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:
No gold in Tuscaloosa, but Razorbacks leave with pride intact
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) tries to run away from Alabama defensive back DeMarcco Hellams during a game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
If Alabama is the gold standard in college football, Arkansas came away with a silver medal at Bryant-Denny Stadium. It took a Heisman Trophy worthy performance by Alabama’s best two players.
There might be a silver lining, too, after No. 2 Alabama held on to a 42-35 victory. Sam Pittman’s rebuild of the No. 21 Razorbacks might still be progressing.
Pittman, the second-year Arkansas coach, preaches physicality, something Alabama oozes with every move. But this time the Tide did not out smack the Razorbacks. They won it with superior passing and raw speed at wide receiver, not a jaw-jacking offensive line like in recent seasons.
It wasn’t so much that the Tide had more talent everywhere, but that they had two great players. Quarterback Bryce Young and outside linebacker Will Anderson made just a few more decisive plays on a day when nothing was easy.
An onside kick bounced out of bounds with 1:02 left that prevented the Razorbacks from going for the real prize. It left the Tide relieved to claim the SEC West crown and a date with No. 1 Georgia in Atlanta in two weeks.
It left the Razorbacks with something less than the four Bs Pittman preached as November goals: a bowl trip, the Boot trophy vs. LSU, beating ‘Bama and the Battle Live Rivalry trophy vs. Missouri.
“It was our third part,” Pittman said. “We don’t set goals we don’t think we can achieve. But we didn’t get enough. We didn’t get enough stops.”
It left Pittman almost apologizing for speaking proudly about his team.
“We did not come here to lose by seven,” Pittman said.
Later he admitted, “It’s hard to look at the Arkansas Razorbacks and not be proud of their effort and physicality.”
Pittman praised his team in the locker room and in his media interview.
“There is a fine line — you are proud, but you lose,” he said. “But I’m proud of the guys and that’s what I told them.
“We matched their physicality. It’s what Alabama is known for. The days of getting our teeth kicked in are over — at least for one week.”
It was second-most points scored by the Hogs in Tuscaloosa, short of another loss, 41-38 in 2007 when Nick Saban was in his first year as Tide coach. The Hogs have not won here since 2003.
The Tide needed a record performance Young, the sophomore from California with the quick feet and a rifle arm. Young threw for a school-record 559 yards. He threw five touchdown passes.
What made it different from the last few Alabama matchups, Arkansas did not wilt under the offensive onslaught. They fought back behind the pass-catch tandem of KJ Jefferson and Treylon Burks, and a successful fake field goal for the second straight week.
The Hogs trailed by 31-14 four minutes into the third quarter, but fought within 34-28 with 11:24 left, and had the home stadium nervous when Jefferson to Raheim “Rocket” Sanders for a 17-yard touchdown with 1:02 to play.
Cam Little’s onside kick bounced high and then out of bounds with no Arkansas rushers nearby to end the suspense. The kick targeted Burks streaking along the sideline, but Anderson’s hit knocked Burks out of bounds and short of where the ball sailed into the Arkansas bench area.
Anderson, who will probably get plenty of Heisman votes, made 11 tackles, including 3.5 for losses. The Hogs challenged the magnificent rush end with runs to his inside, but seldom blocked him for long.
However, mostly it was the Alabama offense finding easy yardage in the passing game. The Tide led in total yards, 671 to 468. It was the fourth-most yards gained against an Arkansas defense.
Alabama led in rushing yards, 112-110. Pittman said he thought the Hogs could run the ball OK, but it was clear the Hogs had advantages with Burks in the passing game.
Burks caught eight passes for 179 yards. The Tide had two receivers, John Metchie III and Jameson Williams, with dazzling numbers, too. Metchie had 10 catches for 173; Williams 8 for 190.
Pittman said Young sometimes looked like Patrick Mahomes, the great NFL quarterback, when he escaped the pocket.
“He made great plays,” said Pittman, who called Young deserving of Heisman consideration. "(His passing total) is pretty darn good.
“We played three deep coverage and guys are running by us. We played a lot of man. We tried a lot of things. Sometimes they worked, but a lot of times they didn’t.
“You play three deep you wouldn’t think they’d run by you in the middle of the field. We talked about changing things up at halftime.”
The first half was the Young show. The sophomore quarterback delivered on-time strikes both over the top and underneath the Arkansas coverage. He completed 14 of 19 passes for 287 yards before halftime.
Young targeted both Arkansas cornerbacks, senior Montaric Brown and junior LaDarrius Bishop. Metchie caught 6 passes for 122 yards in the first half, including a 20-yard touchdown. Williams added 4 catches for 121 yards, with scoring grabs of 79 and 32 before halftime.
Alabama didn’t need any offense to go on top with 7:41 left in the first quarter. Jefferson fumbled a snap to give the Tide field position for a 48-yard Will Reichard field goal.
The Hogs made two first downs before Reid Bauer hit a 44-yard punt that was downed at the Tide 4-yard line. Young led a nine-play, 98-yard drive for the Tide's first touchdown.
Young was 4 of 4 passing on the drive. Alabama faced only one third down and made it 10-0 with Young’s TD pass to Metchie against Brown.
After trading punts, both quarterbacks caught fire. There were four straight touchdown drives.
Arkansas answered with a 13-play, 96-yard touchdown drive. Jefferson passed 32 to Burks on a release along the sideline. Jefferson converted a fourth-and-1 with a sneak. There was also a third-and-3 conversion with a short pass to Burks.
On third-and-2, Jefferson faked a dive to Smith before finding Burks open in the flat. There was one defender to outrace to the sideline and a nifty cut to make it a 15-yard TD play. It was 10-7 at 6:06 left in the second.
Williams outraced Bishop and safety Simeon Blair for a 79-yard touchdown bomb. He beat Bishop off the line and ran a post with Blair slow to take his deep middle position. It was 17-7 at 5:21.
There was no medal for the officials who worked the game.
The Hogs overcame shoddy officiating (and reviews) to roll 75 yards in seven plays. There was a bogus grounding the ball call on Jefferson (with a pass to the feet of Burks) and a pass to Warren Thompson ruled down short of the goal line.
Then, on first down from the 1-yard line, Dominique Johnson squirted in for the touchdown, but with no call from the officials. Replay ref Mickey Haddock reversed that call. It was 17-14 with 3:40 left in the half.
With the Hogs playing soft, Alabama took the short stuff for three first downs until Young found Williams behind Bishop for a 32-yard TD. It was 24-14 with 1:44 left in the half.
The Tide faced only one third down while driving 75 yards in nine plays after the second half kickoff. Young dazzled on the scoring plays, sliding out of the pocket, then stopping near the line of scrimmage to flip a pass to Christian Leary on the right sideline. It went for an 11-yard TD to expand the lead to 31-14.
Jefferson answered in a hurry. He found Burks in man-to-man coverage against cornerback Josh Jobe, trying to hand fight him along the sideline. Jobe lost that battle, then chased, along with four other defensive backs, for the majority of the 66-yard TD play.
The Tide expanded the lead to two scores again on Reichard’s 30-yard field goal with 1:09 left in the third quarter. Reichard had missed from 47 on the previous chance.
Two procedure penalties stalled the Hogs after they had a third-and-1 at the Alabama 24. On fourth-and-6, Cam Little got the nod for a 50-yard field goal. But instead holder Reid Bauer lobbed a jump pass over the middle to Blake Kern. The pass was short, but the tight end reached back for the catch and raced in for a 32-yard TD.
The Hogs got their lone turnover of the game when Brown got a strip and recovery at the 1-yard line. But the Hogs ran it twice for some room, then came up empty on third-and-5 when Jefferson was short on a back-shoulder try for Thompson.
Notably, Burks waved his arms on the other sidelines, frustrated that Jefferson didn’t throw it up for him.
Alabama made it 42-28 when Young passed 40 yards for Williams, then scored on the two-point run.
The Hogs answered with a 12-play, 75-yard drive, but used 4:37 in the process. Jefferson converted a fourth-and-11 for a first down at midfield. A pass interference penalty (on coverage against Burks) earned another first down.
Pittman lauded Jefferson, who was 22 of 30 for 326 yards and 3TDs. He also ran 13 times for 22 yards.
“The line protected him well,” Pittman said. “Man, he’s getting better every week. I wouldn’t trade him. He mad some good runs. He’s a tough guy.”
Toughness and physicality are important, but it’s still about winning. The Hogs get another chance to do that next week and play for a trophy.
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