Hogs to take their shot at Aggies in Southwest Classic

The Razorbacks face Texas A&M in Arlington at 11 a.m. Saturday on the SEC Network.
Arkansas tight end Luke Hasz (9) pulls in a touchdown reception in the second half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. LSU won 34-31. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

While I don’t intend to get into the business of championing moral victories, I don’t think I’m alone among Hog fans in saying I feel better this week about the Arkansas Razorbacks (2-2, 0-1 SEC) than I did a week ago.

The Razorbacks gave a very talented LSU (3-1, 2-0 SEC) squad all it wanted last Saturday in Baton Rouge, despite falling, 34-31, to the Tigers in the final seconds of a very entertaining football game.

All losses are tough to swallow, but the ones that go down extra hard are like Arkansas’ mistake-filled loss to BYU on Sept. 16 when it felt like the Razorbacks let a game they should have won slip through their hooves.

Certainly, the Razorbacks didn’t play mistake-free football against the Tigers last Saturday, but I think most would agree Arkansas’ effort and execution was better, and at no point did they flounder about like their last drive against BYU.

While Arkansas did suffer a couple of pre-snap penalties because of the noise and and well-played shifts of LSU’s defensive line, the Hogs’ overall performance against LSU was a considerable improvement from the previous week.

Arkansas ran the ball better against arguably the best front seven they have played this season. The Hogs’ offensive line showed improvement with their best effort as a unit this season. They gelled better in the run game, and did a better job with pass protection, considering the Tigers pass-rushing prowess.

Running back Rashod Dubinion gained 78 yards on 15 carries to add some punch to the Hogs’ running game that has struggled most of the season.

K.J. Jefferson played like a warrior.

With a good bit of flak around him in the pocket, Jefferson moved away from pressure better than he has all season, and delivered more on-target throws to a receiver group who is doing a better job of adjusting to and working with their quarterback. Jefferson extended plays with the help of his receivers and looked more comfortable in offensive coordinator Dan Enos’ offense than he has previously.

Part of that has to do with the rapport he’s developed with freshman tight end Luke Hasz, who led all Hog receivers with 6 catches for 116 yards, two touchdowns, and a 2-point conversion catch.

The Hogs weren’t able to pull out a victory, but the offensive improvement was impressive.

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) carries for a big gain in the first half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Defensively, the Hogs struggled again. LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels struggled a bit early, but late in the second quarter he found rhythm and lit the Hogs up for 320 yards passing and four touchdowns on 20-of-29 passing with one touchdown. The Tigers also ground out 189 yards rushing on 29 carriers.

The Hogs seemed to wear down defensively the longer the game went on. Arkansas did not substitute as much as I anticipated they would from what was said by the coaching staff in preseason, but as Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman explained Monday in his press conference, coaches aren’t going to send players into the game if they haven’t proven capable of executing the game plan properly in practice.

Arkansas punter Max Fletcher bounced back with a better night, too, after a couple of shanked punts against BYU. His lone punt went for 53 yards, and from the holder spot, he executed a perfect fake field goal, running for a first down. The Hogs weren’t able to cash in with a touchdown in the situation, but the field goal by Cam Little was key in keeping momentum alive.

Losing a game is never fun, but the Razorbacks showed enough improvement against the Tigers to hopefully make this a less stressful week for them than after their surprise loss to BYU.

The Razorbacks have already turned their attention to Saturday’s 11 a.m. contest with Texas A&M (3-1, 1-0) in the Southwest Classic at Arlington, Texas. The SEC Network is televising the game.

The Hogs and Aggies were longtime rivals before Arkansas exited the Southwest Conference after the 1991 season. Arkansas owns a 42-34-3 advantage in the series, but the Aggies have dominated the Razorbacks since joining the SEC in 2012, winning 10 of the last 11 games. Arkansas beat the Aggies, 20-10, in 2021, during Pittman’s second season.

Adding even more flavor to the game, former Razorback head coach Bobby Petrino (2008-2011) is now the Aggies’ offensive coordinator. Petrino is the play-caller and quarterbacks coach for the Aggies.

Connor Weigman was A&M’s starter at quarterback, but after a lower leg injury last Saturday, Max Johnson took over the controls for the Aggies and played very well in their 27-10 thumping of Auburn. A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher lists Weigman as day-to-day.

The Hogs will be prepping for both. Weigman had completed 82 of 119 passes for 979 yards and 8 touchdowns against two interceptions. Johnson is 20 for 30 on the season with 226 yards and 4 touchdowns with no interceptions.

Arkansas place-kicker Cam Little (29) reacts after missing a field goal against Texas A&M in the final minutes of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Arlington, Texas. Texas A&M won 23-21. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Either should test Arkansas, which is giving up 231 yards passing per game and 13.2 yards per catch.

Evan Stewart leads Aggie receivers with 22 catches for 307 yards and 2 touchdowns, with Ainias Smith right behind him with 18 catches for 272 yards.

The Aggies have three backs who have rushed for more than 100 yards this season with Amari Daniels leading the way with 234 yards on 39 carries and two touchdowns. Le’Veon Moss has 29 carries for 169 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Rueben Owens has 103 yards and touchdown on 27 rushes.

The Aggies opened the week as three-point favorites over the Razorbacks.

This is a huge game for both teams that absorbed out-of-conference losses neither fanbases were expecting. The Aggies took it on the chin, 48-33, at Miami on the second week of the season, but bounced back, whipping Louisiana-Monroes, 47-3, on Sept. 16 and Auburn, 27-10, last Saturday.

As even and up-and-down as the SEC West appears to be, the winner of this game will still be in the hunt for the SEC West title. The loser’s chances would diminish quite a bit. The Aggies would still be in the hunt with a loss, but the Razorbacks would all but be eliminated.

This matchup is usually a good one, but Arkansas’ defense will have to be more effective in the second half than it was against LSU and BYU to for the Razorbacks to bring home a victory.

Pittman said he believed the Hogs came out of the LSU loss fairly healthy. It would be great to see Raheim “Rocket” Sanders return to the Razorbacks’ travel roster this week. No doubt it will take time for him to get his legs back underneath him, but Arkansas’ offense could use his speed and explosiveness.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Overall: 2-2   SEC: 0-1   Streak: L2

Sept. 2 – Arkansas 56, Western Carolina 13
Sept. 9 – Arkansas 28, Kent State 6
Sept. 16 – BYU 38, Arkansas 31
Sept. 23 – LSU 34, Arkansas 31
Sept. 30 – Texas A&M at Arlington, Texas (11 a.m. SEC Network)
Oct. 7 – at Ole Miss (6:30 p.m. SEC Network)
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)