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.
10 keys to Arkansas vs. Missouri State
Missouri State coach Bobby Petrino is shown during a game against Central Arkansas on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Conway.
Former Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick, who was a senior in Bobby Petrino’s first season coaching the Razorbacks in 2008, has a word of advice when preparing for a Petrino-coached team: watch the first offensive drive.
“He’s going to have something formulated just because that’s who he is,” said Dick, now the head coach at Fayetteville High School. “He always felt like the first drive of the game was the most important. He knew that was going to kind of set the tone, so he puts a lot of time into the first drive and typically the first three plays.”
Dick made that comment during a speech at the Hawgs Illustrated Sports Club this week, which included great insight into the level of preparation required to play quarterback for the coach who will lead the Missouri State Bears into Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday.
“I’ll never forget, before every game we played he would give us a 6-inch ring binder and it would just have still-shot photos of…whoever we were playing,” Dick said. “You had to go in there and write what defense they were doing, then who was blitzing, based off of a still shot.
“It really made you a better player to understand his system. He’s just very demanding.”
Petrino’s philosophy was to put immense pressure on a quarterback during practice so that it would seem easy on the first drive and throughout the game.
“He was on you about every single thing you did in practice, whether it was you stepped out from under center with the wrong foot or you didn’t audible to the right play,” Dick said. “For those of you that don’t know, trying to learn Coach Petrino’s playbook is like trying to learn English in like five days. There’s a whole lot of freedom at the line of scrimmage.”
The game-day call sheet includes great detail about when and where to target certain receivers.
“If it was (former Arkansas tight end) D.J. Williams, there were like eight plays that said, ‘Get to No. 45,’” Dick said, “if it was a situation where he felt we needed 10 or 15 yards. (Receiver London Crawford) was a straight-line runner who had a lot of speed, so he would have two plays for London where he thought we could have a big play, and there was a section on the play-call sheet that would be about getting the ball to No. 2.
“He’s very meticulous about the things he does and why he does them, and where he call them at in the game.”
Missouri State has not started to Petrino’s liking this season. The Bears went three-and-out in their first drive against Central Arkansas and Tennessee-Martin with minus-9 yards combined.
Arkansas started well against South Carolina last week with touchdown drives on its first three possessions that totaled 199 yards. The fourth drive gained 43 yards before a missed field goal.
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman spoke this week about the importance of setting the tone on the first offensive drive.
“We’re going to show our opponent who we are,” Pittman said on his radio show. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to score points. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to get a first down. We want to, but we’re going to show our opponent that we’re a physical group, that we’re going to play hard and that we’re going to strain to the ball and strain blocking for our ball carriers.
“I want the opponent to know who we are by the first play of the game. To me, that’s starting fast. And, of course, part of that is holding onto the ball, which we’ve been very good at.”
Keep It Simple
Third-year Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles has thrown a number of unique looks, sets and formations at opposing defenses through two weeks. From those, we have seen a few interesting, outside-the-box ways of getting the ball in the hands of playmakers.
But Arkansas has largely kept things simple offensively to this point. That should continue this week against Missouri State.
The Razorbacks have not truly opened up their passing game because of the solid push and success of the offensive line and running backs, particularly Raheim “Rocket” Sanders. Against South Carolina, it was evident early that Pittman believed his front could lean on the Gamecocks’ defensive line.
Arkansas mixed in a pass here and there, but handoffs to Sanders and runs for quarterback KJ Jefferson and tailback AJ Green worked just fine. Pittman and Briles went to them again and again, and basically tested South Carolina’s manhood.
The Razorbacks’ 65 rush attempts in Week 2 were the program’s most in a game since the 2014 season when Arkansas, whose offensive line coach was Pittman, ran the ball 68 times at Texas Tech in a 21-point rout.
Of Jefferson’s 21 pass attempts last week, 11 were within five yards of the line of scrimmage. He completed each of them and gave his talented pass catchers an opportunity to make things happen, and they did.
Jefferson, who was terrific last season in his accuracy on deep passes, has only six long attempts this season. He has completed three.
Don’t be surprised if he airs it out early against the Bears, but one should expect the Razorbacks to stick with their power run game. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
Seven times in Pittman’s 25-game tenure, the Razorbacks have been penalized at least 10 times.
Arkansas’ 10 penalties in its 44-30 victory over the Gamecocks cost it 122 yards. Seven of the miscues came on defense, three of whcih were personal fouls for illegal hands to the face. Holding was also called three times, including twice on the offense.
The offensive holdings negated a 5-yard pass to receiver Matt Landers and a 46-yard gain by Raheim Sanders in which he was brought down at the South Carolina 1.
Asked Monday if anything stood out in his film review of last Saturday’s game, Pittman said the penalties jumped off the screen. The Razorbacks are averaging 92.5 penalty yards per game this season.
Only five teams — Liberty, Baylor, Central Florida, Houston and Massachusetts — have more penalty yards than Arkansas this season. The Razorbacks were one of the nation’s most-penalized teams a year ago.
“The No. 1 thing is our penalties,” Pittman said. “We’ve got to figure out how to get those cleaned up. Most of those, if not all of them, on defense happened on third down. It just can’t happen. We’ve got to really emphasize it.
“We’ve got good coaches. They’ll help with that, and we’ve got to get it fixed because it’s going to come back and bite us if we don’t.”
The Razorbacks (17) are the third-most penalized team in the SEC. Only Missouri and Alabama have more.
Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders’ bone-rattling first-quarter hit on South Carolina receiver Antwane Wells after a 2-yard reception fired up the Reynolds Razorback Stadium crowd last week. But moments later, all that could be heard was the section of Gamecocks fans sitting in the lower northeast corner.
South Carolina hurt the Razorbacks with a screen pass to running back MarShawn Lloyd to the tune of 43 yards to the Arkansas 15. The Gamecocks then called another screen on the next snap, and then another.
The Razorbacks defended the final two screens of the drive well and ultimately forced a field goal, but quarterback Spencer Rattler totaled 64 yards on 8-of-12 passing in the screen game in Week 2. One week earlier, Cincinnati totaled 36 screen-pass yards and completed 7 of 7 attempts.
Missouri State is more than likely to test the Razorbacks in this area. Add quick passes to the perimeter into the mix, and Arkansas’ ability to tackle in space and in traffic will be of the utmost importance.
In periods of practices open to reporters this week, defensive coordinator Barry Odom, who also works with the team’s safeties, led a defensive backs drill in which the focus was meeting and wrapping up receivers on hot throws to the boundary.
“We had a missed assignment on a screen, we had a bust on a screen and…part of success of screens is poor tackling,” Pittman said. “We’ve got to get the guys on the ground. If he makes 12 yards or whatever, get him on the ground instead of 38.
“Certainly we have emphasized that from last week, and the fact Missouri State will run them as well, or backs out of the backfield.”
Running backs Jacardia Wright and Celdon Manning combined for 5 catches, 113 yards and 2 touchdowns in Missouri State’s victory over Tennessee-Martin last week. Manning scored on a 64-yard pass play and Wright from 19 yards out.
Many FCS teams that go into SEC stadiums lose the game before they get off the bus, intimidated by the size differential in the crowd and the players that line up across from them.
That might not be the case for Missouri State. The Bears opened the previous two seasons with games at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and have 13 players who previously played at Power 5 programs. Three Bears previously played in the SEC — receiver Jordan Jones (Arkansas), safety Kyriq McDonald (Alabama) and defensive lineman Allen Love (Mississippi State).
Pittman said there is some truth to the thought that smaller schools are able to compete better when they have several transfers.
“If they hit in the portal it could make a significant difference in their team,” Pittman said. “Missouri State is a great example of that because they have transfers all over the place. I’m sure they go there because of the reputation Coach Petrino has.”
The Petrino angle, coupled with the enthusiasm for this year’s Arkansas team, means Missouri State is likely to face a more hostile environment than most FCS teams encounter. At Oklahoma two years ago, attendance was limited in the first game after the covid-19 outbreak, and the attendance at Boone Pickens Stadium was well below capacity last season when the Bears lost their opener 23-16 at Oklahoma State.
That Cowboys team finished 12-2 with a win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Oklahoma State was never in danger of losing to Missouri State, but couldn’t quite put the Bears away either. OSU led 20-0 in the second quarter.
Missouri State is better than most FCS teams that have come to Arkansas, ranked fifth nationally in that subdivision. The last team to play the Razorbacks while ranked in the FCS poll was Jack Crowe’s Jacksonville (Ala.) State Gamecocks in 2012.
Missouri State has one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in FCS.
Jason Shelley began his career at Utah and started five games for the Utes in 2018. He was moved to defense in 2019 and transferred to Utah State the following year.
He has flourished running Petrino’s offense since his transfer to Missouri State. He accounted for 3,789 yards and 32 touchdowns in 12 games last season. He was named the Missouri Valley Conference offensive player of the year and finished 10th in the voting for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the best offensive player in FCS.
“I like their quarterback,” Pittman said. “He’s very agile.”
Shelley played one of his most efficient games for Missouri State last week in its 35-30 victory over Tennessee-Martin, the team that eliminated the Bears from the FCS Playoffs a year ago. Shelley completed 19 of 24 passes for 297 yards and 5 touchdowns, and had a 14-yard run.
Against Central Arkansas, Shelley was more of a willing runner. Excluding sacks, he rushed 9 times for 76 yards and 1 touchdown in the season opener.
The Bears have not protected Shelley well this season, which is an area the Razorbacks might be able to exploit with better defensive linemen than Missouri State’s offensive linemen have played against. He has been sacked nine times through two games.
McGlothern vs. Scott
Something to keep an eye on when Missouri State’s offense first takes the field is who Arkansas assigns to cover Bears wideout Ty Scott.
Scott is a Central Michigan transfer and a big body on the perimeter at 6-3 and 202 pounds. He is also one of the top playmakers in FCS through two weeks.
Scott has 16 receptions for 256 yards and 3 touchdowns, and the Razorbacks should place a target on his back. The junior had 160 yards in Week 1, then caught three touchdowns last week against Tennessee-Martin.
Given how LSU transfer Dwight McGlothern has performed for Arkansas, it might be in the Razorbacks’ best interest to pair him with Scott in an attempt to tie one of Missouri State’s arms behind its back. McGlothern leads the SEC with two interceptions.
Against quality competition, McGlothern holds the No. 5 overall defense grade among SEC cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, at 75.3. His coverage mark of 79.2 is No. 3 for corners in the league.
Scott has a PFF grade of 83.5, which is the best of his career and No. 20 among FCS receivers. Seventy-five of his offensive snaps have come on the perimeter, 31 in the slot and three in the backfield. Scott will also returns punts at times for the Bears.
Arkansas has had few opportunities early to make anything happen in the kickoff return game. Green got one shot in Week 1 and did not reach the 20.
Linebacker Bumper Pool leads the Razorbacks in kick returns yards with 34 after cleanly fielding a Sunday hop on a South Carolina onside kick last Saturday. His place atop the leaderboard may be short lived.
Arkansas has a chance against Missouri State to potentially get Green — and maybe others — on the run in space in special teams. The Bears in two games this season have kicked off 12 times and recorded one touchback.
At the same time, Petrino might elect to have his kicker keep the ball away from Green and sky the ball to a player one level in front of the speedy tailback.
“This week you’re thinking there’s more of a chance that we might be able to return depending on what they do,” Pittman said. “I think we’re a good kickoff return team as long as we stay away from the penalties. That’s what has hurt us in live special teams reps.
“We’ve made a big deal out of it. It’ll help us Saturday. I think this will be a good week.”
The Razorbacks have not recorded more than 50 yards in kick returns since Week 6 at Ole Miss in 2021. And Arkansas in 2020 and 2021 averaged less than 17.5 yards per return.
On the flip side, Missouri State cornerback Montrae Braswell has returned 3 kicks for 165 yards, an average of 55 yards per return, which leads FCS. He scored on a 98-yard return in Week 1 at Central Arkansas.
FBS teams have built-in advantages against FCS teams.
Not only are programs like Arkansas able to attract better recruits out of high school due to exposure, they have 85 scholarships to field a team. Compare that to a team like Missouri State, which can only offer 63 full scholarships.
That kind of depth discrepancy can play a factor in these games. The teams with more scholarship players are more likely to rotate quality players on defense and are more likely to have a quality replacement if a starter is injured.
The talk all week has been about Petrino’s return to Arkansas a decade after he was fired.
But inside the Razorbacks’ football office, the motivation has been a 3-0 start and to avoid the same fate as top-10 teams a week ago.
Pittman can thank the Sun Belt Conference for providing material. Early in the week, Pittman’s video team mashed together a recording of plays from Appalachian State’s win at Texas A&M and Marshall’s win at Notre Dame.
“We just emphasized it to our kids that it’s not about wait until Saturday,” Pittman said. “It’s about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and we have to practice well. I think we’ve got maturity, so I think we’re ready for the game.”
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