You want to know why Arkansas knocking off Mississippi State — I resist usage of the term “upset” despite the Bulldogs’ inflated new ranking — was so damn special?
No, it wasn’t because of that albatross of a 20-game SEC skein that the horrifyingly terrible fifth-tier broadcasting crew kept emphasizing to the point of nausea.
It wasn’t because Sam Pittman earned his first head coaching win, or because the Hogs bottled up and frustrated Mike Leach’s vaunted attack and spoiled his first game in Starkville (NOT “StarkVegas”, Roy Philpott, no matter how many times you say it on air).
It wasn’t even because the pall of the Summer of COVID was finally lifting in a moment of catharsis.
Rather, the 21-14 victory at Davis-Wade Stadium on Saturday night finally taught a team, a program that had no sense of how to win a game, to follow a blueprint for triumph. The haphazard mess that has been Arkansas football of late wasn’t always this way, right? We’ve had our share of heartaches if we’ve lent even a modicum of our emotions into this ragtag squad, fighting like hell to stay relevant regionally, much less nationally, thanks to the uniquely escalated degree of competition in the conference. We’ve seen teams collapse before. Plenty. Saturday night had that feel, too, as the Hogs snatched an early lead and then spent a good while trying to squander it.
Some curious play design and choice notwithstanding, the Hog offense was markedly better. Feleipe Franks made some slick short timing-oriented throws, and De’Vion Warren had his finest game yet, stepping up to be a chosen target when Treylon Burks was among a flurry of injury casualties early in the game. The running game lost its experience and inertia when Rakeem Boyd was also left gimpy and sidelined, but backup Trelon Smith played admirably and contributed significantly in his first extended action. Hudson Henry cradled his first career TD on a well-executed red zone play in the third quarter, giving Arkansas a two-touchdown advantage.
From there, the Hog offense basically fizzled as it clearly, frustratingly tried to shorten the game with a conservative approach. I say “frustratingly” because it is abundantly clear that the coaching staff, cognizant of the depth issues that plague both sides of the ball, wants to compete by making the best use of the time on the game clock. Arkansas didn’t play a remotely clean game against the Bulldogs, and ended up on the short end of all offensive metrics, but it was still a step forward, and it happened with some reserves and newcomers taking on their roles with vigor. The offensive line was a little better in all phases, and Franks was the most obvious beneficiary as he was able to stay in a pocket and fire some nice intermediate and long throws.
Where this game was indisputably decided, of course, was when Barry Odom’s crib-notes on “How to Shut Down the Air Raid Without Really Trying” got implemented by the new, understandably celebrated defensive coordinator. After Leach let transfer quarterback K.J. Costello sling away in the Bulldogs’ surprising, and shockingly easy, dispatching of LSU in the opener, he would have presumably wanted to cut loose even more against Arkansas. After all, the Hogs’ secondary took a bit of a second-half torching from Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, again a function of fatigue.
Odom, being a former linebacker in his own right, accepted the challenge readily and met it by turning Bumper Pool loose. He countered with what exhausting color commentator Kelly Stouffer kept lasciviously referring to as an “inviting box.” Leach, notorious for turning running backs into de facto wideouts, occasionally and successfully worked a run or two into the gameplan even after star tailback Kylin Hill got his bell rung early and fumbled. But he seemed ill at ease with trying to unleash Costello again, particularly after the Stanford grad threw a pick-six to Greg Brooks Jr., the Hogs’ sneakily good corner, on the opening possession.
Costello would continue to throw intermediate routes with great accuracy, obliterating his week-old school record for completions in the process. But his 43 successful throws netted less than seven yards per completion, and that was a credit to the Hogs being steady tacklers when they had to be. There were some whiffs, but none of those occurred at all in the decisive moments. Pool was absolutely possessed, finding himself in the middle of seemingly every play as the Bulldogs frantically tried to recapture lost momentum in the second half. He and Joe Foucha, who picked off two of Costello’s errant throws, were named SEC Defensive Players of the Week, and rightly so. Jonathan Marshall made a critical fourth-down stop late, and even as the Hogs had some baffling breakdowns over those tense final minutes, they still held serve all the way through.
What more or less cemented it all, naturally, was nothing more than an unforced error: State’s Jaden Walley, who had a nice game on the receiving side, simply muffed a punt return. The Hogs pounced on it and drained most of the rest of the clock, but even still had to clench the glutes after a silly penalty gave the Bulldogs one final flirtation. On a night where two imperfect teams played incredibly imperfect football, that was a fitting closer.
This time, though, it happened to the other guys. And for a program that already suffered through a 17-game SEC losing streak earlier in the decade that finally had to end, there wasn’t any sympathy to be granted. Picked on and picked apart for years by everything from its own saboteur-coaches to the national media to opposing quarterbacks and skill players, Arkansas had finally just had enough of it. The Hogs played with purpose, resolve, passion and confidence against a prospectively better foe with a splashy new coach and an ungodly cacophony of those GD cowbells clanging in their ears.