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.
8 Keys to Arkansas vs. Texas A&M
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman is shown during a game against Missouri State on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Fayetteville.
The most surprising element of Arkansas’ 38-27 victory over Missouri State was not the final score, but the statistic that contributed most to that score.
Arkansas was minus-3 in turnover margin against the Bears with two lost fumbles and an interception. Prior to the game, the Razorbacks were plus-4 in turnover margin. They were plus-6 last season.
Quarterback KJ Jefferson and running back Raheim Sanders lost the fumbles during the first quarter. Sanders’ fumble was on the goal line.
After Arkansas had narrowed a 17-0 deficit to three points at halftime, Jefferson was intercepted on the first drive of the second half when a pass went off the hands of tight end Trey Knox.
Ball security has been a focus this week in practice. The team went through an extra ball-security drill during Wednesday’s practice “just to put it in our mind that, hey, we’ve got hold onto the ball,” Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said on his weekly radio show.
“Computers don’t play the game, but on the computer it says if you turn the ball over three times and your opponent turns it over zero, your chances of winning that game go to 11%, and that’s what happened to us,” Pittman said. “I’ve already given Missouri State all the credit in the world and all those things, but the bottom line is we have to tackle better, we have to cover better and we have to hang on the ball. If we do that, we’ve got a really, really good football team.”
Texas A&M is minus-1 in turnover margin. The Aggies have lost 2 of 5 fumbles and have twice been intercepted. The Texas A&M defense has recovered 2 of 4 fumbles by the opponent and has intercepted opposing quarterbacks once.
Arkansas’ defense forced five turnovers in its first two games against Cincinnati and South Carolina, but had no takeaways against Missouri State.
Right or wrong, the general feeling is Arkansas has been more motivated to play this game more often than Texas A&M.
That is about the only way you can describe the results of the series. Yes, the Aggies won nine in a row before last season’s 20-10 victory by the Razorbacks, but rarely has Texas A&M won easily against a team it overmatched on paper.
Bret Bielema’s teams took the Aggies to overtime three times in four seasons. Even Chad Morris’ two Arkansas teams that did not win an SEC game took the Aggies to the wire. The Razorbacks lost 24-17 in 2018 and 31-27 in 2019, and had a chance to score late to tie or take the lead in both games coached by the Aggies’ $9 million man, Jimbo Fisher.
Arkansas has closed the talent gap, but Texas A&M has better-rated personnel 1 through 85. That is probably one of the reasons the Aggies opened this week as a 2 1/2-point favorite despite the fact the Razorbacks’ on-field results are better.
Which team brings the greater intensity level? Can the other team match it?
Arkansas started last year’s game throwing haymakers, motivated to snap the long losing streak in the Southwest Classic. The Razorbacks scored 17 points on their first three possessions and held the Aggies out of the end zone until midway through the third quarter. Texas A&M never seriously challenged and lost by 10 points as the seventh-ranked team.
Will the Aggies have payback on their minds and start Saturday’s game in a similar fashion? Or does this game still motivate Arkansas more?
The Razorbacks might have an advantage in the stands. Pittman said on his radio show Wednesday that he has been told Arkansas has sold 4,000 more tickets than Texas A&M. The teams have a 50-50 split in available tickets.
Pittman was blunt Monday when assessing the recent play of the Razorbacks’ defensive backs.
It was evident that a long, hard look had taken place in terms of Arkansas’ personnel. Finding the five best players to man each spot in the secondary was an internal topic of conversation after the Razorbacks fell to last in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game.
According to Pro Football Focus, LSU transfer Dwight McGlothern and Hudson Clark are Arkansas’ top cornerbacks, but Pittman was fairly adamant about finding a place for Rison native Malik Chavis, who allowed only 1 catch for 13 yards on 4 targets a week ago at corner. He rotated with Clark much of the first half.
“I think Malik Chavis is a guy we need on the field,” Pittman said. “When he’s not playing corner, we need him at safety. And I’m not sure if we don’t need him at safety and just put (Clark) at corner.”
Myles Slusher, who has not played since he was injured in the Razorbacks’ season opener against Cincinnati, appears to have the green light to play Saturday. His presence could provide some stability, and he will certainly add leadership at the nickel back position.
Safety may bring the most question marks.
Simeon Blair, a former walk-on and captain in Jalen Catalon’s absence, holds the team’s second-lowest defense grade and third-worst coverage grade through three weeks, per PFF. He and Jayden Johnson, also near the bottom in a couple of categories, were first-team safeties in periods of practice open to reporters this week.
Georgia transfer Latavious Brini has fared better and should see the field for extended snaps. He has recorded 14 tackles and whiffed just once.
Pittman noted some experimentation would take place leading up to Saturday, so expect some shuffling and perhaps an alignment the Razorbacks have not yet fielded this season.
“We’ve been adjusting,” Pittman said. “Part of it was because of a couple injuries, but part of it is we have some new guys back there, as well. We’ve got to get our best five guys out there on the field at all times. Obviously, we know they get hurt, but those are things we’ve talked about as a staff.
“We’ve got to figure that out a bit better.”
No team in the country has gotten after opposing quarterbacks quite like Arkansas in its first three games.
The Razorbacks enter the Southwest Classic with 17 sacks, three more than second-place Southern Cal and Washington State. For context, Arkansas recorded 14 sacks in 2020, Pittman’s first season as the Razorbacks’ coach, and 25 last season.
The play of transfers Drew Sanders (Alabama) and Jordan Domineck (Georgia Tech) is a key reason why. Sanders is second nationally with 5.5 sacks, and Domineck is tied for third with 4.5 in only 58 pass-rush snaps.
On Saturday, they have a chance to make a statement as one of the country’s best pass-rushing duos. Little Rock native Zach Williams’ improved play gives Arkansas a true three-headed monster on passing downs.
They will be tested by the Aggies, whose offensive line has allowed just five sacks. However, according to PFF, Texas A&M’s pass-blocking grade (64.0) ranks 11th among SEC teams. The Razorbacks are first at 83.9.
Beyond Arkansas’ top three, three other players have tallied at least 1.5 sacks, including 6-7 LSU transfer Landon Jackson and linebacker Bumper Pool.
Defensive end Tre Williams’ ability to create havoc in the backfield changed the complexion of last year’s game between these teams. He was a terror on the edge and went on to earn SEC honors for best defensive player two days later.
Based on what Arkansas has shown to this point, its top playmakers should be able to find more success and assist in slowing Max Johnson and Texas A&M’s passing game.
Fisher developed a reputation as a great quarterback developer over the quarter-century before he arrived in College Station, but that reputation has been challenged with sub-par play since 2021.
Zach Calzada was not a capable backup when Haynes King was injured prior to last year’s game against the Razorbacks. This year, neither King nor Johnson have had much success moving the offense through the air.
The Aggies are averaging 208 passing yards with a completion percentage of just more than 50. Johnson replaced King as the starting quarterback prior to the Miami game last week and struggled to a 10-for-20 performance that included 140 yards and 1 touchdown. He was sacked three times.
Johnson transferred to Texas A&M from LSU. Against Arkansas last year, Johnson struggled so badly that he was benched after two series in favor of a freshman.
Missouri State racked up 268 yards after the catch at Arkansas in Week 3. That is a figure that clearly did not sit well with Pittman this week as he referenced it multiple times.
He credited the Bears’ skill players for their effort, but also understood the jarring number was a result of poor tackling on Arkansas’ part. According to PFF, the Razorbacks posted a tackling grade of 35.6 in the comeback win.
It is the third-lowest single-game tackling mark of the Pittman era, just ahead of porous grades in losses to Auburn and Texas A&M in 2020.
“I’ll put it in a nutshell for you: We didn’t tackle well as a team,” Pittman said. “Tackling, we started last weekend with open-field tackling. We brought down the scout team running backs just trying to get them on the ground. We missed a lot of tackles at linebacker, as well, so we have to add that group in there.
“Last week wasn’t just the secondary.”
According to PFF, Drew Sanders and defensive back Jayden Johnson missed a season-high five tackles each against Missouri State, and Pool recorded three. As stout and dominant as Sanders has been for long stretches of games, he currently holds the team’s fifth-lowest tackling grade (34.0) and has 11 missed tackles.
As a team, the Razorbacks have 47 missed tackles, per PFF. They have to be much more sound against an Aggies team that will be athletically superior in some places.
If they’re not, Arkansas will begin the toughest stretch of its schedule on a sour note.
The Missouri City, Texas, native has been a thorn in the Razorbacks’ side for several years.
Arkansas limited Smith, a 5-10 and 190-pound receiver, to 2 catches for 35 yards in last season’s meeting in AT&T Stadium. For the Razorbacks, it was a vast improvement over previous matchups.
In 2019 and 2020, both wins for Texas A&M, Smith averaged 5.5 catches for 73.5 yards and 1 touchdown against Arkansas. When the teams met at Kyle Field in 2020, he also added 31 rushing yards and a score on the ground.
In the Aggies’ opening three games, Smith has shown to be the clear No. 1 at receiver. He leads Texas A&M with 14 catches for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Freshman wideout Evan Stewart, in two games, is second with 10 catches for 105 yards. No other pass catcher has more than six receptions for the Aggies.
Eleven of Smith’s 14 catches have moved the chains. Seven of the grabs went for 15-plus yards and three have gained 25-plus yards. According to SECStatCat, a website dedicated to SEC football analytics, Smith has been targeted a team-high 23 times and leads Texas A&M with 122 yards after the catch.
The site also indicates most of his targets have come on out routes, corner patterns and slants.
“Executing the game plan, executing the plays (is key),” Smith said this week of what would take the Aggies’ offense to the next level. “Of course everybody plays a role, and we’ve just got to make sure that we’re all on the same page. Execution is the most important thing.”
Asked after accounting for 242 yards of total offense and two touchdowns if he was making a statement nationally, Arkansas running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders responded with a quick, “Yes.” He did not expound any further.
His play is speaking for itself.
Only a sophomore, Sanders may very well be one of the top NFL prospects to take the field in AT&T Stadium this weekend. Arkansas’ staff and fans are sure glad the back cannot turn pro until after next season.
On a national stage and in an NFL stadium, Sanders, with a productive game, can jump from high-quality SEC running back to one of the country’s premier players. From an Arkansas perspective, and thanks to a strong start to the season, he has already found himself in the same breath as Darren McFadden.
Through three games in 2007, his second Heisman Trophy runner-up season, McFadden had 575 yards from scrimmage against Troy, Alabama and Kentucky. Sanders has 557 yards from scrimmage through three games this season.
Could an explosive showing against Texas A&M vault him into the Heisman Trophy conversation? Only time will tell, but the opportunity is there.
“I expected him to be a really good player,” Pittman said of Sanders. “I don’t know if I expected us to use him as much as we have. … He probably hits his stride faster than he was last year because he’s seeing things quicker, which allows for those longer runs.”
The Aggies have allowed 154.3 rushing yards this season in wins over Sam Houston State and Miami, and a loss to Appalachian State. The Mountaineers rushed for 181 yards. The Hurricanes totaled 175 rushing yards on nearly five yards per touch.
According to PFF, Sanders has 12 runs of 10-plus yards and made 14 defenders miss a tackle.
“He’s a real good player,” Arkansas receiver Matt Landers said this week. “Always taking care of his body.
“He does everything right. He’s somebody you can depend on.”
Both of these teams have already shown the capability for a house call in the return game.
Against Appalachian State, Texas A&M running back Devon Achane returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. Achane is a speedster who was on a 400-meter relay team with Arkansas quarterback Malik Hornsby in high school that ran the nation’s second-fastest recorded time. He has the speed to out-run the Razorbacks’ coverage unit if his blockers can create the running lanes.
He is averaging 39.6 yards per return this season, boosted by the long touchdown return. But even if you take that return away, Achane still has a respectable average of better than 25 yards.
Smith, the receiver, is a threat in the Aggies’ punt return game, but has not had many opportunities.
“We were fortunate enough to take Smith out of it last year because our gunners got down there and got on him,” Pittman said. “We’ve worked extremely hard on that.”
Arkansas’ Bryce Stephens had last week’s biggest play with an 82-yard punt return that gave the Razorbacks their first lead in the fourth quarter. Stephens was a 100-meter relay champion in Oklahoma as a high schooler.
Penalties hurt Arkansas on Stephens’ first two returns last week. Gains of 34 and 10 yards were wiped out.
Pittman praised the job freshman receiver Sam Mbake did on Stephens’ touchdown return. Mbake made a block to neutralize one of the Bears’ gunners.
“In any of these overfilled returns, you want to cut the space down,” Pittman said. “(Missouri State) couldn’t do it because we did such a good job on their two guys that were supposed to get there the fastest, and then there was a lot of space out there.”
Special teams is an area that can turn a game, especially with two teams that appear to be evenly matched.
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