Matt Jones is the editor of the Hawgs Sports Network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has a bachelor's and master's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas.
6 Keys to Arkansas' game vs. Ole Miss
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson greets fans as he walks to the locker room, Saturday, November 12, 2022 before the start of the first quarter of a football game at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Two games stand out in the last generation or so of Arkansas football as the coldest.
Most remember the Liberty Bowl when Alex Tejada kicked a field goal in overtime to give the Razorbacks a 20-17 win over East Carolina to end the 2009 season. The temperature at kickoff was 29 degrees, but the windchill was 10 and fell throughout the night.
Those of a certain age will also recall Arkansas’ final Southwest Conference game on campus in 1991 — a 9-5 loss to Baylor that also included a kick-off temperature of 29 degrees and falling. Snow flurries fell throughout the game.
There is thought that Saturday’s game might rival those as some of the coldest on record for the Razorbacks. The National Weather Service calls for a high of 42 degrees and a low of 19 on Saturday in Fayetteville, and with a 6:30 p.m. kickoff, it is likely to be closer to the forecasted low by the time the game begins. Northwest winds will make it feel colder than the air temperature.
The East Carolina and Baylor games — and the LSU game last week when it was 34 degrees at kickoff but warming throughout the afternoon — are reminders of how cold weather can slow offenses. Without its starting quarterback, Arkansas had 249 yards a week ago and would have recorded one of its worst offensive performances ever if not for a couple of long passes on its only touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
LSU was held to 284 yards, well below its season average of 445 yards coming into the game.
Cold weather does not always slow offenses down. Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen and Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott had one of the SEC’s all-time best quarterback duels in Fayetteville seven years ago when the Razorbacks lost 51-50. The temperature at kickoff was 37 degrees and dropped throughout the game.
The overarching feeling this week, though, is that Arkansas and Ole Miss might be in for a lower-scoring game — certainly lower than their 52-51 epic last year in Oxford, Miss.
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said he thinks the weather held down the scoring last week against LSU, and hopes for colder weather this week.
“The colder the better,” Pittman said, adding, “We’re rooting for a freeze-out if we can get it.”
Ole Miss also played in cold conditions last week, a 30-24 loss to Alabama on its home field. The kick-off temperature was 39 degrees.
While that game had a distinctly different feel than the Arkansas-LSU game that preceded it, it was still relatively low scoring. Ole Miss and Alabama were collectively scoring 79 points per game beforehand.
“If it comes to rain or wind, that affects different things in the play-calling and stuff,” Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said. “But when it’s just cold, that affects both teams, so it doesn’t impact game-planning.”
As we wrote last week, oftentimes the team that can run the ball most effectively has a good chance to win cold-weather games. Ole Miss (259.6) and Arkansas (223.3) rank first and third, respectively, in the SEC in rushing yards per game. The Razorbacks ranked first prior to a loss to Liberty two weeks ago, and their average took a major hit a week ago with quarterback KJ Jefferson out of the lineup and Raheim Sanders limited to 46 yards on 12 carries.
LSU’s ability to run the ball — running back Josh Williams finished with 122 yards — helped set up three scoring drives and assisted in offsetting a bad day for quarterback Jayden Daniels, who was less accurate than usual and sacked seven times.
Ole Miss has the SEC’s leading rusher in freshman Quinshon Judkins, who is averaging 116.9 yards on 20.5 attempts per game. Sanders led the SEC until last week and averages 114.7 yards on 18.5 attempts for the Razorbacks.
Junior Zach Evans has also been a solid back for the Rebels this year and averages 76.9 yards on 12.7 carries. Judkins and Evans have combined to rush for 22 touchdowns.
If Jefferson can play, as is expected, both teams have to honor the quarterback run. Jefferson averages 53.1 rushing yards and Ole Miss sophomore Jaxson Dart averages 50.8.
The teams have similar rush defense stats. Arkansas ranks seventh and Ole Miss eighth in the SEC in that category.
For Arkansas, a key this week is to get a better push in short-yardage situations, which have been problematic against physical defensive fronts the last two weeks, but also against other teams this year. The Razorbacks failed on a third-and-goal from the LSU 1 in the first quarter last week, then failed to score on fourth-and-goal from the 3.
It was the fourth time this season that Arkansas failed to score points when it had the ball at its opponent’s 1-yard line.
It is often the case when a team is forced to play a back-up quarterback that the offense takes a step backward.
Talented back-up quarterbacks are hard to keep on the roster. It isn’t a problem exclusive to that position, but greener grass and the allure of playing time elsewhere seems to generate more transfer movement among quarterbacks.
That said, Arkansas’ Malik Hornsby has been in the program for three seasons and still has trouble moving the offense with consistency. You don’t know what you will get when Hornsby or Cade Fortin are in the game, but more often than not it has been an ineffective offense.
It has been alarming this season to see just how badly Arkansas’ offense needs a healthy Jefferson, a team captain who is clearly the on-field leader.
The Razorbacks had 483 yards without Jefferson at Mississippi State, but scored only 17 points due to interceptions thrown by Hornsby and drives stalling in the red zone.
Jefferson played at less than full health two weeks ago against Liberty and the Razorbacks did not score a touchdown until the fourth quarter. They were held out of the end zone last week until Fortin replaced Hornsby and led a fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
Compare that to the final two games in October, when Jefferson led the offense to totals of 644 yards at BYU and 520 yards at Auburn. The Razorbacks scored a combined 93 points in those two games.
With the stellar play of Arkansas’ defense of late, it is fair to think the Razorbacks might have won the last two games with a healthy starting quarterback. Playing dinged up, Jefferson still led scoring drives of 84 and 85 yards late against Liberty, and was a two-point conversion away from tying the game with 1:11 remaining.
By all indications, Jefferson has taken more snaps in practice this week than he has the past two weeks. Those practice reps are important to playing efficiently during the game.
Jefferson is likely to do everything within his power to be ready to play Ole Miss. He grew up in Sardis, Miss. — a 30-mile drive to the Ole Miss campus in Oxford.
The motivation to play the Rebels was evident last year when Jefferson had arguably the best performance of his career in his first college start in his home state. He accounted for 411 yards and six touchdowns, and led a last-minute scoring drive that could have sent the game to overtime. The Razorbacks decided to try a two-point conversion with no time remaining, though, and Jefferson threw incomplete.
If Jefferson is healthy, his presence should open the Arkansas offense to more opportunities than we’ve seen the past two weeks. He is accurate in the passing game and his decision making in the zone-read option is an underrated aspect to his game.
“He’s obviously a problem because he’s so physical when he runs the ball,” Kiffin said of Jefferson this week. “He can make you miss and run you over. We had a major issue with him.”
Arkansas center Ricky Stromberg after the Razorbacks’ loss to LSU last Saturday was asked about the impact of not having Wagner, the team’s starting right tackle, in the fold against the Tigers.
“We definitely missed Dalton,” Stromberg said. “Dalton is a veteran, a sixth-year guy.”
Stromberg, who is not a captain but serves an obvious leadership role with the Razorbacks, was sure to compliment the effort of back-up right tackle Ty’Kieast Crawford. But the presence of Wagner and his know-how having been around the block in the SEC numerous times could have altered the outcome of the game.
Pittman on Wednesday said Wagner had practiced “a lot” in preparation for Ole Miss. He was also made available for player interviews Tuesday evening, indicating he is likely in position to play against the Rebels.
Should be return to the lineup Saturday, the Razorbacks will get back their fifth-best offensive player this season, according to Pro Football Focus. He holds an overall offense grade of 80.2.
Additionally, he has the offensive line’s third-best mark in pass protection (79.4) and run blocking (76.0).
Wagner was clearly not himself late in the game against Liberty, but played through the pain as the Razorbacks scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
“I didn’t think I gave my team the best shot to win,” Wagner said Tuesday of why he did not play last week. “I think that I’m feeling really good right now. Made it through practice today, made it through practice yesterday — feeling great. I’m back 100%.”
Wagner added that the Rebels’ edge defenders are sound pass rushers. In his eyes, their defensive line’s strength lies in its ability to push the pocket from the inside, or left guard to right guard.
“I think it’s going to be key this week that the interior holds up and that the tackles can keep the width of the pocket, as well, too,” he said. “And we all just read out of the same book.”
Ole Miss enters this weekend’s game with the No. 5 passing offense in the SEC in league games. It is averaging 238.3 yards per game.
For the season, the Rebels’ 225.9 passing yards per game place them ninth in the conference. Although Ole Miss quarterbacks rank 10th within the SEC in completion percentage (59.8%), the Rebels are made dangerous through the air when their array of playmakers get their hands on the football.
Jonathan Mingo and Malik Heath make up two of the conference’s top eight receivers in terms of yards per game. They are both among top seven in receiving yards.
Mingo has two 100-plus yard games and one 200-plus yard game. He went for 247 yards and two touchdowns during Ole Miss’ win at Vanderbilt.
And Heath led the Rebels with 123 receiving yards in their narrow home loss to Alabama. He has topped the 75-yard mark in a game five times this fall.
“Mingo is a superstar,” Pittman said. “And so are the other two wideouts, Heath and (Jordan) Watkins.
Watkins, who stands 5-11 and 190 pounds, is third on the team with 24 catches for 335 yards and 1 touchdown. He does not have a catch in the last two games.
The Razorbacks’ top corners and defensive backs have their hands full. But Arkansas’ corners are a confident, athletic bunch, too.
LSU transfer Dwight McGlothern and true freshman Quincey McAdoo hold two of the Razorbacks’ top three coverage grades this season, according to PFF, at 76.2 and 83.2, respectively. Opponents have combined to complete 23 of 52 passes (44.2%) when targeting receivers the two are matched up with.
“He’s done a great job playing as a freshman,” Kiffin said of McAdoo. “I think he was a receiver before, and he really looks like a special player.”
Mingo, Heath and Watkins have four combined drops this season on 151 total targets, per PFF.
Arkansas’ secondary will have Myles Slusher back in the fold this week, too. Slusher was suspended for the LSU game.
Over a four-game stretch against Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Auburn and LSU, Dart threw six touchdown passes against five interceptions.
Perhaps most troubling about that period of time was a two-pick game against the Commodores. Ole Miss, superior athletically and at essentially every position, still cruised to a 24-point win.
The turnovers, though, put something of a damper on an otherwise strong day — career-high 448 yards on 25-of-32 passing. And it showed that he is susceptible to turnover-worthy throws.
Dart this season has completed 60.7% of his 247 pass attempts for 2,123 yards and 15 touchdowns, and has been intercepted 7 times. To his credit, he has been clean the last two games with four touchdowns and no picks against Texas A&M and Alabama.
In essence, the Razorbacks’ defense must pounce on interceptable throws from Dart. He has a 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in SEC play this season.
To force him into such throws, Arkansas must continue to generate great pressure with its front. The Razorbacks in the last two weeks have 17 tackles for loss and 11 sacks, including 7 in the 13-10 loss to LSU.
According to PFF, Arkansas posted its third-best pass-rush grade of the season against the Tigers (73.2). Defensive back Latavious Brini, a Georgia transfer, and back-up linebacker Chris “Pooh” Paul led the way with individual marks of 80.0 and 78.1, respectively.
Dart, according to PFF data, has completed 31 of 73 passes (42.5%) when under pressure this season. On those plays, he has one touchdown pass, four interceptions and a grade of 41.5.
Arkansas’ defense likely understands all of the challenges that come with playing Ole Miss’ high-powered offense.
It also knows that the job isn’t finished after stopping the Rebels short of the first-down marker after three plays. That aspect of Ole Miss’ makeup creates a tall task for every opponent.
Few teams in college football push the envelope with gutsy and sometimes game-altering fourth-down decisions like Kiffin and Ole Miss. And few are equipped to do so like the Rebels, who have assembled a terrific cast of skill players.
In 2022, though, Ole Miss has scaled back a bit on attempting to keep drives alive beyond third down.
Last season, it led the country with 49 fourth-down attempts and was tied with Air Force for the national lead with 31 conversions. Fast forward one season, the Rebels are tied for 39th with 21 fourth-down plays.
Their 10 conversions this season rank 60th in the country.
“Those are going to be key for us to stop,” Pittman said. “(Kiffin is) going to do it. That’s what he believes in, and so it’s going to be big for us. We’ve talked a lot about first down and talked a lot about fourth down this week. I mean, those are downs that we need to win on defense.
“That’s very similar of every week, except a lot of times you don’t talk a lot about fourth down, except when you’re playing him, Coach (Mike) Leach from Mississippi State, those guys.”
Still, with the temperature expected to be below freezing at kickoff, points and touchdowns could be at a premium. And that could lead to the Razorbacks’ defense being tested for at least four plays with great regularity as Kiffin looks to gain an offensive edge.
In SEC games, Ole Miss ranks sixth in the league with 14 fourth-down attempts. But the Rebels are 13th in conversion rate (35.7%).
On the flip side, Arkansas has allowed 8 conversions in 15 tries this season, and opponents have moved the chains on 5 of 9 attempts in SEC games.
Any turnovers on downs the Razorbacks are able to generate could be as valuable as an interception or fumble recovery. Dating to Arkansas’ win at BYU, opponents are just 2 for 6 on fourth down against the Razorbacks.
Arkansas has also pushed the envelope more on fourth down in recent weeks. The Razorbacks were 4 for 6 on fourth down against Liberty, largely out of necessity while trailing in the fourth quarter. A pair of fourth-down misses against LSU were magnified in a close loss last week.
Through 10 games, Arkansas has attempted 20 fourth-down conversions this season and has converted 9. Compare that to last season when the Razorbacks attempted 19 fourth-down conversions in 13 games.
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.