ATHENS, Ga. — Arkansas will eventually go up against a quarterback who can beat the Razorbacks this season, but through four games that hasn’t happened. Is Georgia’s J.T. Daniels capable of being that guy?
Rice’s two-headed quarterback in the teams’ season opener proved ineffective, and the Owls threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter to boot. Texas’ Hudson Card played himself out of a starting job for the Longhorns, against the overpowering physicality of the Razorbacks’ defensive front, although Card had a couple of chances to hit deep throws over the Hogs’ three-safety zone and missed badly. Georgia Southern trotted out its best quarterback, who had missed his team’s first two games, to run the Eagles’ triple option that ultimately had no chance. And though Texas A&M’s Zach Calzada had gotten his sea legs the week before in a win over New Mexico and threw the ball well that day, the Razorbacks were a different animal last weekend in Arlington, Texas.
In every case, those opponents couldn’t overpower Arkansas’s 5- and 6-men sets “in the box,” and without a consistent running attack, there was little chance to throw consistently either. But just in case, particularly against Texas and A&M, Arkansas out of those 3- and 4-men fronts has displayed a pass rush not seen around these parts in quite some time, and it’s made things more difficult for this variety of signal callers through September.
So, now, we move to Daniels, the junior in his second year at Georgia after transferring from Southern Cal, and the No. 2 ranked Bulldogs. Against high-quality competition, their season opener vs. Clemson, Daniels and the Dawgs moved the ball some against the Tigers’ stout defense but struggled to score in a 10-3 win. Since then, they’ve blitzed UA-Birmingham, South Carolina and Vanderbilt by a combined 157-20, but it’s difficult to determine if the Bulldogs really are that good offensively or those outmanned opponents were simply overwhelmed, if not intimidated, by the moment and the talent differential.
Arkansas’ opposing quarterbacks this past month never saw the same look in the defensive front from game to game (three-man fronts vs. Texas and A&M, four-man looks vs. Rice and Georgia Southern, all with deviations from a basic set) that often brutalized their offensive lines. Texas A&M’s supposedly more talented line won a battle or two here and there last Saturday, but not near enough, as Arkansas rushed three men all game, deployed three safeties deep, and was willing to give Calzada some short stuff while attacking with its newfound speed in the 20-10 convincing win over the then No. 7 Aggies. A&M managed just 121 rushing yards, with 67 coming on one play: Isaiah
Spiller’s lone touchdown burst through the middle on a rare UA linebacker bust at the point of attack.
If Georgia’s offensive line can do what the previous four teams couldn’t, and match the Razorbacks’ defensive line’s physicality while it protects Daniels, or if the Dawgs can establish a better ground game than any of the Hogs’ first four opponents, the No. 8 ranked Arkansas’s bubble is likely to burst in Athens in the 11 a.m. contest on ESPN.
“Daniels can throw it on all levels,” Razorbacks head coach Sam Pittman said Monday, noting that Daniels will deliver the ball accurately and quickly deep, in the mid-range area and on short tosses. Even in dropping eight men into zone coverage, Arkansas’s secondary can’t expect to stop a strong-throwing quarterback who is given time to find his receivers. This improved pass rush out of Barry Odom’s defense this season at least forces offenses to keep one (tight end) or two (running back) potential receivers back to protect and out of the routes, and cuts Daniels’ downfield choices to three.
As noted in this space last week when contemplating Arkansas’s offensive chances against A&M athletic defense, led by its terrifically stout front four, the Hogs scored just two touchdowns. But they picked up 353 total yards in the first half (only 90 more after halftime while starting quarterback K.J. Jefferson spent most of it sidelined with a bruised knee), broke the Aggies twice for big scoring plays, and moved the ball in position for freshman placekicker Cam Little to deliver perfectly again, jumping to a 17-0 lead. As long as the defense kept Spiller and his backup, Devon Achane, reasonably in check, and as long as they kept a close watch on the Aggies’ superlative tight end, Jalen Wydemyer, Calzada – like the three starting quarterbacks before him – was not going to beat the Hogs.
Daniels wasn’t cleared to play medically when the Bulldogs and Hogs met in Fayetteville to open Sam Pittman’s coaching career on Labor Day weekend of 2020. D’Wan Mathis, who has since transferred to Temple, got the nod and spent the first half mostly rattled as Arkansas carried a 7-5 lead into the halftime locker room.
The Bulldogs then turned to former walk-on Stetson Bennett in the second half, and his ability to throw accurately downfield soon put an end to any thoughts of a miracle Hog upset. However, what really turned the game Georgia’s way were two huge mistakes deep in Arkansas’s end: a blocked punt, and then an interception deep in the Hogs’ end off Felipe Franks. Arkansas, after outplaying Georgia for more than two quarters, was down two touchdown in a blink.
Georgia in 2020 had the kind of opportunistic defense that could win games when the offense was struggling. Somehow, despite losing seven starters from last year, the Bulldogs seem better defensively now. Certainly, it was that same opportunism that prevailed for the Dawgs in the season opener against Clemson, sparked by defensive back Christopher Smith’s 74-yard interception return for the game’s only touchdown.
Georgia stopped its self with a fumble and a pick and gained just 256 total yards, but held Clemson to 180 total, and only 2 yards rushing on 23 attempts. Clemson’s backs gained 24 yards but gave most of it back on sacks. Speaking of, senior defensive lineman Jordan Davis is a man-child at 6-6, 340 pounds. Georgia’s defense still has juniors and seniors throughout its starting 11.
Arkansas has made it to 4-0 by running well with four backs, not taking crazy chances in the passing game, and holding onto the football. K.J. Jefferson has been intercepted twice, once against Rice early, and once against Texas that let the Horns briefly regain some hope at 16-7 early in the second half. In both games, though, the turnovers did little to crush Jefferson’s confidence and Arkansas rolled. The Hogs have been turnover free the past two weeks; but it should be noted that the Razorback defense, as good as it’s been simply shutting folks down, has forced just one turnover in the past two weeks, and two over the past three weeks. Montaric Brown’s diving interception at A&M’s 48 early in the fourth quarter of a deflected, then tipped Calzada pass over the middle set up Little’s clinching short field goal.
On paper, matching recruiting classes over the past four years, Georgia certainly should deserve the 18.5-point edge that Vegas oddsmakers set on the game, if not more, though Arkansas was decidedly short on “stars” against Texas and A&M, too. The Dawgs are at home before as many as 93,000 fans, which can be intimidating to visitors; away from home last week, they ran out to a 35-0 lead on Vanderbilt on the way to a 62-0 romp.
We’re certain, though, that Georgia will get much more of a fight from the Razorbacks on Saturday than they saw in Nashville. But if the Dawgs’ can solve Odom’s disguised coverages, protect Daniels from the likes of indomitable rush end Tre Williams, and successfully negotiate the many-play drives they’re probably going to face, they’ll take care of the Hogs as expected. What Arkansas doesn’t want to do is give the Dawgs anything – nothing via turnovers or through special teams blunders. For three weeks, those special teams have looked good, a big improvement over last year; that has to continue.
If Arkansas can reach the fourth quarter within one score, though, and if Jefferson and wideout Treylon Burks are still at 100% (which they weren’t in the second half last week), an upset is not out of the question. At this point, a surprising 4-0 and ranked in the top 10, Arkansas is playing with house money. There shouldn’t be any pressure.
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 “HogZone” Saturdays at 10:30 p.m