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What we learned about Arkansas in Week Four

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Texas A&M Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

“When you play in the SEC, one play, two plays, they’re the difference between a win and loss.”

Bumper Pool summed it up best after Arkansas’ heartbreaking 23-21 loss to No. 23 Texas A&M on Saturday night.

Arkansas jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, and it seemed like things might be put on cruise control from there. However, they missed some opportunities to increase the lead and allowed Texas A&M to hang around.

One of the biggest turning points in the game came with 3:11 left until halftime. Arkansas had the ball at the Texas A&M goal line, KJ Jefferson kept the ball on a designed quarterback run, lunged toward the end zone, but fumbled the football.

Texas A&M’s Tyreek Chappell recovered the fumble but was quickly wrapped up by Rocket Sanders. However, Chappell’s teammate Demani Richardson had the presence of mind to strip the ball from his own teammate, Chappell, to keep the play alive. Richardson would take it 82-yards for a touchdown.

It would take Arkansas almost two quarters to regain the momentum they lost on that one play.

To this team’s credit, they showed resolve and had a chance to win at the end.

Cam Little’s missed field attempt with less than two minutes left may have been what ultimately ended Arkansas’ chance at a win, but it was far from the only reason the game was lost.

Arkansas outplayed Texas A&M and looked like the better team. But they made too many crucial mistakes that couldn’t be overcome. That was the difference in the game.

What We Learned

Struggles Putting Teams Away

Many will point to KJ Jefferson’s goal line fumble as the moment where the game changed, but I want to back it up to the drive before the fumble.

Arkansas was up 14-0 and playing the best football they had played all season on both sides of the ball. The Arkansas defense had just forced another Texas A&M three-and-out, giving Arkansas the ball back with less than a minute left in the first quarter.

Arkansas was driving into Texas A&M territory, running the ball at-will and picking up seven to ten yards per rush. It was a prototypical Arkansas drive.

With the ball at the Texas A&M 38-yard line, Arkansas decided to go for a different look and run some plays for back-up quarterback Malik Hornsby.

The first play was a pass from Jefferson to Hornsby that was batted down, the second play was an end-around to Hornsby which resulted in a loss of one yard and the third play was a reverse to Hornsby where he made it back to the line of scrimmage and that’s it.

Arkansas was forced to punt, and then Texas A&M marched down the field to score for the first time in the game. The next drive was Jefferson’s goal line fumble.

Arkansas didn’t score again until the 10:05 mark in the fourth quarter.

I mentioned after week two that Arkansas can’t afford to let SEC teams hang around in games, and this is a perfect example of why.

Arkansas had a chance to go up 21-0 but those three Hornsby plays in a row halted an otherwise promising drive. Instead of continuing to feed the returning Dominque Johnson, who had rushes of seven, ten and twelve yards on that same drive, they opted to try and get Hornsby involved.

There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact, I’m a big advocate for getting Hornsby involved in the offense. Up until that drive on Saturday night, Hornsby hadn’t recorded a negative play from scrimmage this season.

However, it wasn’t necessary at that point in the game. Why get away from what had been working?

Arkansas had carved the Texas A&M defense up by using a somewhat balanced attack on the ground and through the air, without needing any end-around or reverse type plays to set them up.

The Arkansas offense has been extremely successful the past two seasons, but there’s been many instances where they get in their own way with mistakes or questionable play calls.

If Arkansas is going to take the next step under Sam Pittman, they cannot continue to let good teams hang around in games. They have to quit getting away from their identity when they have leads and put teams away.

Critical Mistakes Need to be Cleaned Up

The KJ Jefferson fumble will obviously get the most focus from many, but there were plenty of other mistakes made in the game that Texas A&M was able to take advantage of.

There were a lot of times where the Arkansas defense was in the backfield about to sack Aggie quarterback Max Johnson, but he’d make the defender miss or slip a tackle and escape.

One instance that sticks out was early in the second half on a third down where both Jordan Domineck and Drew Sanders had chances to bring Johnson down behind the line of scrimmage, but Johnson escaped and scampered for a first down.

On Texas A&M’s first scoring drive, running back Devon Achane ran for 62 yards and there were a handful of missed tackles/bad angles taken by the Arkansas defense. Max Johnson kept floating passes downfield that should’ve been picked off, but somehow always ended up in an Aggie receiver’s hands.

Another big mistake came on the final drive of the game for the Arkansas offense. All-SEC center Ricky Stromberg botched a snap to KJ Jefferson with three minutes left in the game. This caused Arkansas to have to use a second timeout and made the eventual field goal attempt much longer than it should have been.

Speaking of Cam Little’s missed field goal attempt, he’s been pretty much automatic since he arrived at Fayetteville. It looked like it was going to be about a 30-yard attempt, but after the bad snap it turned out to be a difficult 42-yard attempt. Little pushed the kick high to the right and it hit the top of the upright before bouncing in the end zone, something I hadn’t ever seen.

Not a single one of these mistakes is the sole reason Arkansas lost on Saturday. It was a combination of all these together that was the difference in winning and losing.

Arkansas is going to have to clean up these mistakes going forward because, as we learned on Saturday, the margin for error in the SEC is smaller than any other conference in the country.

Defense Played Well Enough to Win

If you told me coming into this game that the Arkansas defense would only give up 16 points and 343 total yards of offense all game, I would have assumed that Arkansas won convincingly. Obviously, that’s not what happened, but the Arkansas defense did play well enough to win.

The Arkansas defense we saw in the first half was the best I had seen them all season. Max Johnson was constantly being hurried and forced out of the pocket. The coverage was the best it had been probably all season, thanks in part to safety Myles Slusher’s return from injury.

Following KJ Jefferson’s touchdown pass to Warren Thompson with 6:04 left in the first quarter, the Arkansas offense had four out of their next six drives last less than two minutes. All of those ended in a punt except for the goal line fumble drive. Arkansas lost the second half time of possession battle by five minutes, something uncharacteristic of a Sam Pittman team.

The defense was on the field for a long time in the middle stretch of the game without much of a long break. Then, add in the fact that the offense couldn’t get any momentum going, and it’s easy to see how simple mistakes can be compounded.

While there are still plenty of issues that the defense must get straightened out, like missed tackles and coverage lapses, they came up with stops at the end when they needed to and gave the offense a chance at the win.

The defense wasn’t perfect, nor should we expect that, but it was good enough to win Saturday.

The secondary is going to have to improve with the caliber of quarterbacks they’re about to be facing the next few weeks. The Arkansas defense from the first half of Saturday’s game is what we need to see more of going forward.

There’s still time for the defense to improve, and there’s still a lot left to play for. One loss doesn’t define a season.

Up Next

No. 20 Arkansas will be welcoming Nick Saban’s No. 2 Alabama team into Fayetteville for the first ever “Red Out” of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. and will be televised on CBS as the “SEC Game of the Week.”