Marooned in College Station, Texas, back on Halloween, where COVID-19 attendance policies seemed to be relaxed for the uniformed barkers of Kyle Field, the Arkansas Razorbacks played with enough guts and effort that the final score of 42-31 in favor of the No. 8 Aggies was just about right. The Aggies deployed Kellen Mond for what feels like the 18th time against the Hogs, and as usual, he proved to be a hard matchup for the Razorback defense.
But where that game was decided was along the lines, where the Aggies’ seasoned and sizable blocking unit proved adept at both keeping Mond from duress and clearing running lanes for the usual stable of runners or Mond himself. By the time the game ended and Arkansas had carved into the Ags’ 25-point lead with a couple of late scoring drives, the Hogs had actually outgained A&M for the night. It was a subtle and some would contend meaningless thing.
Stat sheet wins in 2020 are OK, though, remember? Everything we witnessed in the dark period of 2017-19 was so manifestly terrible that all these ongoing strides matter. Down big to a Top 10 foe in their house — another farce by the SEC, by the way, as the Hogs don’t get a chance to host next year but instead return to that behemoth in Arlington — Arkansas didn’t just fold it all up and play out the string. The Hogs won the fourth quarter, which is a big deal any time you’ve seen the very same team disappear the very minute North Texas pulled a deke on a punt return or Ty Storey started tossing revenge bullets. A fourth-down failure late was the death knell finally, but it didn’t arrive until after Feleipe Franks had moved the ball well against a soft zone and Rakeem Boyd showed renewed burst.
And let’s be clear, the Hogs were very much in this game, basically for about three quarters. Against Tennessee, the Hogs were maddeningly mistake-prone and listless for a good portion of three quarters, but it was what they did in the third that changed the vibe in Hog Country toward cheeriness yet again.
Arkansas has followed each of its three official losses with a strong, steady victory led by Barry Odom’s defense and the lightning-in-a-bottle swagger of Treylon Burks. Tennessee was effective early when tailback Eric Gray was getting totes, but Sam Pittman knows how his lifelong pal Jim Chaney, back in Knoxville after his middling stints around the league, will call a game. The Vols couldn’t solve Arkansas’s bewildering pass defense regardless of what quarterback it played, and fittingly, after the scoreboard showed 13-0 Tennessee at the break, the Hogs simply reversed that goose egg big-time with a third-quarter flourish in a 24-13 comeback victory. Bumper Pool again racked up stop after stop, and Jalen Catalon responded to a targeting ejection from the A&M game with his best effort of the year, earning SEC Player of the Week honors for a night of ballhawking and turnover creation.
Franks’ steadiness, once more, came in handy at all the right times. He was a bit of an enigma at Florida, perhaps, and for whatever reason the broadcast teams always dwell on that in this cryptic way like they know some Hester Prynne-level gossip that they ain’t spillin’. But all he’s been so far, during the weirdest semester of his life, is a consummate leader whose countenance is pretty static (at least compared to that of Tennessee’s kicker, who seems destined for voiceover work in energy drink ads). Productivity-wise, given that the offensive output so far hasn’t been gaudy, you’ll never frown if your quarterback completes two-thirds of his throws and tosses three or four scores for every giveaway.
Franks also looked a bit more confident running the ball, even if sacks diminished his output (12 carries, 17 yards, with a long of 24 — cool stat, bro). Boyd and Trelon Smith both ran very effectively at times, and the line is starting to get more space for both veteran backs to move outside the tackles just as well as between them.
Burks, though, is simply the straw that stirs the drink. When Franks connected on him late in the third to get the quarter-filled stadium as electrified as it has been in four or five years, I certainly and unapologetically got chills. That was a Ryan Mallett-level fling, which is exciting enough to see, but the instinctiveness of the quarterback-receiver relationship on the 59-yard strike made me itch for Franks to come back next fall since he has the option. When he gets to unleash that cannon and show that accuracy, and when Burks can streak across the middle, get separation and then cut toward paydirt so easily, I start thinking that 2021 could end up being a damn fine time if circumstances played out.
But I think it will be anyway, because Pittman — who won’t be on the sideline Saturday against Florida due to a positive COVID-19 test — has reengineered the thinking within the locker room in such a dramatic way. There wasn’t any real question that Chad Morris’ one gift to the program was a couple of fairly robust recruiting classes, but his disconnect with players was palpable. The new staff projects as the right pitch of excitable and professional, committed to working together zealously but letting the team cut loose, too. Franks’ poker face receded a bit late in this one, and a lot of more overt smiles were visible as Arkansas snuffed out the Vols’ last stab at a TD with Catalon’s pick.
Florida is a hell of a team, naturally. But it’s also one that is going to have to work to beat this Arkansas bunch. That’s not something that was uttered often during the glum, uninspiring period of Razorback football we’ve recently endured.