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Arkansas’ Defense Gets Much More of Challenge This Week With Aggies

Jim Harris previews the Southwest Classic

ARLINGTON, Texas — Arkansas’s defense has been terrific in its first three games, but then the Razorbacks haven’t been taxed trying to defend multi-dimensional attacks. Then No. 15-ranked Texas was supposed to have provided that with offensive guru Steve Sarkisian as head coach, but the guy that Sark and the Longhorns entrusted to be the better passer couldn’t connect downfield and the Hogs destroyed the Longhorns. Rice, in Arkansas’s 38-17 season opening win, and Georgia Southern were run-first, ball-control-type attacks, through GSU offered a more dangerous-to-defend triple option. Rice, among the trio, somehow managed to hit the one big pass that’s been completed over the top for a big gain and/or touchdown against the Hogs. The 41-yard bomb to a wide-open August Pitre turned out to be the play that ostensibly woke the entire team up on a hot Sept. 4 after a dismal start, resulting in a 31-0 runaway from that point. And, since then, the now 16th-ranked Hogs have been just about everybody’s darling in these parts and beyond.

Texas and Georgia Southern just didn’t have an accurate arm to hurt the Razorbacks. Both certainly had their chances. (And funny, let us note: Now some people want to believe that Texas merely started the wrong quarterback that night against Arkansas, when in essence the backup was a runner; that’s the last thing Texas needed to compete with the Hogs for 60 minutes on Sept. 11, but we know how fans, particularly Longhorn boosters and skeptical Hog followers, can be).

Back to the problem at hand. The day that Arkansas would go on to hammer Texas 40-21, Texas A&M lost its starting freshman quarterback, Haynes King, in its struggle in Denver’s Mile High Stadium with the University of Colorado. Zach Calzada, a redshirt sophomore, shakily came to the rescue, mostly with his feet but contributing some short throws that moved the Aggies the length of the field late in the game. Based on that day, though, it looked like Game 4 on the Razorbacks’ schedule, these pesky Aggies, was falling into the same trend of the first three opponents.

Forget that now. Calzada, following his heroics in leading A&M to a 10-7 comeback, had a full week to prepare in the QB1 spot leading up to the Aggies’ next game, getting all the practice snaps and feeling more comfortable behind a young, rebuilt A&M line. Though it was against woeful New Mexico, Calzada completed 19 of 33 passes for 275

yards and three touchdowns, and the Aggies, after a couple of weeks of stumbling on offense, mixed up the run and pass and looked more like a Jimbo Fisher offense.

So, that’s what Arkansas deals with this week in Arlington, Texas, in a 2:30 p.m., nationally televised game on THV11 and CBS: Not a run-only or run-mostly team that the Hogs can run-stunt and blitz while they play off receivers in the secondary, but rather a balanced offense with speed all around, one that will keep everyone on the Razorbacks honest, from coordinator Barry Odom on down. If not, there’s plenty of concern then: Those receivers who we saw running open for Georgia Southern and Texas at times behind even a three-deep safety alignment are far more likely as Aggies to wreak havoc on the Hogs.

Arkansas still may overplay seventh-ranked Texas A&M’s running game first and make Calzada have to beat them over the top. The problem for the Hogs, though, is that Calzada, unlike Texas’ Hudson Card, can put his passes somewhere in the vicinity of his receivers and still count on these hands to hold on. The player that sticks out most, and certainly should to any Razorbacks who were part of last year’s game at College Station, is junior tight end Jalen Wydemyer. He had six catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns in A&M’s 42-31 victory that wasn’t really as close as that score makes it appear. At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, agile and fast, he was the best tight end in the SEC West last year, one that Alabama had trouble defending, and he’s the best in the league this year. It’s hard to imagine who on Arkansas’s side can consistently defend him. The only answer would seem to be: Don’t allow Calzada to have time to find Wydemyer.

Plus, if you put too much attention on Wydemyer – in fact, UA coach Sam Pittman already promised that this year the Hogs would know where he is all the time – the Aggies can burn you with WRs Ainias Smith (supposedly questionable, but he’ll play), Demond Demas and Chase Lane, plus more speed in reserve. And, of course, setting all this up is terrific junior starting running back Isaiah Spiller, with sophomore Devon Achane likely back in action Saturday behind him.

A&M, after having to punt the first time it had the ball, scored on its next six possessions against Odom and the Hogs last year in College Station to turn that game into a rout. The key to that wasn’t just the plethora of skill players (though A&M, to be fair, was not deep at receiver) and umpteenth-year starting quarterback Kellen Mond, but the vastly experienced offensive line paving the way. It’s easy to understand, looking back, why the teams with the best O-lines in the SEC in 2020 – Alabama and A&M – were 1-2 in the league (and perhaps in reality 1-2 in the nation, outside of the fact that 9-1 A&M was left out of the four-team college football playoff for Notre Dame, which Alabama routed, or Clemson).

This year, at least against Colorado and New Mexico, A&M seems to be struggling with consistency on the left side of its line, where Tennessee Vols transfer Jahmir Johnson, at tackle, and redshirt freshman Aki Qgunbiyi, at guard, set up. Luke Matthews, sitting out last season with an injury, is the new center. Right guard Layden Robinson was a reserve who logged 31 snaps last year. The Aggies will lean on All-American junior Kenyon Green, their right tackle.

Expect Arkansas to use a lot of the formula we saw against Texas and Georgia Southern: Be as physical as possible with all the depth it has now in its defensive line, led by the blossoming grad transfer John Ridgeway at nose tackle, and let the linebackers eat. Hope that safety Jalen Catalon and cornerback Montaric Brown can lock down half or more of the field and that the other DBs don’t get caught peeking into the backfield while the Aggies’ speed demons or Wydemyer run past them, providing easy targets for Calzada.

Arkansas’s defense can’t afford to give up more than a couple of scores; the Razorbacks’ offense might be hard-pressed to put up the kind of points it’s managed the past two weeks. The Razorbacks’ passing game, let’s admit, is still hit or miss, and not just because of sophomore quarterback K.J. Jefferson’s indecision at times on how to deliver the ball downfield. Occasionally, he’s been outstanding; his 60-yard strike last week to Warren Thompson was perfection. Arkansas has been plagued by a few drops here and there. At least last Saturday, particularly on a 91-yard touchdown on a bubble screen, we saw heralded junior receiver Treylon Burks finally flash the speed we knew he had. Surprising super senior wideout Tyson Morris continues each week to make a big play downfield for Jefferson, igniting the offense, when the Hogs need to stretch the field and open up running lanes. Last week it came on the Razorbacks’ first offensive snap. Another receiver, though, will have to step up this week. Burks, Morris and Thompson are proven commodities now. So, who might the next name be? Senior Devion Warren, still trying to battle back from a debilitating knee injury from last season? Freshman Ketron Jackson? Maybe this is the week we see little used senior T.J. Hammonds, who always has at least one game a year that makes Hog fans go “wow.”

Or maybe offensive coordinator Kendall Briles’ plan will be to keep this one on the ground more, spotting a possession pass or two here, taking a deep shot there, and keep the Aggies’ offense off the field, while taxing an athletic A&M defense that many around College Station say is the best they’ve seen in nearly 25 years. They have three sure-fire pros in that lineup, and plenty of athletic ability all around. But, for all the hype, A&M so far hasn’t been dominant against the run against its middling schedule, and running is what Arkansas does well. Figure A&M to have run stunts installed that haven’t been shown yet, and probably more 8-men-in-the-box sets, either disguised

until just before the snap, which is what defensive coordinator Mike Elko prefers, or straight up to dare Jefferson to try to air it out. Will Jefferson have time to throw anything more than the short tosses? As luck would have it, probably the two people Arkansas could least afford to have injured among its O-line are, in fact, a game-time decision to play: junior center Ricky Stromberg and senior right tackle Dalton Wagner. When they went out in the second half last week against Georgia Southern, it was noted by some observers that the Hogs’ offense “didn’t miss a beat,” but that was in a second half against a weak Sun Belt foe that was fading badly. Stromberg tweaked his left knee while getting rolled up – the same knee that bothered him and kept him off the field for a couple of weeks in August. Wagner seems to have hurt his back Saturday, but Arkansas has not described his injury as such. They’ve been the most consistent linemen so far in this 3-0 start, and their absence against this level of talent Saturday will severely damage Arkansas’s chances.

Turnovers and special teams, of course, always factor in big matchups among what appears to be fairly even teams – A&M is a 6-point favorite by Vegas oddsmakers. Other than three second-half picks against Rice when the Owls had the throw in the fourth quarter, Arkansas’s defense has not been very opportunistic so far this year, in spite of how ferocious it’s played. Zach Williams forced a fumble from Texas quarterback Hudson Card that Greg Brooks Jr. recovered after the Hogs had moved up comfortably 26-7, but the Razorbacks did not shake the ball loose from Georgia State once despite winning by 35 points. The Hogs, who threw one interception both against Rice and Texas, also didn’t turn it over either last Saturday, which perhaps bodes well. A&M, meanwhile, has had five passes picked and lost two fumbles in its three games.

* * *

A&M has won nine straight from the Razorbacks. No team other than Alabama has beaten Arkansas more times consecutively, playing yearly, since the Hogs joined the SEC. The program did drop nine straight games to Florida before winning in 2016, but those matchups were not yearly. Alabama is on a 14-game win streak against the Hogs. In the old Southwest Conference, Arkansas dominated A&M for a stretch, winning 10 in a row during its powerhouse run in the 1960s. And even up to the Hogs’ departure from the SWC after the 1991 season, the Razorbacks held an edge over A&M, only losing two in a row to A&M twice between 1958 and the last meeting in 1991. Arkansas, with all that success during that stretch, eventually established a 38-24 edge over the Aggies, with three ties, in the overall series while the teams were SWC rivals.

Arkansas even started out 3-0 with Bobby Petrino in charge when the rivalry was resumed in 2009 as the “Southwest Classic” in Jerry Jones’ AT&T Stadium. But it’s all gone south for the Razorbacks starting in 2012, which coincided with A&M joining the

SEC and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel leading those Aggies to one of the best seasons in program history. Arkansas even lost three games in overtime in the current skid, all under Bret Bielema, who was 0-5 overall against A&M and former Aggie coach Kevin Sumlin. And, as bad as the two-year Chad Morris era was for Arkansas, that former A&M grad himself managed to lose two tightly contested games that came down to a play in the final seconds with the Aggies and Fisher, their $75 million coach who just got an extension. That’s why nearly everyone who has talked or written about this game this week expects Saturday’s clash to come down to one score or less, and 60 minutes may not be enough to decide it.

Jim Harris has covered Arkansas Razorback football since 1976 for a variety of state media organizations, including the Arkansas Gazette and ArkansasSports360.com. He provides commentary each week as part of the team on THV’s “Hog Zone” Saturdays at 10:30 p.m.

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