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:
Best and Worst of Arkansas football in 2021
Arkansas wide receiver Treylon Burks (16) makes a one-handed catch between Texas A&M linebacker Andre White Jr. (32) and defensive back Leon O'Neal Jr. (9) in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Or, if you want another that’s a little longer, how about “bargain?"
That was the Aggie joke when Arkansas knocked off then-No. 7 Texas A&M, 20-10 in the season’s fourth week. Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher’s base salary is $9 million.
Pittman told us what the 8-4 season meant to Razorback Nation just 30 minutes after the 34-17 victory over Missouri in the regular-season finale. The Hogs are finally “relevant” again on the national stage.
That hasn’t been the case since Bobby Petrino put the program in a ditch with a motorcycle wreck on April 1, 2012. The Hogs had averaged less than three wins per season over the last four years.
Except for a 37-0 loss to No. 1 Georgia, the Hogs were competitive again. They can claim third in the SEC West with a 4-4 record and wins over Texas A&M and Mississippi State, the two other 4-4 teams.
The Razorbacks climbed as high as No. 8 after a 4-0 start and finished the regular season at No. 22 in the College Football Playoff poll.
It makes it fun to be a Razorback fan, or someone charged with writing about the team. And, it makes this week’s commentary — our annual Best and Worst of Arkansas football — much more about the best than the worst.
I started jotting notes for this commentary earlier in the week. I came up with several legal-pad pages of best before I could make one page half full with the worst.
That’s what happens when the team wins three trophies and beats Texas by almost three touchdowns. So with apologies for those who really focus on the worst (and our society has more of those these days), here is the 2021 Best-Worst.
Best Illustration of Joy
That would be Pittman’s introduction of Larry the Bowling Ball after the 31-28 victory over Mississippi State clinched a bowl trip. The coach rolled a $20 prop through the middle of his dancing team in a jubilant locker room.
The 17-0 ignition against Texas A&M stands out. The Hogs scored on their first three possessions, then held on for a 20-10 victory as quarterback KJ Jefferson fought through a bruised knee that sidelined him for much of the second half.
Jefferson completed touchdown passes of 85 yards to Treylon Burks and 48 to AJ Green after Cam Little opened the scoring with a 46-yard field goal. The defense allowed a 68-yard Isaiah Spiller touchdown run in the third quarter but hardly anything else.
It was the first victory over the Aggies since they joined the SEC in 2012. Of course, the Hogs haven’t beaten too many other SEC teams since then either.
There isn’t anything else close. The Hogs appeared doomed in Athens as soon as referee Jason Autrey trotted onto the field to welcome the captains for the coin toss. Autrey was the referee who botched the Hogs’ chances to win at Auburn in 2020.
The Hogs were penalized 13 times for 101 yards at Georgia. There were six for 41 yards in the first quarter, which was won by Georgia, 21-0.
Jefferson didn’t get the victory for his team, but he gave it everything in a 52-51 loss at Ole Miss. Jefferson’s only failure came on an incomplete two-point pass after the clock had expired when Pittman elected to go for the win instead of trying to stop Matt Corral in overtime.
Jefferson, who grew up in nearby Sardis, Miss., ran 20 times for 85 yards and 3touchdowns. He completed 25 of 35 passes for 326 and 3 TDs.
It was probably this performance — perhaps better than Corral — when Razorback Nation realized the outstanding nature of their quarterback.
Jefferson finished the regular season with a 66.9 completion percentage, just behind the school record Feleipe Franks set last year of 68.5. He still has a chance to surpass Franks with a big bowl performance.
Jefferson passed for 21 TDs and ran for 5 TDs. His 554 rushing yards were second on the team.
After the Hogs seemed to run short on luck in Pittman’s 3-7 debut season, they probably got a good sign it was going to be their year early in the victory over. On the first Texas punt, Arkansas deep man Greg Brooks fumbled and Texas appeared to recover at the 4-yard line.
But upon video review, the result was changed. The Texas return man was judged to have stepped out of bounds (by inches) and the ball went back to the Razorbacks.
But the Hogs did not need luck the rest of the way. They whipped the Longhorns for only the fourth time in Fayetteville, the most lopsided in 40 years dating to a 42-11 thumping of No. 1 Texas in 1981.
Arkansas scored on its next four possessions en route to a 16-0 halftime lead. They led 33-7 after three quarters. They rushed for 333 yards.
The sellout crowd of 74,531 had Reynolds Razorback Stadium rocking for almost four hours. The students — along with a good number of older fans — poured out on the field as the final seconds expired drawing a $100,000 fine from the SEC.
More Bad Luck
The Hogs led Auburn 17-14 in the third quarter after rallying from a 14-3 deficit when they forced a three-and-out and punt. But the towering Auburn punt was lost in the sun by return man Nathan Parodi and produced a 25-yard roll to the Hogs' 11-yard line.
The game flipped quickly. Jefferson was sacked on back-to-back plays, the second a strip fumble that Marcus Harris recovered for a touchdown. The Tigers didn’t look back on the way to a 38-23 victory.
That would be sophomore running back Dominique Johnson. Tried at tight end during August practices because of slim depth at that position, Johnson proved to be the most complete back on the team.
Johnson’s best performance came against Mississippi State when he gained 107 yards on 17 carries and scored 2 touchdowns, including the game winner with 21 seconds remaining. He also scored on a two-point run to complete the scoring.
Johnson rushed 86 times for 498 yards on the season and scored a team-best 7 touchdowns on the ground.
Best Defensive Play
There were plenty to choose from, but senior cornerback Montaric Brown’s overtime interception in the end zone was the key play in the 16-13 victory over LSU.
Brown led the team with five interceptions. He also had a forced fumble and recovery late in the Alabama game. It gave the Hogs possession at their own 1-yard line, down just one touchdown.
Treylon Burks did not make the final two ballots for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation’s best wide receiver, but the junior from Warren dazzled for most of the season after a slow start in the opener because of an August foot injury.
Burks finished the season with 66 catches for 1,104 yards and 11 TD catches. He also rushed for one touchdown. He topped the century mark in receiving yards 6 times, including 167 against A&M, 136 against Ole Miss and 179 against Alabama.
The strengths on offense are hard to argue. There were many. The offensive line made the semifinals for the Joe Moore Award, given to the nation’s top O-line. Running backs and quarterbacks excelled, too.
But the linebackers get my vote for the best position. Seniors Bumper Pool (120 tackles), Grant Morgan (96) and Hayden Henry (95) rotated at the inside linebacker posts and finished 1-2-3 in total tackles.
Pool started only the season opener against Rice when Henry was suspended for the first half for a targeting foul in the 2020 finale against Alabama.
First-year assistant coach Michael Scherer should get credit for keeping all three fresh with his rotation pattern. Henry led the team in tackles for lost yardage with 10.5.
Best Special Teams Player
Special teams sparkled for most of the season. But freshman placekicker Cam Little was solid from start to season. The true freshman made 19 of 23 field goal tries. He made three in the victory over Mississippi State, most notable because the Bulldogs missed three.
Kickoff specialist Vito Calvaruso was outstanding, too. He booted 63 of 74 for touchbacks.
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