Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
7 Keys to Arkansas vs. BYU
LaVell Edwards Stadium is empty of frans before an NCAA college football game between Louisiana Tech and BYU on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Home field advantage
BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium has the seventh-highest elevation of any stadium in the Football Bowl Subdivision at 4,649 feet above sea level.
How much difference that makes is up for interpretation.
Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool has played at altitude before, as a freshman when the Razorbacks lost 34-27 at Colorado State in 2018. The Rams’ Canvas Stadium is located at an elevation of 5,003 feet.
Pool said he does not remember altitude having an effect on the Razorbacks that night.
“I really felt pretty good the whole game," Pool said. "I don’t remember anyone kind of saying, ‘Oh, I can’t breathe,’ or anything like that. I felt pretty good, and I thought the team felt good as well.
“I think sometimes you can kind of get some stuff like that in your head, and you kind of play it up too much.”
Lance Harter, the legendary Arkansas women’s track and field coach, cut his teeth coaching in Colorado and has taken athletes to altitude many times throughout his long career. He said altitude is less likely to affect football players than athletes in some other sports because football players have a chance to rest in between snaps.
“You actually get a chance to recover to some degree,” Harter said.
Could there be a time when football players are affected by altitude?
“If BYU made your defensive secondary cover long pass patterns right in a row with fresh receivers, yeah, you’d really start feeling it,” Harter said. “You know, once you get into debt, it’s hard to get out of unless you just get rest.”
Arkansas soccer coach Colby Hale has taken his team to Provo twice, including earlier this year when the Razorbacks tied the reigning national runner-up Cougars.
“They say hydration and sleep are the two most important things when you go to altitude,” Hale said, “and so we just…drank water and slept a little bit extra.”
Harter agreed about hydration.
“You will develop cramps earlier because you don’t sweat,” Harter said. “That super-dry air at altitude just sucks moisture off. You feel like, ‘Woo, I’m not sweating,’ and then unbeknownst to you, all of a sudden you’re dehydrated.”
The altitude isn’t the only thing that potentially works against the visiting team in Provo. It helps that BYU is a solid team with an involved home crowd.
Under seventh-year coach Kalani Sitake, the Cougars have beaten six Power 5 teams on their home field, including Mississippi State from the SEC. Other Power 5 teams to fall in Provo during that time include Southern Cal, Utah, Arizona State, Virginia and Baylor.
Four of those teams were ranked at the time, including then-No. 9 Baylor earlier this season when BYU won 26-20 in double overtime.
“We talked to our colleagues at Baylor, who played there earlier this year, and they said they had to go to a silent snap count the entire game,” Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us, but I think it’s a challenge that we’re up to.”
Arkansas recently installed a new sound system at its indoor football center to help prepare for the noise it will face on the road.
“If you drive by campus between 2:30 and 4:30, you’ll be wondering what all this noise is. It sounds like a game is going on,” Yurachek said. “It’s coming out of our indoor facility, because we’re preparing for a very hostile environment at BYU.”
BYU is pulling out all the stops for the rare visit from an SEC team. It has sold out of tickets for this week’s Homecoming game and asked its fans to wear all white. The football team will wear white jerseys with custom blue helmets.
It has been proven time and time again — including last week by Arkansas at Mississippi State — quarterback is the most important position on the field.
Both teams came into the week with questions about their starting quarterback, but it appears both starters will play. Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson did not play last week after he missed practice time while dealing with an unspecified injury, and BYU’s Jaren Hall has battled a shoulder injury.
The Razorbacks look like a different team with Jefferson at the helm. His overall capabilities are unmatched by any other quarterback on the Arkansas roster. He is also an unquestioned team leader.
A week off should have Jefferson plenty motivated. It also allowed him time to rest after a grueling five-week stretch when he rarely came off the field and carried the ball 81 times.
Hall has downplayed this week an apparent shoulder injury during BYU’s 28-20 loss to Notre Dame last week. He completed 9 of 17 passes for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns, and was intercepted on the Cougars’ first offensive snap.
Both starting quarterbacks are ranked high nationally in passing efficiency — Jefferson 19th and Hall 25th.
Jefferson has a 165.1 rating and has completed 80 of 121 passes for 1,096 yards and 9 touchdowns. He has been intercepted once.
Hall has a 160.7 efficiency and has completed 129 of 188 for 1,558 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has been intercepted twice.
Playmaking ability at wide receiver was something of a concern for the Razorbacks entering fall camp. But after positive reviews rolled in in August from Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, his coordinators and numerous players, the narrative shifted a bit.
The thought entering Week 1 was that the Razorbacks were more than fine at the position. Jadon Haselwood was looked at as a potential leader of the group, and Matt Landers received more praise than perhaps any player on either side of the ball. Warren Thompson and Ketron Jackson had solid preseasons, too.
Of late, consistency has lacked in the passing game and production for some has slowed since the season’s opening weeks. With the return of Jefferson, can Arkansas get back on track through the air?
The Razorbacks need more from Landers than his three catches for 50 yards during the losing streak. He did not have a reception at Mississippi State, ending a personal 10-game stretch with at least one catch.
Thompson, who did not play against Alabama in Week 5, also did not have a reception last weekend. Jackson had one catch for 21 yards.
Haselwood, who tallied the first 100-yard receiving game of his career, carried the load, and Bryce Stephens totaled 59 yards, 54 of which came on a touchdown catch from Malik Hornsby.
“We didn’t play particularly well at wide receiver in some positions,” Pittman said. “We’ve got to figure out who, possibly, our third receiver is and things of that nature. And that could be Bryce or even Jaedon Wilson, somebody like that.
“I think we’ve got the talent. We’ve just got to give more effort and play harder.”
Tight end Trey Knox is a key piece in the passing game, as well, but he has largely been quiet of late. He caught 6 passes for 75 yards and 2 touchdowns in Week 1, but has 6 grabs for 77 yards in the last 5 games.
At this point, it appears Haselwood, battling an ailing shoulder, is Arkansas’ top receiver. He has 10 more catches than Landers, who is second on the team, and is averaging a team-high 4.5 receptions per game.
“He’s a great player, and he’s a leader,” Stephens said of Haselwood. “He speaks up a lot and continues to work no matter what — no matter what. He’s feeling like he’s going to continue to work, so he’s a good guy (to have).”
Run game success
At least on paper, Arkansas’ one clear advantage against BYU is evident.
The Cougars this season have allowed opponents to rush for 200-plus yards three times. Each of those performances have come in the last four weeks.
Utah State, a member of the Mountain West Conference, totaled 204 yards on the ground on an aggressive 49 attempts in its loss in Provo, Utah, and Oregon and Notre Dame finished with 212 and 234 yards rushing, respectively.
According to CFBStats.com, only 12 FBS teams have faced more rush attempts than BYU. Opponents obviously see something on tape in game prep that they believe can be exploited, and Arkansas surely sees it, too.
The Cougars are surrendering 172.2 yards per game on the ground. The Razorbacks come into the weekend with the country’s 10th-best rushing attack. Raheim Sanders is the SEC’s leading rusher.
Pittman is well aware success in the run game begins with his offensive line, which is made up of five of the SEC’s top seven run blockers, per Pro Football Focus. He believes the group has played well overall, but he wants this week for it to play more mistake-free football.
“I’m not pleased with the details of what’s going on,” Pittman said. “In other words, I think they play well together as a unit, but obviously — and I talked to (offensive line coach) Cody (Kennedy) about it as well — the snaps, the false starts, they have to stop. And I get it. If you’re going to have a false start on the road, I get that.
“But right now, until we start playing a little bit better, we can’t afford anything self inflicted, and we’re doing way too much of that. I thought we had played pretty well. I didn’t think we played well last Saturday as a unit there.”
In two non-conference matchups this season (Cincinnati and Missouri State), Arkansas has averaged 5.4 yards per carry and 218 yards per game.
Limit explosive plays
It likely comes as little-to-no surprise that Arkansas’ defense ranks last in the FBS in 30-plus yard plays from scrimmage allowed. The Razorbacks have given up 24 such plays through six weeks.
Opponents have totaled 12 plays of 40-plus yards, and that figure places Arkansas 127th nationally, according to CFBStats.com.
Simply put, the Razorbacks must find a way, through various injuries and depth concerns, to limit explosive plays at BYU. Big gains can not only provide but swing momentum and engage what is expected to be a large, loud crowd.
In 3 homes games this season, the Cougars have passed for 900 yards and 9 touchdowns without an interception. Away from home, they have averaged 228.7 yards per game through the air. Like with most teams, there is an obvious comfortability playing at home.
Overall, BYU, led by Hall, whose status for the game was up in the air earlier in the week, it has recorded 66 pass plays of 10-plus yards this season, and 22 have netted at least 20 yards.
As a reference point, Alabama has 63 pass plays of 10 or more yards and 22 of 20-plus.
“I know one thing: They can throw the football,” Pittman said. “And we’re certainly concerned about that.”
Keanu Hill, a sophomore receiver, leads BYU with 334 yards on 17 catches, and freshman wideout Kody Epps has 25 receptions for 298 yards and a team-best 5 touchdowns. Hill has come on strong in recent weeks, tallying five touchdowns in the Cougars’ last four games.
He finished the loss to Notre Dame with 4 catches for 100 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Running the ball, BYU ranks 83rd nationally with 25 carries of 10-plus yards, but the Cougars have ripped off nine 20-plus yard runs — as many as Arkansas. Senior running back Christopher Brooks has rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown in back-to-back games.
BYU this season has seven scoring drives of 60-plus yards in five or fewer plays.
“We’re not treating it any different than an SEC team,” Arkansas defensive back Hudson Clark said. “They’re fast, they’re physical, their receivers catch mostly everything we’ve seen, and they finish blocks.
“They’re really a good opponent we’re about to face.”
If the Razorbacks hope to bother Hall or another BYU quarterback in the passing game, they will likely have to get the best of a former 5-star offensive lineman who Pittman recruited out of high school. It will be a tall task.
BYU right tackle Kingsley Suamataia, a transfer from Oregon, is an essential part of a Cougars offensive line that is among the best in the country in pass protection. According to PFF, BYU’s front is No. 2 in the FBS with a pass-blocking grade of 87.3.
The metrics show that the Cougars’ line has posted pass-blocking marks of 81.0 or better in 4 of 6 games this season, including 90.1 against Wyoming.
However, Suamataia and left tackle Blake Freeland have allowed a team-high seven quarterback pressures apiece and 10 total hurries. Arkansas defensive ends Landon Jackson and Zach Williams become crucial in Arkansas’ game plan, as does linebacker Drew Sanders, who often crashes the edge.
The Razorbacks need a bounce-back effort from their pass rush. They did not record a sack last Saturday against Mississippi State, and Arkansas for the first time since 2016 went without a tackle for loss despite making 105 stops.
“They’re a veteran offensive line playing well together,” Pittman said. “Very, very physical, play extremely hard, really good pass protectors for Hall. I think they’re really well coached and play extremely hard, and (they’re) talented.”
Just a few weeks ago, Arkansas led the country in sacks behind strong play from Sanders, Williams, Georgia Tech transfer Jordan Domineck and Jackson. But the Razorbacks have just four sacks during the three-game losing streak against Texas A&M, Alabama and Mississippi State.
Domineck said this week that BYU’s offensive line, physically, provides a big challenge.
“They’re a pretty big O-line, an SEC-sized O-line — 6-7, 6-8 across the board, 6-6, over 300 (pounds),” he said. “It’s just going to be (about) us getting Hall off his spot as a D-line, so to speak, and just trying to dominate the line of scrimmage from the get-go.
“We’ve got to be able to start fast.”
Will Myles Slusher, Jayden Johnson or Khari Johnson be able to play for the Razorbacks? Their availabilities loom large for the Razorbacks.
Slusher did not travel to Mississippi State, and the Johnsons were injured during the first half of the game. It was a blow to an already-thin Arkansas secondary that lost safety Jalen Catalon and cornerback LaDarrius Bishop to season-ending injuries in the first two games.
The Razorbacks were down five front-line defensive backs by halftime against one of the sport’s most pass-happy teams.
Earlier this week, Pittman indicated Jayden Johnson might be more likely to play than Khari Johnson this week, and said Slusher’s status was “up in the air.” Pittman said three defensive backs had not practiced as of Wednesday morning, but did not specify which ones.
Khari Johnson was off to a great start against Mississippi State with nine tackles through one-plus quarter. His 66.7 grade by PFF was virtually tied with Latavious Brini for the best score last week among Arkansas’ defensive backs.
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.