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.
11 Keys to Arkansas vs. Alabama
The crowd is shown prior to a football game between Arkansas and Cincinnati on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Arkansas fans are flocking back to Fayetteville.
After years of low attendance due to poor on-field results, the Razorbacks’ home stadium has been at or near capacity for most of the past two seasons as Sam Pittman has built a steady winner again at Arkansas.
Since the last time Alabama came to town to close the 2020 regular season, the Razorbacks have an 8-1 record inside Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Arkansas’ only home loss during that time came to Auburn last October when Pittman said he made too many questionable coaching decisions.
Half of the Razorbacks’ eight on-campus victories since the start of the 2021 season have been against Power 5 opponents. Arkansas also beat Cincinnati, which will join the Big 12 next season.
From 2016-20, Arkansas won four home games against Power 5 teams, half of which came in Pittman’s inaugural season when the crowd size was capped at 16,500 due to covid-19 guidelines. By the time Texas came to town last September, fans were champing at the bit to watch their rejuvenated program, and they have given the Razorbacks a great home-field advantage since.
Crowd noise played a factor as Arkansas beat Cincinnati, South Carolina and Missouri State on the first three weekends of September. Those teams combined to commit 13 pre-snap penalties on offense — 10 false starts and 3 delays of game.
The fourth quarter of the Missouri State game felt like an SEC Saturday night as the Razorbacks scored 21 unanswered points to rally for a 38-27 victory. When Bryce Stephens returned a punt 82 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, the stadium press box shook from the roar of the crowd.
Since Arkansas joined the SEC, some of the loudest moments at home have come during Alabama games. The home crowd roared throughout a 42-6 thrashing of the Crimson Tide in 1998, and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy still talks about the crowd noise during the Crimson Tide’s 24-20 come-from-behind victory in 2010.
Ben Cleveland, a former Arkansas tight end, said this week that the stadium was as loud as he has heard it after he caught the touchdown that set up the game-winning extra point in the second overtime of the Razorbacks’ 24-23 victory in 2006.
It has been six years since Alabama has faced a hostile crowd in Fayetteville. A disinterested Arkansas fan base largely stayed home for the Crimson Tide’s 65-31 victory here in 2018, and many were out the exits by halftime as Alabama rolled 52-3 on a frigid mid-December day in 2020.
Pittman knows he doesn’t need to implore fans to be loud Saturday. The Razorbacks anticipate this week’s attendance could challenge the 2010 Alabama game for the largest crowd in stadium history — not counting this year’s Garth Brooks concert.
Alabama appeared to struggle some with crowd noise during its 20-19 victory at Texas in Week 2. Arkansas won’t come close to matching the 100,000-plus who were in attendance for that game, but the crowd can have an effect.
An engaged crowd is the Razorbacks’ biggest advantage over the Crimson Tide and will be key if Arkansas can keep the game competitive late.
Alabama has not played a very difficult schedule in the first four weeks of the season. The Crimson Tide were tested at Texas, but Alabama has been dominant against lesser competition, defeating Utah State by 55 points, Louisiana-Monroe by 56 and Vanderbilt by 52 to open SEC play.
Three games have been so lopsided that one could imagine it is difficult for upcoming opponents like Arkansas to find worthwhile game film to evaluate.
The Crimson Tide’s outings since facing the Longhorns have been cakewalks, over by halftime and not interesting or competitive in the least. That should change Saturday.
Alabama will enter confident it can grab the outcome it wants, but so will Arkansas. It is fair to question how the Crimson Tide will respond to their first real game pressure in weeks.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young said this week that his team grew from having its back against the wall at Texas, but it is difficult to properly simulate facing adversity in daily practices.
“We love trying to put up as many points on the board as we can and the offense is always trying to score points, and the defense is always trying to get a stop,” Young said. “But we understand that’s not how football works, especially when you play in the SEC against the best of the best. When you’re in (hostile environments) you learn a lot about yourself, your unit and your team.”
On one hand, the 50-plus-point margins have allowed Alabama’s starters and key reserves much-needed rest ahead of a three-week stretch in which the Crimson Tide will face three ranked teams, including two away from home. On the other hand, could that in any way lead to a bit of rust early on this weekend?
Alabama edge defender Will Anderson, who has played 51 defensive snaps over the last two games, added that playing in road environments is fun for him. He considers himself a “hateful competitor.”
“We want fans to leave their own stadiums,” he said. “I think the message this week is we want fans to leave their own stadium and we want to preach that all week. Go out there, have fun, do your job and make sure the fans are leaving about the time halftime comes or by the end of the third quarter.”
It is among the more inevitable things in college football.
Alabama under Nick Saban has become notorious for delivering a blow on offense, defense or special teams that will knock its opponent down. Some teams are unable to recover, and they play out the remainder of the game with a deer-in-the-headlights look.
That is how the Crimson Tide race away to comfortable or blowout victories so regularly.
During the Razorbacks’ game at Alabama last year, the Crimson Tide swung with heavy hands throughout their 42-35 victory. Young threw for nearly 600 yards and 5 touchdowns, completing all but 9 of his 40 pass attempts, and Alabama also finished with a 100-yard rusher.
But, as the final score indicates, Arkansas did not go down without a fight.
Four times last season the Razorbacks answered an Alabama score with a score of their own. Arkansas put up 468 yards of offense, averaged 6.4 yards per play and was 3 of 3 on fourth-down conversions.
“I think what happens when you play somebody close, you start having some belief that, you know, we’ve got a pretty good team,” Pittman said. “If we can go out, not make mistakes, play well, play hard, get some turnovers, things of that nature, you have a chance to win the game.
“Certainly that’s where we’re at now with our football team.”
As Razorbacks men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman has noted numerous times in his tenure, each game takes on its own shape and identity. No two games are alike.
But Arkansas took away from its last meeting with the Crimson Tide that it can hang with the top dogs in the game if it executes.
“We need to strike as fast as we possibly can,” Pittman said. “Last year, I felt like it was playing catch up the whole time. But we need to strike fast, and hopefully we’re able to do that. But it showed that we were resilient.”
Arkansas’ best quarter in 2021 has been its worst through the first month of this season.
The Razorbacks have been outscored 41-13 in the third quarter by Cincinnati, South Carolina, Missouri State and Texas A&M. Compare that to last year when Arkansas outscored its opponents 122-68 in the third quarter.
Third-quarter woes have offset mostly solid first-half play from the Razorbacks, who led every team but Missouri State at halftime. Arkansas never felt in danger of losing to Cincinnati or South Carolina, but those games were tighter in the fourth quarter because of the inability to put the teams away in the third.
The third quarter was on Pittman’s mind early in the week when he said a halftime period would be built into the practice schedule.
“We’re just going to stop, and then we’re going to come back and go good-on-good right when we come off of halftime,” Pittman said Monday of this week’s practice plan. “We’re going to change the way we stretch coming out of the half. We’ve got to change something. You know what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to put it in our mind that we’ve got to get going.”
Alabama has outscored its opponents 38-3 in the third quarter.
How will Arkansas’ superstar linebacker handle playing against his former teammates?
Pittman said he hasn’t met with Sanders this week about it. He trusts Sanders knows how to handle the emotions of the game.
“He’s played against high school teammates that he’s known in Texas and things, so I think he’s going to be just fine,” Pittman said. “He’s a grown man now; grown man upstairs, too.”
Sanders has been key to the Arkansas pass rush that leads college football with 20 sacks. Sanders is tied for the national individual lead with 5.5 sacks and has at least one-half sack in each game.
When asked about Sanders earlier this season, Saban said the linebacker likely would have started for the Crimson Tide had he not chosen to transfer. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper recently rated Sanders the No. 1 inside linebacker prospect for next spring’s NFL Draft.
“He’s certainly playing well for them,” Saban said this week. “It’s good to see that he’s doing a good job for them.”
While Sanders has made more than enough big plays to make up for them, missed tackles have been a bit of a concern. His missed-tackle rate is 32.4%, according to Pro Football Focus.
In the Saban era, no team has been as good as Alabama at scoring touchdowns on defense and special teams.
The Crimson Tide have 89 non-offensive touchdowns in 212 games since the start of the 2007 season — 39 interception returns, 12 fumble returns, 8 kickoff returns, 20 punt returns and 10 blocked punt returns. Alabama players practice scoring after forcing a turnover and their amazing play-making ability shines in the return game.
Eight of those touchdowns have come against Arkansas in the Saban era, including two years ago when Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith returned a punt 84 yards to break a 3-3 tie late in the first quarter.
Alabama has scored at least one non-offensive touchdown in its last three games in Fayetteville. Shyheim Carter returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown in 2018, and Tim Williams returned a fumble 23 yards and Minkah Fitzpatrick had a 100-yard interception return during the Tide’s 49-30 victory in 2016.
Against Louisiana-Monroe two weeks ago, Alabama scored three touchdowns on defense and special teams. Anderson had a 25-yard interception return, Malachi Moore returned a blocked punt 3 yards and Brian Branch returned a punt 68 yards.
If the past two weeks are any indication, Alabama will have an opportunity for a return touchdown. Arkansas fumbled a combined nine times in games against Missouri State and Texas A&M, and lost three.
Turnovers hurt bad enough against the Crimson Tide, and the Razorbacks saw firsthand last week how quickly a defensive touchdown can change a game. It is imperative that Arkansas’ offensive players and specialists give the Razorbacks’ defense a chance to keep Alabama out of the end zone.
Pro Football Focus analytics show Alabama’s Anderson has played all 140 of his snaps on the Crimson Tide’s defensive line. But that doesn’t even begin to tell the story of his usage.
The 6-4, 243-pound edge is one of college football’s true game-wrecking players on defense, and Alabama’s defensive staff utilizes him as such. Anderson already has 20 tackles, 7.5 for lost yardage, and 4.5 sacks to his credit despite sitting out several series in the Tide’s blow-out victories.
He has also intercepted a pass and blocked a kick. There are few plays on the field he cannot make.
“He’s right where he was last year,” Pittman said. “You have to have a plan for him. You have to look out there and go, ‘OK, who can change the game on both sides of the ball?’ You have to try to eliminate them as much as you can with your schematics or double teaming him, whatever it may be.
“I mean, he’s taken over a couple of their games defensively. They’ve got a bunch of good players on defense, their D-line too, but he sticks out still.”
Anderson’s defensive alignment changes constantly. If he lines up across from the left or right tackle, it does not necessarily mean he is crashing the line of scrimmage from that side.
Against Arkansas last season, the Crimson Tide often had Anderson loop around his own defensive linemen on exotic blitzes to create confusion for offensive fronts. Expect more of that Saturday to take advantage of his supreme athleticism and nose for the football.
“It’s been fun,” Anderson said of moving to various spots up front. “You have to give all the credit to the coaching staff for helping me get lined up in different places to either help others make plays or I can make plays myself. I’m looking to the rest of the season to see what (the coaches) have in store.”
Get to Young
Young, last year’s Heisman winner, is performing as well as any quarterback in the country this season when Alabama’s offensive line provides a clean pocket.
According to PFF, he has completed 72 of 95 (75.8%) passes in those instances. The result? Eleven touchdown passes and 902 yards.
On nearly three-fourths of his dropbacks, Young has had ample time to scan the field and search for a target. But when opponents have been able to apply pressure and place him under duress, his numbers slide considerably — 11 of 26 (42.3%) for 126 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.
Arkansas’ defense is far more equipped to knock Young off his spot than last season, when he set Alabama’s single-game record for passing yards. The Razorbacks have five players, according to PFF, with at least 10 quarterback pressures.
Sanders, the former Alabama linebacker, leads the way with 18, including 11 hurries. Little Rock native Zach Williams is second with 15.
If Arkansas is unable to get to Young, it could be in for a long afternoon, and he will likely exploit the middle of the Razorbacks’ defense, which is what Young prefers.
Per PFF data, he has completed 37 of 46 passes to the middle of the field, including 19 of 20 on intermediate passes of 10 to 19 yards.
“It’s really going to be a crucial part of the game,” Arkansas defensive end Jordan Domineck said. “They’re more of a throwing team now, especially on first and second down. That’s what our goal is, to get to him, disrupt him and get in his face.”
Largely on account of the closeness of the game in the fourth quarter and the fact that former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino was back on a sideline in Fayetteville, the Oklahoma transfer’s play against Missouri State was overlooked.
Haselwood finished with a career-best 86 receiving yards in the 38-27 victory and his second touchdown of the season on a 38-yard pass from quarterback KJ Jefferson. He then followed it up by leading Arkansas in receiving in the narrow loss to Texas A&M.
The redshirt junior has been consistent the last three weeks, bringing in five passes each game. And he has been a safety net of sorts for Jefferson, who has targeted Haselwood a team-high 24 times.
The Razorbacks’ offense could benefit tremendously from another productive performance. Haselwood, in his career, has 16 grabs for 186 yards against AP-ranked opponents. Twice at Oklahoma he faced AP top-5 teams and totaled 5 catches for 71 yards.
Arkansas may need that type of play Saturday afternoon — with a touchdown or two — to remain competitive against the country’s No. 6 pass defense.
“I think he’s been pretty solid all year,” Pittman said. “You know, maybe his leadership is probably a little bit better than what it was at the beginning, which was really good anyway. I think Haselwood’s been probably the most consistent of those guys.
“But I will say this: He’s a leader now. He’s tough, and he’s a leader. I love the kid.”
Now would be an ideal time for Haselwood to establish that he is the Alpha at receiver.
Arkansas’ offense ranks 102nd nationally in red-zone succes at 76.5%.
The Razorbacks have come away empty-handed inside their opponent’s 3-yard line twice in the past two weeks. Running back Raheim Sanders fumbled at the goal line against Missouri State and the Bears converted the turnover into a field goal. Last week’s game against Texas A&M changed when Jefferson was stripped as tried to leap over the line of scrimmage from the 3 and the Aggies returned the fumble for a touchdown.
Arkansas has scored in 13 of 17 in red-zone trips this season, including 11 touchdowns. Jefferson was stopped on a fourth-and-1 keeper against South Carolina and kicker Cam Little missed a field goal at the end of the Texas A&M game.
Alabama ranks 20th in red-zone offense and defense. Offensively, the Crimson Tide have a 95% success rate inside the red zone, with 16 touchdowns and kicked 3 field goals in 20 red-zone attempts.
The defense has allowed 2 touchdowns and 3 field goals in 7 red-zone attempts by the opposition. Alabama’s 28.6% rate of red-zone trips without allowing a touchdown is fifth-best nationally.
The last two teams to beat Alabama in the regular season — Auburn in 2019 and Texas A&M last year — kicked multiple field goals and won by three points on their home field.
Little, a Freshman All-American last season, has the potential to be as good as Auburn’s Anders Carlson and Texas A&M’s Seth Small, but has to shake any doubts that might stem from his 0-for-2 start to SEC play. Little missed a 50-yard attempt against South Carolina and missed the potential game winner that bounced off the upright with 1:30 remaining last week against the Aggies.
Alabama’s Will Reichard silenced the big Texas crowd with a 33-yard game winner with 10 seconds remaining. Reichard has made all six of his field-goal attempts this season, with a long of 52 yards against the Longhorns.
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