewer points last season. Those close losses were the difference between a decent season and a good one.
All the work the Razorbacks have put in during off-season workouts, spring practice, summer workouts, preseason practice, and now weekly preparations for the game are to make sure the Hogs have less to regret this season than last.
While we’ve seen some Razorback teams stumble to lesser opponents — The Citadel loss in 1992 and the more recent Chad Morris era come to mind all too quickly — I don’t think Razorback fans have to worry about travesties like those this year.
However, we will be able to judge the hearts and minds of this current group of Razorbacks by how they play against Kent State.
Last week the Hogs didn’t play a perfect game against Western Carolina, but their effort were fine tuned and focused from the opening snap, and they won the football game just like they were supposed to.
Again how sharp the Razorbacks play on Saturday will tell us where their hearts and minds were this week while they were preparing for Kent State.
If the Razorbacks play sharp, take care of their business, and give their second string another chance to get some fourth-quarter work in on Saturday, it will be another successful weekend, and the Hogs can look forward to a big showdown with the BYU Cougars on Sept. 16 before heading into the heart of SEC play in the back half of September.
Knee Swelling Grounds Rocket
It’s unfortunate that Raheim “Rocket” Sanders is sidelined for Saturday’s game with a swollen knee. Pittman’s description of the injury doesn’t sound serious. Hopefully he will be ready to go for BYU next week.
The injury does give the Razorbacks’ loaded running back room the opportunity to show what they are about this week. Whether Pittman starts A.J. Green, Rashod Dubinion, or possibly looks to Dominique Johnson, who has he most starting experience of the three, the Hogs should be in good shape.
Last week Western Carolina sold out to stop the run, and Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos saw no sense in banging his head against a brick wall. He just had the Hogs take what the defense gave them.
While quarterback K.J. Jefferson and his receivers took advantage, Enos might be more dedicated to running the football this Saturday to get all aspects of the offense in tune for the upcoming challenges the Hogs will face for the rest of the season.
Having starting guard and team captain Brady Latham back in the lineup should help. It will be interesting to see if Andrew Chamblee (6-6, 304) or Devon Manuel (6-9, 310) starts at left tackle.
Manuel had earned the spot in spring practice, but a head injury sidelined him through most of the preseason, and Chamblee moved ahead of him and kept the starting spot when Manuel returned. However, Pittman said last week there is competition at the position.
Arkansas’ active defense forced a stunning five turnovers (4 interceptions, and 1 fumble) against Western Carolina. It will be difficult to duplicate that again this season regardless of the opponent, but if the Hogs can continue to be opportunistic it makes winning that much easier.