State of the Hogs: 3rd down the difference

By: Clay Henry
Published: Saturday, November 21, 2020
Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks runs with the ball during a game against LSU on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Charlie Kaijo
Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks runs with the ball during a game against LSU on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Fayetteville.

— There are ways to win a football game without moving the chains on third down. A big-play Arkansas offense came close despite missing on all 10 of its third-down chances against LSU on Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Quarterback Feleipe Franks converted pass plays of 65, 50, 50 and 51 yards to lead a valiant Arkansas comeback, but LSU came up with one drive in the fourth quarter to rally for a 27-24 victory.

It was the first time the Hogs failed to convert on third down since a Ryan Mallett-led offense beat East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl to end the 2009 season.

The Tigers took advantage for their winning march when Arkanas safety Jalen Catalon was ejected on a controversial targeting foul with 6:55 to play. Quarterback T.J. Finley passed 13 yards to Jaray Jenkins on a hook route in the heart of the defense — in the area that Catalon usually patrols.

That drive came just after the Hogs went three-and-out for the sixth time in the game. Franks kept on a third-and-2 play and was 1-yard short at the 7:50 mark. He got the first down on the initial measurement, but replay official Ken Switzer review judged him well short.

Switzer was the same replay man who worked the Auburn game, another controversial Arkansas loss. Mark Curles, another hated official by Arkansas fans, was the referee for the LSU game. Between the two of them, they couldn't figure out a replay that showed an LSU fumble earlier in the game, recovered by Arkansas, so they left it with the Tigers.

Placekicker A.J. Reed’s 44-yard field goal was partially blocked with 1:24 left to preserve the win for the Tigers, their first game in November. LSU had an open date after a 48-11 loss to Auburn on Oct. 31, then was unable to play Alabama last week because of covid-19 issues.

It was the first time the Razorbacks have lost back-to-back games under coach Sam Pittman. They fell to 3-5 ahead of their final road game of the year, a trip to Missouri.

There were four key replay reviews in the game. The Hogs got one key call, what could have been an LSU touchdown five plays before the winning score.

Pittman treaded cautiously when asked about the calls that wiped out a possible fumble recovery and the Catalon ejection. He said he did not want to pay a fine for criticizing officials.

Replay is “good for the game,” he said, then added, “Honestly, I want them all to go our way. I thought the fumble was ours, but they explained (that they didn’t have a clear recovery on replay).

“I could have seen them easily giving them that touchdown. For the most part, they were able to get them right. I wish we didn’t lose Catalon.”

That ejection — his second this season — came when Catalon appeared to veer away from a direct helmet-to-helmet hit of LSU receiver Kayshon Boutte.

“I thought he tried to avoid him and came with his shoulder,” Pittman said. “The receiver went lower. It looked like (Catalon) tried to avoid him.”

LSU had entered the game with one of the nation’s worst third-down defenses. The Tigers were 11th in the SEC and No. 111 in the nation with a 47% conversion rate on defense. It is the area where the Hogs should have had some success, not wiped out.

The Tigers converted 12 of 23 on third downs, taking advantage of an Arkansas defense down three starters on the defensive line because of covid-19 testing. That led to a time of possession advantage of 41:43 to 18:17.

“LSU had the ball the whole time,” Pittman said. “They saw some new faces on our defensive line and thought they would run the ball. They controlled the football game. Bottom line, they could run it and we couldn’t. It was the difference in the football game.

“On third downs, there was more pressure. They covered us pretty good, too. On the slant routes that are usually open, they played them pretty good. Honestly, I thought we’d run it better. I thought their linebackers played pretty good.

“When they took (the run away from us), we played into their strengths, their edge rushers.”

LSU ran 49 times for 148 yards. Franks was sacked twice, but still managed to lead the anemic UA ground game with 14 carries for 43 yards. The Hogs netted 104 yards on 27 rushes.

The Hogs had a chance at victory thanks to three whirlwind touchdown drives. They went 92 yards on four plays, 75 in three plays and 96 on six plays.

The Razorbacks also kept it for seven plays on an 88-yard drive for Reed’s 22-yard field goal that gave Arkansas a 24-20 lead with 12:42 left in the game.

Reed's miss came on a fourth-and-3 situation after Trelon Smith couldn’t hold a third down pass in the flats when two LSU defenders arrived at the same time as the football. Pittman said it was an easy to call to try for the potential tying field goal.

“If we were a little closer, I might have tried (a fourth-down gamble),” Pittman said. “But we were down three and it was a 44-yarder. What would you have said if we went for it and didn’t make it?"

Ultimately, the Hogs might have lost it when they had to settle for the field goal earlier in the fourth quarter. Franks found T.J. Hammonds on a 51-yard bomb and Hammonds rolled 30 on a sweep to set up a first-and-goal at the 6-yard line.

Franks had to throw the ball away on a first down pass. He found Blake Kern for a 4-yard completion to the 2-yard line. On third down, with rain pelting the field the previous 15 minutes, Franks slipped for a 2-yard loss trying to stop on an inside read. Had he left it with Smith, it might have been a walk-in touchdown.

“We had a chance to go up by eight points,” Pittman said. “That could have put some pressure on them and we didn’t do that.”

Franks may have struggled in some of his reads in the run-pass option game, but he was solid with 17 of 26 passing for 339 yards. He helped the Hogs lead in total yards, 443 to 419.

Arkansas was without 13 players listed on the depth chart, mostly because of covid-19 tests. The hardest hit area was the defensive line where Dorian Gerald, Zach Williams, Isaiah Nichols, Xavier Kelly, Eric Gregory and Julius Coates missed the game.

They did have their bell cow nose tackle, senior Jonathan Marshall. He was flanked by redshirt freshman Taurean Carter and sophomore Mataio Soli to open the game. Marshall only left the game for a few plays. Sophomore Marcus Miller made some plays at defensive end. True freshmen Jashaud Stewart and Eric Thomas played some at defensive end, redshirt freshman Enoch Jackson played briefly at nose tackle.

Linebacker Grant Morgan led the defense with 19 tackles. Catalon added 16. Bumper Pool made 11 stops.

Marshall made four tackles, despite double and triple team attention from the Tigers. He had two quarterback hurries. The Tigers were called for holding in their attempt to stop his bull rushes, but could have been flagged other times, too.

“He is wonderful,” Pittman said. “He plays his tail off.”

On losing so much defensive line depth because of covid-19, Pittman said, “No one said a word. (Marshall) didn’t say, ‘Where is so and so.’ He said, ‘Let’s go.’

“We talk all the time, all we have is all we need. You have to have four defensive linemen (on scholarship) and we had nine available. Honestly, we should have played the game.”

In the first half, LSU dominated third downs on both sides of the ball and converted a pair of fourth downs, too. That led to a 21:52 to 8:08 edge in time of possession in the first half that led to a 20-14 lead.

Arkansas never had the ball for more than four plays in the first half, but did manage two touchdown drives of 92 yards and 75 yards. The Hogs were 0-for-5 on third downs before halftime, and LSU converted 6 of 12 on third down.

Both teams had one turnover in the first half, but Arkansas did nothing with its extra chance. Jabril Cox returned a Franks interception 35 yards to the 1-yard line to set up the touchdown that ultimately gave the Tigers their halftime lead.

Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles seemed to think there was a numbers advantage in the box for the first half. His play calling was heavy with runs early, with no room to operate.

Smith — with starter Rakeem Boyd out because of covid-19 — carried seven times for 15 yards in the first half. On the game’s first possession, Franks missed him on a third-and-5 with clear sailing along the sideline.

Franks had Trey Knox open on the interception. The 6-4 Cox was 10 yards in front of Knox, but reached high for the key turnover of the first half. He rambled 36 yards before Smith knocked him out of bounds at the 1-yard line.

Tyrion Davis Price powered over on the first play to make the LSU lead 17-7 with 4:21 left in the second quarter. The Tigers rolled 75 yards in 10 plays for their other first-half touchdown. Finley found Racey McMath behind Hudson Clark on a blitz for a 30-yard TD.

The Tigers — like Florida the week before — owned the second quarter. The Gators scored 28 in that period and the Tigers won it 17-7. The turnover was part of the problem, but downhill running was an issue, too.

“The problem, they were winning first down,” Pittman said. “On first down, they went behind those big guards, right downhill.”

Pittman said it was tough to load the box with extra defenders because, “They were just scary enough with Finley’s quarterback runs and throwing the ball.”

The Tigers moved the ball well enough to keep the Arkansas offense pinned inside its 10-yard line to start four of their five second-half possessions. Part of the problem was poor decisions on how to field Zach Von Rosenberg’s punts.

The third down problems and Catalon’s ejection dominated much of the post-game interview. Pittman had noted earlier in the week that when he got out of covid-19 quarantine, his return to practice on Wednesday included a lot of work on third downs.

“We couldn’t get off the field on third down (Saturday) and our offense couldn’t make any third downs,” he said. “Whether or not we focused on it (in practice), we’d still be disappointed in it.”

It’s hard not to focus on the Catalon ejection.

“The game is a lot about confidence and belief,” Pittman said. “He brings such an aura. He effects our team more than his play. You seldom say a redshirt freshman is a leader, but he is with his communication, skill and the fact our players believe in him. It hurt.”

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