5 Observations from Arkansas' 28-21 loss to Mississippi State

By: Jimmy Carter
Published: Monday, November 20, 2017
Austin Allen, Arkansas quarterback, looks for a receiver in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Austin Allen, Arkansas quarterback, looks for a receiver in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

— Five observations from Arkansas’ 28-21 loss to Mississippi State.

Interesting calls at key times

Ty Storey checked in for his first non-garbage time snap with Arkansas up 14-0 and facing a third-and-2 from its own 20.

Storey ran a quarterback sweep right and the play was doomed from the start by bad blocking. He managed to make one man miss in the backfield, but the second dropped him for a loss of five yards.

Storey is no Cole Kelley and that was a far cry from the Steamboat. Mississippi State took over at midfield after a poor punt and got on the scoreboard eight plays later.

Fast forward to the end of the game, with the score tied at 21 and Arkansas facing third-and-3 at its own 43-yard line.

The Razorbacks inserted receiver Jonathan Nance as a Wild Hog quarterback. It was the first time he’d been in the role all year and he was slung out of bounds after a 1-yard gain, injuring his ankle in the process.

Bret Bielema and his staff decided to go for it on fourth-and-2, an understandable decision given the current state of affairs. What did they have to lose?

Offensive coordinator Dan Enos dialed up a play-action pass that had resulted in Nance getting wide-open early in the game. Only problem, he wasn’t on the field this time because of the injury. Sophomore La’Michael Pettway couldn’t generate much separation and quarterback Austin Allen's throw was over his head.

Mississippi State took over and drove for the winning touchdown.

The three play calls came at crucial times and none worked out, with the Bulldogs benefitting from each decision. Arkansas got a lot of breaks Saturday, but still couldn’t come up with the win.

In key moments, the Hogs didn’t get it done.

Defense tightens up

Arkansas’ inability to prevent big plays has been well-documented in this space over the course of the last month or so.

The Razorbacks entered the game ranked last in the SEC in passes of 30 or more yards allowed (18) and tied for last in opponents plays of 40 or more (17).

Senior cornerback Henre’ Toliver in, you guessed it, single coverage when he was beaten by Reggie Todd for a 37-yard touchdown pass that tied the game at 21 with 3:57 left. Toliver and freshman Kamren Curl been targeted mercilessly by opposing teams taking advantage of Arkansas generally devoting safety attention to slot receivers or the run game.

Nick Fitzgerald picked up 25 yards on a scramble on the first play of another drive. Arkansas forced a punt three plays later.

Those were the only two plays of more than 20 yards the Hogs allowed. The defense, for the most part, was solid, limiting Mississippi State to 348 yards, a number that would rank 31st nationally for the season, a far cry from the No. 84 actual ranking. Arkansas forced two turnovers and a pair of three-and-outs.

The Razorbacks entered the day a distant last in the SEC in tackles-for-loss per game, averaging just 3.8, 1.5 less than second-to-last Tennessee. Their 1.4 sacks per game was also last in the conference, a half sack less than Georgia’s average.

But the Razorbacks were a different team, especially early, controlling the line of scrimmage and operating in Mississippi State’s backfield. Arkansas recorded six tackles-for-loss and two sacks, numbers that may not seem like much but ones that either tied or set the team’s SEC bests this year.

When the Bulldogs did score, they generally had to earn it with sustained drives. That’s an improvement for Arkansas’ defense.

Line quandaries

Senior Jake Raulerson received his first sizable cameo of the season Saturday and appeared to be much the same player he was a year ago, when struggles resulted in him being replaced after seven games.

Sophomore Jalen Merrick is still not good enough to get a shot to play, even with injuries continuing to mount on what is now a makeshift offensive line. Arkansas went with redshirt freshman Dylan Hays, who has spent most of the year as a third-string nose guard, instead.

It was a skeleton crew for the second half after junior center Zach Rogers (ankle) and junior left guard Hjalte Froholdt (foot) went down with injuries and couldn’t return. Already without senior Frank Ragnow and freshman Ty Clary, both lost to season-ending injuries, Arkansas had to turn to depth on a line where depth is an issue.

The results, predictably, weren’t great.

The Razorbacks managed just 2.9 yards per rush and that’s including a 33-yard run credited to David Williams after he fumbled and the ball was kicked forward another 25 yards in a scramble. Make that a more modest 8-yard gain and the average dips to 2.2.

Austin Allen was sacked four times, the fifth time this year and fourth time in six games an opponent has tallied at least four sacks. Some of that is on Allen for not getting rid of the ball or receivers for not getting open, but the pass protection deserves some blame, too, especially later as the group grew more rag-tag.

It sounds like Froholdt and Rogers have a good chance of playing against Missouri on Friday. After seeing the alternative, that’s good news for Arkansas.

Superstar Sosa

Sophomore Sosa Agim entered Saturday with five tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks and no forced fumbles in the season’s first 10 games.

He produced 2.5 tackles-for-loss, two forced fumbles and a sack against the Bulldogs, looking like the potential All-SEC player and heralded recruit Arkansas was hoping it would get.

Agim was disruptive from the start, sacking and stripping Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald on the Bulldogs’ second drive of the game. On the third, another strip in the backfield, this time of running back Nick Gibson, was recovered by Briston Guidry in the end zone to give Arkansas an early 14-0 lead.

It’s been a quieter-than-anticipated sophomore year for Agim.

He is easily Arkansas’ most imposing lineman, no doubt making him a priority for opposing teams. The switch to the 3-4 means defensive linemen are more easily double-teamed.

But he looked dominant Saturday.

Running back rotation

Saturday marked the third time in four games Arkansas’ running back with the best yards per carry didn’t lead the team in rushing attempts.

Senior David Williams ran for 75 yards on eight carries. The rest of the team combined for 22 on 26. Sure, part of the reason for Williams’ line was the 33-yard run credited to him after he fumbled and the ball was kicked ahead around 25 yards.

But he’d still have averaged more than seven yards per carry if the 33-yard run was turned into an 8-yarder. He ran hard all day, making decisive cuts and lowering his shoulder to pick up extra yardage.

Sophomores Devwah Whaley and T.J. Hammonds were bottled up. Whaley gained just 21 yards on a team-high 12 carries, while Hammonds lost a yard on his three attempts.

Some of their struggles were the result of poorly blocked runs that forced them to try, often unsuccessfully, to dodge defenders in the backfield. But neither ran with Wiliams’ aggression.

Whaley leads Arkansas with 116 carries this year despite averaging 4.3 yards per rush, well short of Williams’ 5.5 average on 10 fewer attempts. Hammonds’ average has dipped to 8.3 after being held to minus-one yard on six carries the past two weeks, but he has only played a handful of snaps in those games and had a quick hook after unsuccessful runs.

Some of Hammonds’ workload is probably the result of him not hitting the hole full speed, but he’s also proven to have the most big-play ability of the trio. And if hitting the hole and being decisive is a determining factor, Williams has been Arkansas’ best back.

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