Moving forward, incremental improvement key for Hogs’ success

Arkansas wide receiver Isaiah Sategna (16) breaks away from the BYU defense as he returns a punt 88 yards for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

After making corrections from game footage of the Arkansas Razorbacks’ mistake-marred 38-31 loss to BYU on Monday, Sam Pittman said there would be no looking back for his Hogs, which enter into SEC play this Saturday against No. 12 LSU Tigers for their annual date.

Pittman’s Razorbacks (2-1) can’t afford to dwell on the past with perhaps the Hogs’ most talented opponent awaiting them for a 6 p.m. date in Death Valley that will be televised by ESPN with its lead broadcast team of Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Holly Rowe on the call.

Brian Kelly’s Tigers (2-1, 1-1 SEC) have bounced back in a big way from their season opening 45-24 loss to No. 4 Florida State by walloping Grambling State, 72-10, and upending Mississippi State, 41-14, at Starkville, Miss. last week.

The number the Tigers did on the Bulldogs last Saturday was impressive. Their defense was oppressive and their offense purred, hitting on all cylinders after spitting and sputtering in the opener against the Seminoles.

In contrast, the Razorbacks played well in fits and starts against BYU last Saturday building a 14-point and another 10-point lead only to see the Cougars erase those leads, taking advantage of two Arkansas turnovers and two short punts by Max Fletcher. BYU scored three touchdowns and a field goal off all four of those mistakes, erasing any and all momentum gained by the Hogs.

Pressure up front by the Cougars’ mostly four-man pass rush coupled with locking down Arkansas’ receiving corps for much of the game left Razorback quarterback K.J. Jefferson holding the ball too long and throwing behind receivers as he waited for them to come open. Jefferson, whom Pittman said was a bit beat up going into the game, suffered four sacks, while throwing from the pocket.

Making matters worse, the Hogs committed 14 penalties for a whopping 125 yards, including six in the critical fourth quarter.

Razorback fans were irked that the Hogs failed to make a couple of fourth-and-shorts with K.J. Jefferson in the shotgun rather than under center. Interestingly enough when Kelly was asked about his philosophy on whether going under center or taking a shotgun snap on fourth down, he basically said whichever formation the team is most comfortable executing from.

The Razorbacks have to clean up their sloppy play before they embark on their trip to Baton Rouge. If the Hogs suffer that many turnovers, penalties, and flopped punts against LSU, the Tigers with maul them by a count greater than the already massive 18 points Las Vegas was offering Razorback betters on Sunday.

Again in fits and starts, the Hogs proved they can play better football than the whole they showed against BYU, but consistency is a concept the Razorbacks are having a difficult time grasping at the moment.

Arkansas running back AJ Green (0) slips away from BYU defensive tackle Caden Haws (95) on his way to a 55-yard touchdown runs during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Issues along the offensive line with inexperienced tackles and injuries in several key spots have not allowed the position group to settle in enough in preseason and through the first three games to develop the cohesiveness an offensive line needs to function with to be productive.

While the Razorback do have a talented backfield in A.J. Green, Rashod Dubinion, and Dominique Johnson, there is no doubt the Razorbacks are missing the combination of power and explosiveness that Raheim “Rocket” Sanders brought to the running game last season as the SEC’s second-leading rusher.

Before Monday’s practice, Pittman said Sanders’ availability for the LSU game is unknown at this moment. Even if Sanders is healthy enough to play, how effective he would be after missing two weeks of practice is certainly in question.

The Tigers are an incredibly athletic team with a strong front seven. Pittman pointed out defensive end Barkevious Mingo (6-4, 230) and linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. (6-1, 220) as particularly dominating performers. Perkins was a one-man wreaking crew last year against the Razorbacks on a windy, cold day in Fayetteville in which Jefferson did not play because of a shoulder injury.

Perkins played inside linebacker in LSU’s opener against Florida State, but much of his natural instincts were neutralized playing in the middle of the defense. He moved outside against Grambling State and MSU, and he has played more like his own self.

As leaky as Arkansas’ tackles were against BYU, Jefferson is going to need to be aware of where Perkins is at all times for his own safety.

Pittman said the Razorbacks would likely help Jefferson by moving the pocket against the Tigers. This is a good move. Jefferson seems to come alive when he is on the move as a passer.

Perhaps some of the Hogs’ issues have come from attempting to make a pocket passer out of Jefferson, when his play is more suited to be on the move or at least having the option to run with more of the RPO game?

Any and everything should be considered to keep him from being a sitting duck waiting for Perkins, Mingo and the rest of LSU’s front seven to tee off on.

Unfortunately Arkansas’ experience and depth at the two tackle spots seems to be the tender spot on the Razorbacks’ offense. That’s not good news for Saturday’s game.

But one game doesn’t make or break a season.

Arkansas must concentrate on improving as much as possible this week, not just for the LSU game, which seems to be a mismatch but also for the remaining eight games.

If the Hogs can draw a line in the dirt this week and begin incremental improvement, it might not pay off in a victory this week, but it could in the weeks to come.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Overall: 2-1   SEC: 0-0   Streak: L1

Sept. 2 – Arkansas 56, Western Carolina 13
Sept. 9 – Arkansas 28, Kent State 6
Sept. 16 – BYU 38, Arkansas 31
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)