There was a much different feel as Razorback players exited the field following a 24-17 loss to Texas A&M. The Hog fans who stayed to the end in Arlington gave the players a round of applause as they headed back to the lockers.
Of course, Arkansas had to improve following the 44-17 beatdown against North Texas a couple weeks ago. When you’re on the South Pole, every direction is north: but the Hogs have gone north over the last couple games. A team with no identity is finally starting to craft one: a pressure defense that’s excellent on third downs, coupled with an offense that’s woefully inefficient but occasionally explosive.
Moral victories, if you could call the A&M loss one, won’t cut it for long, but after the bye week the Hogs have five games that they could easily win: Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Tulsa, and Missouri. The Rebels, Commodores, and Bulldogs all turned in yet another poor performance on Saturday, so what once looked like a 1-11 season in Fayetteville now could end up 4-8, or better, depending on how much the offense can improve.
- Special teams was better. After going minus-10 in Special Teams EV a week ago in a historically-awful performance, the Hogs closed the gap against Texas A&M. Yes, yet another kickoff return touchdown really hurt, but overall the Hogs scored a wash thanks to two missed A&M field goals plus a 47-yarder by Connor Limpert. The punting problem appears to have been fixed out of nowhere, with Reid Bauer averaging 43.3 yards per punt and the coverage teams holding the Aggies to minus-2 return yards. That really helped close the gap in Field Position EV, which is where Arkansas has really been killed for the last four games. Besides kickoff coverage, there’s one other special teams issue that needs fixing: Deon Stewart has got to catch more punts. He let another catchable one drop on Saturday and the Aggies downed it at the 1-yard line. Mistakes like that cost points.
- Penalties hurt the Hogs. There was only one total penalty called when Arkansas had the ball, compared to nine when A&M was on offense. Although the Aggies committed their fair share of false starts and holds, the Hogs were really hurt by two hands-to-the-face penalties, which are 15 yards. The second one provided A&M with one of its two third-down conversions on the day and led to a touchdown.
Former Fayetteville Bulldogs were impressive, with Cheyenne O’Grady leading the offense with +3.5 EV, while Dre Greenlaw recorded 13 tackles and two interceptions. Hopefully O’Grady’s re-emergence is permanent, as he’s one of the most talented offensive players Arkansas has.
Speaking of Greenlaw and the defense, shout-out to Santos Ramirez, who has struggled so far this year but played really well against the Aggies, recording several nice tackles. Middle linebacker De’Jon Harris picked up 16 tackles, Ryan Pulley gave great coverage, and freshman defensive back Jarques McClellion provided some good snaps.
Some more observations:
- Arkansas’ defense did its best work on third down, again. The Aggies glided through the Hog defense on first down (63% success) and second down (61%), but the Hogs’ consistently-good third-down defense turned in yet another solid performance, holding Texas A&M to just 2 of 10 on third downs. Arkansas has held every opponent this season to negative Adjusted Third Down Conversions: their cumulative expected third down conversion rate is 40.3%, but the Hogs have held them to just 21 of 72 (29.2%), ranking top-20 nationally.
- The offense performed respectably after a disastrous first quarter. The Hogs actually had negative yards at the end of the first quarter and were inefficient on offense all night. At least some of that was due to missing high-efficiency Devwah Whaley, although Rakeem Boyd played well in his place. Big plays keyed touchdown drives in the second and fourth quarters. Arkansas’ total lack of offensive efficiency means that big plays will be a requirement to move the football, at least for this season. We’re seeing the transition from Bielema ball to Morris ball.
- Ty Storey is still under too much pressure. Arkansas had a sequence where Storey was sacked on first down to start four out of five drives. That’s unacceptable. We saw better downfield accuracy from Storey when he did have time, although that needs to improve as well. A couple weeks ago I said that Mike Woods is gonna be good... actually, he’s already good. He may be the Hogs’ best receiver right now.
Up next is Alabama, which means that coaches, players, and fans need to have a short memory, because after that is a bye week followed by a bunch of winnable games.