In the wake of that laughable officiating farce at Auburn, I devoted my last Pearls largely to one final urging for Arkansas’s spunky football team to just go beat the brakes off Ole Miss and its new flyboy coach. We’ve seen some refereeing curiosities and atrocities over the years in this conference along with all sorts of other heartbreak, and historically, the Razorbacks have had a tendency to let one travesty blossom into another the next time they take the field.
And the Rebels have figured into that calculus a couple of times in that regard. The Game of the Century in 1969 was so deflating that a month later, the Hogs were flat in a Sugar Bowl loss to the Rebels. Forty seasons later, Arkansas got an apology from the SEC for some garish calls that thwarted an upset bid at No. 1 Florida, only to follow that up with an absolute clunker in Oxford the next week against its former coach Houston Nutt.
Ole Miss, mind you, had also just posted 48 points against Alabama — the Rebs yielded 63 in the loss — and earned the distinction of amassing the most total yards ever against the storied Tide program. Kiffin’s squad came to Fayetteville with the same modest 1-2 mark as the one the Hogs were sporting, but they were riding high after another up-tempo frenzy, and Arkansas was theoretically wounded. The Rebels’ quarterback, Matt Corral, had totally seized control of that job with a flourish of early scoring tosses and gaudy stats.
Arkansas did not think much of any of it, with a defensive effort that immediately catapulted this new coaching staff into the cliched but meaningful “rarefied air” of being universally celebrated by fans for at least a night. The Hogs picked off Corral a whopping six times, with three of those going to one young walk-on (Hudson Clark) and another two being converted into easy pick-six opportunities by Jalen Catalon and Grant Morgan. Arkansas also mounted two successful goal-line stands, hurried and punished Corral often, and even still did a respectable job against the Rebels’ rushing attack despite keeping three down linemen in rotation most of the game.
The 33-21 victory not only cemented Barry Odom’s status as an immediate Broyles Award candidate, but the new defensive coordinator’s most telling achievement so far is visible even to this 40-something cynic: fundamentals are being coached again. Linemen aren’t getting blown off the ball. Would-be tacklers are now actual, solid tacklers who also seem to know right where the line to gain is, and show an unwillingness to cede it. And the ball skills being displayed by Clark, Catalon, Greg Brooks Jr., and Joe Foucha in the defensive backfield have been exceptional. A defensive unit that couldn’t locate the ball at all mere months ago is now drawn to it with near-magnetic compulsion.
When the defense scores twice, disrupts a tempo-oriented offense so dramatically, and gets heaps of deserving praise, you’d think the offense didn’t crank up at all and had to be saved from itself. To some extent, that’s accurate. A week after playing his finest game as an SEC quarterback, Feleipe Franks wasn’t quite as sharp though he did end up with far better numbers than Corral’s horrible, seven-turnover outing. The running game continues to struggle to get downhill momentum out of conventional backfield sets, and as a result, the team either gets behind schedule due to a negative first down play or encounters trouble trying to run outside the tackles.
Rakeem Boyd and Trelon Smith aren’t getting a lot of room to run, but they’re continuing to work at it. The offense’s undisputed greatest weapon, of course, is Treylon Burks and had he opted to fire a pass on a bit of red-zone trickery he might qualify as the team’s best quarterback over and above his status as the de facto receiver and situational runner. Arkansas had a productive day on the rushing front generally, but it was Burks who brought the downhill threat. His 15 touches netted just shy of 200 yards and his big touchdown catch late, inarguably one of the most athletic and impactful plays in the program’s history, were the catalyst to the offense. Kendal Briles still needs to figure out how to get Franks in more natural and productive running situations — the lean, angular quarterback seems to be occasionally confused or misdirected on option plays —and to get Boyd running downhill. There’s a lot of talent on this unit and the surprising start has been so far engineered by the defense’s advancement, but this offense clearly can and should evolve into something much more dangerous.
And the bye weekend helps facilitate that. Injured players are healing, and with the annual scrap with Texas A&M forthcoming at Kyle Field, there’s a sense of actual, living momentum for this once-moribund band of Razorbacks. Sam Pittman is a darling of the state in a way that a first-year coach hasn’t seen since Nutt’s debut season in 1998. That group got motivated, took full advantage of an indisputably softer SEC West (can’t believe that was actually a thing once, am I right?!), and won eight out of the gate. This team is functionally and earnestly a 3-1, stout group that plays with confidence and poise in a way that betrays common description for this Razorcynic, given all the recent history, both in football and global sense.
The Arkansas-Ole Miss game was, to be clear, not a clash of upper-tier teams on the surface. But both teams clearly are pointed northward, as Kiffin will be a firebrand who produces decent results thanks to his willingness to take risks. Corral never being replaced, even for a change-up, by onetime Reb wunderkind John Rhys Plumlee, was an odd thing — the interceptions he threw were generally bad throws, bad decisions, or both. That silly Landshark business is misplaced for such a bad defense but Ole Miss does have something of a nucleus there with a few decent hands in its front seven.
But the story thus far in the season, across the SEC, is that Arkansas is once and for all something to take seriously again. There’s a sense that the Hogs could forge an even more memorable path in these remaining games, and that comfort hasn’t encompassed the program in years. Let’s ride this for a few more days.