BYU breaks seal on challenging Razorback schedule

Arkansas redshirt senior Trajan Jeffcoat (7) was named the Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Lineman of the Week following the Razorbacks’ 28-6 win over Kent State on Sept. 9, 2023. (UA Athletics)

The Arkansas Razorbacks’ closer-than-expected 28-6 victory over Kent State last Saturday was a punch in the gut to some Hog fans who expected the Hogs to roll through their first two games without any worries.

Oh, they aren’t smarting like Alabama fans are this week or the LSU faithful were a week ago, but fans of all stripes are going to get testy when expectations aren’t met on a weekly basis.

The simple fact is that Arkansas couldn’t have beaten Kent State bad enough to make Hog fans feel happy about winning a game against what is perceived to be a cupcake opponent.

Reality is that Kent State was embarrassed by their 56-6 lost at Central Florida, and head coach Kenni Burns and his staff did an excellent job of not only inspiring their Golden Flashes to play better, but they also devised an excellent game plan to run the clock and shorten the ball game as much as they could.

That coupled with a less-than-inspired performance, particularly by the Hogs’ offense, made the contest more of a ball game than most had anticipated.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that in the first half my mind drifted back to 1992 and one of the most embarrassing losses in Razorback history. In the Hogs’ first season in the SEC, The Citadel upset the Razorbacks, 10-3, in their opener on an oddly similar sunny Saturday afternoon in Razorback Stadium.

That was a shock that sent Jack Crowe packing, saw Joe Kines elevated from defensive coordinator to interim head coach and finally to Danny Ford being named head coach at the end of a disastrous 3-7-1 season, which just happened to be Arkansas’ first in the SEC.

The Hogs would sink to lower lows in an interim season under John L. Smith in 2012 and in both seasons under Chad Morris in 2018 and 2019. Bret Bielema’s first season in 2013 was pretty bad, too.

The Hogs’ underachievement last Saturday didn’t even come close to that type of futility, but as Arkansas coach Sam Pittman freely admitted following the game and in Monday’s press conference, the Hogs — for whatever reason — didn’t play up to their capabilities against Kent State, particularly in the first half.

Should Arkansas fans be concerned?

If you were expecting these Hogs to go undefeated, you probably should.

If you are being more realistic, then maybe, maybe not?

It all depends on how the Razorbacks react to not putting their best foot forward last Saturday.

While I’ve only read about this game, the 1964 Razorbacks started slow in their second game of the season, falling behind 14-0 to Tulsa in Fayetteville in the first quarter. The Razorbacks rebounded — spurred on by a Pick 6 from All-American linebacker Ronnie Caveness — to post a 31-22 victory over the Golden Hurricane.

Those who’ve studied their Razorback history know that the Hogs went undefeated that season and won a national title.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not predicting a national title, but maybe last Saturday’s struggle will rattle the Razorbacks’ cages and generate some urgency that was missing last week?

The fact that the undefeated BYU Cougars — a newly minted member of the Big 12 — visit Razorback Stadium at 6:30 p.m. Saturday for an ESPN2 telecast should create a sense of urgency among the Razorbacks.

Coach Kalani Sitake’s Cougars opened the season with 14-0 victory over Sam Houston, and whipped Southern Utah, 41-16, last Saturday, and they are eager to see if they can exact some revenge for the Razorbacks’ 52-35 victory at Provo, Utah last season.

Arkansas is a 9.5-point favorite, which seems like a lot to me, considering how Arkansas’ offense sputtered last Saturday.

Pittman said Monday that the Hogs’ run fits with the offensive line were off, but he reiterated that all the Razorbacks’ running-game struggles can’t be laid at the feet of the offensive line. He pointed out that the backs, tight ends, and receivers all had blown assignments in the run game and that the squad’s overall effort and precision has to improve as the Hogs’ move forward.

The game plan going in was not to break the glass on quarterback K.J. Jefferson as a ball carrier other than in short-yardage situations, but the longer Arkansas struggled, the more apparent it became that the Hogs needed Jefferson to take off the Clark Kent glasses and put on his Superman cape.

Jefferson rushed for 63 yards on 13 carries to inject some life into the Hogs’ offense on a day when he wasn’t exactly accurate throwing the football. He was 13 of 19 for 136 yards and two touchdowns, which on the surface isn’t bad, but he wasn’t putting the ball on the money like he did the week before against Western Carolina.

Jefferson needs to keep his tights and cape ready for the rest of the season. There’s not another cupcake left on the Hogs’ plate until Florida International visits Fayetteville on Nov. 18, and until the Razorbacks get the kinks worked out with offensive coordinator Dan Enos’ new offensive scheme, Jefferson needs to be a threat to run to make the Hogs’ offense go.

The news that preseason All-SEC running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders will miss Saturday’s game with a knee injury puts even more of an onus on Jefferson.

Backups A.J. Green and Rashod Dubion don’t run with the same lean and authority that Rocket does, and while Dominique Johnson is a proven SEC power runner, he doesn’t match Sanders’ speed.

Pittman did not say that Sanders would be out for the Hogs’ game at LSU on Sept. 23, which will be televised at 6 p.m. on ESPN, but after missing two full weeks of practice, even if his knee is better next week, Sanders’ conditioning is likely to be off.

But the Razorbacks have a ton of work to do before even thinking about the Hogs’ month-long road tour of some of the toughest sites in the SEC.

Their trip to Baton Rouge, La. is followed by an excursion to Arlington Texas on Sept. 30 to play Texas A&M. From there, the Razorbacks rumble into Oxford, Miss. for another shootout with Ole Miss, and then it’s on to Tuscaloosa, Ala. to face the Crimson Tide, whom Arkansas hasn’t beaten since 2006.

As Pittman has said, the Hogs only have to play them one at a time, and BYU is up first. The Hogs can’t take BYU for granted like they did Kent State. Arkansas really can’t afford to overlook another opponent the rest of this season.

If the Golden Flashes taught the Hogs that lesson last Saturday, then the victory might be more profitable for the Razorbacks than any of us can imagine.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Overall: 2-0   SEC: 0-0   Streak: W2

Sept. 2 – Arkansas 56, Western Carolina 13
Sept. 9 – Arkansas 28, Kent State 6
Sept. 16 – BYU (6:30 p.m. ESPN2)
Sept. 23 – at LSU (6 p.m. ESPN)
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)