Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: Franks played big
Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks (13) looks to pass during a game against Tennessee on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Just when it seemed Arkansas was not big enough to hang with Tennessee, something huge exploded in the third quarter.
Sam Pittman’s Razorbacks — too small when he arrived last December — looked plenty big. They landed a 24-point haymaker, their biggest quarter in an SEC game in four seasons.
It was their best offensive surge in one quarter since the point Bret Bielema’s fortunes soured in 2016, a 24-point second quarter in a 58-42 victory at Mississippi State.
The third quarter was all the Hogs would need in a 24-13 victory that evened their record at 3-3 in a remarkable turnaround in Pittman’s first year as head coach. They have won three of five games since the season opener, the team’s 20th straight SEC loss.
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Arkansas’ dominant second half was against a Tennessee team coming off an open date. The Vols (2-4) have been abysmal in the second half in those four losses.
Tennessee entered the season with high expectations, ranked and relying on an experienced group of blue-chip linemen.
But it’s the Hogs now that have high expectations for the stretch run. They have impressed the nation and could have four SEC victories in six tries. They lost at Auburn on a controversial decision — both on the field and in the league office on a replay review — in the season’s second week.
Down to the Vols 13-0 at halftime, Pittman said it was a simple message in the locker room, an explanation of exactly how the Hogs were going to win the game.
“I’ve been coaching a long time,” Pittman said. “I told them 13 points is not that big. I told them we were going to get the ball and go score and that our defense had figured them out.
“The mind is so powerful. The mind is going to tell you we are going to go score and this is how we are going to do it.”
If it’s a mind game, Tennessee might have known what was coming with quarterback Feleipe Franks running the show for the Razorbacks. He had beaten the Vols twice as Florida’s starting quarterback.
Franks threw for three touchdowns as the Hogs totaled 257 yards in the third quarter.
The Franks TD passes covered 1, 9 and 59 yards. He also had a 56-yard completion to swamp the Volunteers. He finished with 215 yards on 18-of-24 passing.
There was only one big mistake by Franks. He was sacked and fumbled at his 10-yard line with eight minutes to go. Right tackle Dalton Wagner recovered to allow the Hogs to play their second straight game without a turnover. John David White recovered another Franks fumble at the end of a dash through the UT middle.
The Razorbacks grabbed the momentum to open the third quarter with a magnificent 17-play drive that was sparked by fine blocking on the left side by tackle Myron Cunningham and guard Brady Latham.
Franks was 7 of 9 passing for 49 yards on the drive, but running backs Rakeem Boyd and Trelon Smith made 26 yards on eight carries, mostly going left.
The Hogs converted all five third downs in the drive. Boyd converted a third-and-5 with a 6-yard run, and Smith had a 3-yard run on third-and-3.
Of those five third-down conversions, Pittman said, “A bunch of them were on handoffs to Boyd and Smith. I’m proud of our offensive line. We are getting better. We were almost to 200 yards running.
“I’m proud of our guys coaching the offensive line.”
The Hogs totaled 413 yards on offense, thanks to that big third quarter. Defensively, they bounced back from a rough first quarter to put the clamps on a Jim Chaney offense that relies on a massive offensive line of mostly five-star recruits, most coveted by Pittman. Those huge linemen found Pittman — all of them he heavily recruited — for post-game hugs.
It wasn’t just the offense, though. The defense was just as impressive. The Vols made only 18 yards in the four possessions in the third quarter.
With the Hogs adjusting their slants and pressures to the wide side of the field, the Vols could muster nothing. Linebacker Bumper Pool led the way with 14 tackles with 1.5 for lost yardage. Grant Morgan and Jalen Catalon added 12 each. The defensive line gained steam as the game progressed, especially tackle Jonathan Marshall and ends Julius Coats and Eric Gregory.
And there was no stopping the Kendall Briles offense in the third quarter.
“You know what momentum is and we had it,” Pittman said. “That’s what made that third quarter. The defense was in shut-down mode.
“We talked about having to make some explosive plays. We had to get our engine revved up. We made several big plays — boom, boom, boom.
“Kendal is a really good offensive coordinator. Everyone at home can sit around and call this and that. He wouldn’t call it if he didn’t think it would work.”
They all worked to some degree in that third quarter.
Franks found tight ends Hudson Henry and Blake Kern for three catches in the drive to start the third quarter. He also hit two slants, including a bullet to Mike Woods for the 1-yard scoring play.
They then went 67 yards in three plays, needing just one minute of the clock. The last two plays were vintage Franks: a 56-yard throw to Mike Woods and a 6-yard TD lob to tight end Blake Kern.
Kern’s catch — his third of the game — helped the Hogs take a 14-13 lead with 6:35 to play in the quarter. Kern, a fifth-year senior, was a high school quarterback at Lamar and came to Arkansas without a scholarship.
Kern drew special praise from Pittman when it was mentioned that it was his first career touchdown.
“Isn’t that something?” Pittman said. “The guy is valuable. To think he didn’t play much before, they must have had some really good tight ends. He’s become a pretty good blocker and he can run with the football.”
So can Treylon Burks. Franks scrambled to his left and the big wide receiver sprinted across the field 10 yards ahead Jaylen McCullough to grab a 59-yard TD pass. Burks turned up field to outrun the cornerback for the final 15 yards.
“That was the scramble drill,” said Pittman, describing the way receivers are instructed to take different areas of the field. “Treylon took the deep middle.”
Smith hit a crease between Cunningham and Latham for a 22-yard run to start the two-play, 81-yard scoring drive.
The Hogs completed the scoring with a 7-play, 49-yard drive capped by A.J. Reed’s 48-yard field goal. It was 24-13 with seven seconds left in the amazing quarter.
Reed had missed from 21 yards in the second quarter when the Hogs trailed by 10-0, but Pittman said he didn’t hesitate on the fourth-and-3 situation in the third quarter.
Asked why, Pittman said he knew Reed would make the kick.
“If you give up on your kicker, you might as well go for it,” Pittman said. “I told him (after the miss) I have ultimate confidence that he’d make the next one. Why? I’d seen him make so many in practice.”
In the continuation of the “big” theme, Pool correctly assessed the situation with the Hogs up 24-13.
“That play was so big, knowing they would have to score two touchdowns,” he said.
The defense came up with two turnovers to make sure the Vols would not score again. Greg Brooks broke up a fourth-down pass with Gregory intercepting with 4:32 left in the fourth quarter. Catalon intercepted a pass in the end zone on the game’s final play.
Catalon finished with 12 tackles, 10 in the first quarter when the Tennessee runners gashed the defense with nifty cutbacks between the tackles.
“We figured out their double teams and single team blocks,” Pittman said.
Catalon credited the defensive line for handling Tennessee’s massive O-line with those adjustments.
“We had to stop some holes,” Catalon said. “They were finding cutback lanes to get through. Hat’s off to the defensive line to find our gaps and do our assignments.
“Our defensive line does their job. They may not get 10 tackles a game, but they do their job. Jonathan Marshall controls that line of scrimmage. If you see a back having to cut back, it’s because he’s causing havoc.”
The offensive line did its job, too. Much maligned over the last few years and still lacking bulk, Pittman and line coach Brad Davis are getting great effort and improved detail to assignments in this group every week.
Right tackle Noah Gatlin did not dress for the game, but Wagner, out last week, performed in solid fashion.
The Hogs started Ty Clary at right guard with Beaux Limmer providing rest. Latham was spelled by Luke Jones.
But it was the UT offensive line that looked like the game’s key unit at the outset. The Volunteers mashed the Hogs with power running on the way to a 13-0 halftime lead that seemed like it should have been wider.
Tennessee’s massive offensive line allowed the visitors to keep the ball for 12:39 of the first quarter and 19:56 of the first half.
“To not be down more than we were in the first quarter was a big deal,” Pittman said.
The Vols got the only touchdown of the first half on a 16-play, 81-yard drive. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano erased third-and-8 with a 20-yard keeper for the highlight play. Eric Gray scored untouched from the 1-yard line.
Placekicker Brent Cimaglia converted field goals of 50 and 48 yards. His first came on the game’s opening drive that featured six Gray carries for 35 yards. The second kick came at the 1:57 mark of the second quarter.
The Hogs threatened only once in the first half, but came away empty on a 16-play drive to the Tennessee 4-yard line. Reed, who missed two field goals the previous week, was wide right on a 21-yard try.
Franks hit Burks on a 9-yard slant to convert third-and-9 in the red zone. But after that first down at the 3-yard line, the Hogs got no closer.
On first down, Franks lost 1-yard on a keeper wide. He gave ground under pressure on the next two plays, both throwaways with Burks covered.
Arkansas had only four possessions in the first half. The Razorbacks began at their 25, 25, 20 and 26. The Vols, bothered by turnovers in red games, never came close to a turnover in the opening half.
Tennessee rushed 30 times for 135 yards in the first half, but finished with just 185. The Vols totaled just 292 yards for the game, including 72 on the final possession of the game when the Hogs were in a prevent scheme.
It completed what Pool said was his all-time favorite half in his career.
“We got the momentum,” Pool said. “I felt it, the fans felt it.”
With the 6-6 Franks calling the shots, the Vols probably knew it was only a matter of time.
“We count on Feleipe,” Pittman said. “He’s our guy. I’m glad he’s done things to Tennessee.
“He was banged up and he kept playing. He’s our leader, our bell cow.”
As they say, he played big.
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