As Bryce Stephens took an 82-yard punt return to the house late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game, a collective sigh of relief from Hog fans could be felt across the state.
The traumatic memories of embarrassing losses to North Texas, San Jose State and Western Kentucky were sure to be in the minds of fans everywhere as Bobby Petrino’s Missouri State team took a 17-0 early in the first half.
Missouri State held the lead for the entirety of the game until Stephens’ punt return touchdown with 9:16 left in the fourth. The Arkansas defense was able to come up big late, and KJ Jefferson’s one-yard touchdown run with 1:39 left put the game on ice.
As ugly as it looked at times, there’s still some positives that can be taken away from this game.
This Arkansas team was able to persevere an abysmal start and walk away with a win, which is the most important part.
At the end of the day a win is a win. The Hogs are 3-0, still undefeated and ranked No. 10 in the country.
What We Learned
• The Sanders “Brothers” Continue to Dominate
They’re not actually related but running back Raheim ‘Rocket’ Sanders and linebacker Drew Sanders have been the duo that this Arkansas team has needed through the first three weeks.
Rocket Sanders is fourth in the country in rushing yards on the season with 440 and leads the SEC in that category by 123 yards over second in the conference. It was his 73-yard touchdown reception, on a shovel pass, that changed the momentum in the fourth quarter.
Rocket finished with 242 total yards on Saturday, and likely surpassed quarterback KJ Jefferson as the team’s best Heisman trophy candidate.
On the other side of the ball, Drew Sanders picked up right where he left off against South Carolina last week.
He finished with 12 total tackles, five solo tackles, 2.5 sacks and one pass breakup. He also made a highlight play where he flattened Missouri State’s Jacardia Wright.
WOMPIN TIME pic.twitter.com/a3i892MPPY— Arkansas Razorback Football (@RazorbackFB) September 18, 2022
Drew Sanders could easily be the most talented linebacker Arkansas has ever had, and he’s racking up the stats to back up that claim. He’s leading the SEC in sacks with six and is fourth in the SEC in total tackles this season. He’s well on his way to having a very special individual season.
Both Rocket and Drew are having incredible starts to the season, and it’s going to be crucial that they keep the momentum going into this brutal stretch of the schedule.
• Passing Attack Looked Sharp
One of my minor complaints last week was the conservative play-calling that allowed South Carolina to hang around. It looked like we were going to see more of the same this week but with Arkansas trailing 17-0 in the first half, a change was needed.
Arkansas opened things up in their passing attack, and it worked extremely well. Having success through the air was able to open up running lanes for Sanders and allowed the offense to get back into a groove.
KJ Jefferson reminded people that he can be as dangerous throwing as he is running, finishing with a career-high 385 yards passing with two touchdowns.
Matt Landers finished with seven catches for 123 yards and Jadon Haselwood finished with five catches for 86 yards and one touchdown.
We knew coming into the season that Arkansas had weapons that could help soften the blow of losing Treylon Burks and, until Saturday, we hadn’t seen what they could really do.
The Arkansas receivers showed up in a big way on Saturday and are going to be integral to Arkansas having success the next few weeks.
• Tale of Two Defenses
The Arkansas defense is extremely hit or miss this season.
They lead the country in sacks with 17 but rank dead last in the country in pass defense, allowing a whopping 352.7 yards per game.
Once again, the Arkansas secondary struggled mightily as Missouri State was able to carve out 299 passing yards in the first three quarters.
Arkansas was also missing a lot of tackles in the open field through the first three quarters which is uncharacteristic of a Barry Odom-coached defense.
Give credit to Bobby Petrino for a great gameplan, exploiting all of the major weaknesses in the Arkansas defense.
Despite the coverage struggles, the defensive front continued to put pressure on the quarterback and consistently disrupt the pocket. The Hogs forced five quarterback hurries and came away with eight sacks.
In the fourth quarter, the Arkansas defense as a whole finally woke up and looked like the defense we had seen in weeks past. Not only did they continue to get pressure on the quarterback, but the Missouri State receivers were blanketed in coverage.
I still have a lot of concerns for the Arkansas secondary with the step up in competition the next few weeks but seeing the front seven be able to create pressure in a variety of different looks is a good sign going forward.
• Respecting Your Opponent and Looking Ahead
For three quarters on Saturday, Arkansas looked like they were just going through the motions.
Despite the mistakes, miscues and being on upset alert for over three quarters, Sam Pittman didn’t think the team was looking ahead to Texas A&M, so much as they just didn’t give Missouri State the respect they deserved.
“I think we were focused,” Pittman said postgame. “Now, I think there’s a difference in looking forward to next week and not giving enough respect for the team you’re playing. I think that. I just think Missouri State outplayed us to be perfectly honest with you.”
I think it was a little bit of both Saturday.
Getting up for an FCS opponent is always going to present challenges no matter if they’re ranked No. 6 in the FCS or not.
Then, factor in that the next two weeks for Arkansas could be two of the biggest in program history. It’s hard not to think ahead, no matter how many people tell you not to.
This was most likely a combination of both looking ahead and not respecting Missouri State that led to bad football from the Hogs for three quarters. Hopefully this was a little bit of a wake-up call.
“We’re not going to have problems getting up for the next few,” said Pittman. “The name on the side of the hat is pretty significant.”
The No. 10 ranked Hogs head to Arlington to play No. 23 Texas A&M in the Southwest Classic. The game is scheduled to kickoff at 6:00 pm and will air on ESPN.