The Arkansas defense wasted no time this season making a statement under new DC and longtime Mizzou coach Barry Odom. Playing at home against disastrous starting QB D’Wan Mathis, the Hogs held Georgia to a mere five points in the first half of the opening game. They continued to play tough through Ole Miss, where they coaxed QB Matt Corral into a bunch of turnovers and held the explosive Rebels attack to 21 points in something of a signature win that signaled a promotion from doormat status. After beating Tennessee 24-13 in early November, Arkansas sat at 3-3 with new head coach Sam Pittman drawing national coach of the year hype.
Sadly, it has kind of fallen apart since then.
The Hogs have lost their last three games, allowing 63 points to Florida and 50 to Mizzou in the process. The Mizzou game was just last weekend, and there is no way to sugarcoat the fact that the Tigers did whatever they wanted. Lead runner Larry Rountree III had a massive performance, gaining 185 yards on 27 carries with three touchdowns, and QB Connor Bazelak threw for another 380, as the Hogs surrendered 653 total yards.
Part of the issue last week was the third quarter loss of Butkus Award semifinalist Grant Morgan. The leader of the defense at MLB, Morgan was leading the nation in tackles coming into last week before going down with a knee injury, and all indications are that he will not be back this week. Without him, the Hogs allowed 27 points in the fourth quarter. It will help that someone else, likely senior Hayden Henry, is getting first team reps this week, but former coach Chad Morris didn’t exactly leave a bevy of depth on the roster. It shouldn’t be surprising that the thin Hogs team has worn down a bit against the toughest schedule in the country. Their other starting linebacker is the spectacularly named Bumper Pool, who has tallied an impressive 88 tackles on the season.
Schematically, Odom likes to run games out of different fronts, but in general the Hogs are a one-gap 4-3 base. Of course, in today’s game defenses are rarely in base personnel, and they certainly won’t be against the high flying Alabama offense. The young secondary led by redshirt freshman safety Jalen Catalon, which has allowed more than 1,000 passing yards over its last three games, gets the unenviable task of slowing DeVonta Smith and company. Arkansas doesn’t have much at cornerback outside of former four-star Montaric Brown, and that weakness has reared its ugly head recently.
Odom’s Mizzou defenses were known for stellar line play, and he has brought some of that attitude with him to Fayetteville. When the Hogs are at their best, this front is active and disruptive. Massive 317 lb. senior Jonathan Marshall has led the way inside with 6.5 tackles for loss including a sack, while redshirt freshman Eric Gregory leads the edge rush with 2.5 sacks. The pass rush as a whole has been a weakness, which hasn’t helped the situation at corner.
The Hogs had success early by playing a soft zone defense and breaking hard on the football against both Mississippis, but considering the recent downturn it’s tough to imagine a scenario where they are able to get many stops on Saturday. If Morgan is out as expected, the door will be wide open for Najee Harris to have his biggest game of the season. Of course, Nick Saban is probably going to want to hammer the pedal early and rest starters late with the SEC Championship Game looming in two weeks, so we may see plenty of play action as well. Regardless, any formula that results in a win and emerging healthy will be seen as a victory.