Arkansas football: Why Texas A&M is the Razorbacks defense's toughest test yet
Sam Pittman knows a thing or two about offensive lines.
So when the Arkansas coach raved about Texas A&M’s front five ahead of Saturday’s Halloween matchup with the Aggies, it spoke volumes.
“They’re a physical football team on both sides of the ball,” Pittman said in his Monday press conference. “They’re an SEC football team. Very big. Very powerful. Very fast. Have a lot of returning starters on O-line and a great back in (Isaiah) Spiller, who is also a very physical guy. When you watch them play, you see a good, physical, SEC-type football team.”
Pittman later called the line the “best one I’ve seen at A&M.” The numbers back that up: The Aggies rank second in the country in sack rate and 20th in power success rate (third or fourth downs with 2 yards or less to go converted).
They have pounded the ball with Spiller the past couple of games, with the sophomore earning 45 carries for 288 yards and 4 touchdowns in that span. He is the SEC’s leader in yards per carry (6.7) and ranks fourth in the conference with 430 yards despite having the third-fewest attempts of any back in the top 10.
Ainias Smith, the Aggies’ other running back, is 10th in the SEC with 5.2 yards per carry.
Arkansas’ defense has been a strong point in their two victories, but the Razorbacks have struggled to contain the run. They rank 11th in the conference in run defense despite being the fifth-best team against the pass.
If they are to have a chance at pulling off the upset, they will need to do a better job at stopping Spiller and Smith than others so far. But they can’t forget about Kellen Mond, either. The senior quarterback has been sacked only once this season, so finding a way to apply pressure to him could be key.
Either way, he makes it difficult for Arkansas to focus too much on the run — and the Aggies’ run game makes it difficult to focus too much on Mond.
In the Razorbacks’ previous games, they have been able to hone in on one aspect. Against Mississippi State, it was the Air Raid offense that led to Barry Odom deciding to rush only three linemen. Against Ole Miss, it was largely Matt Corral and the passing attack as well. Georgia was employing a new quarterback and struggled early. But A&M presents the most balanced offense Arkansas has seen yet.
How will they respond?
We’ve seen the Razorbacks stand up to challenges already this season. Few thought winning a conference game was possible, but they did that by Week 2. Injuries have forced little-used players to step up. It has been a year of defying what’s normal.
However, it’s also important to have a dash of realism.
The Razorbacks haven’t beaten the Aggies since the latter joined the SEC in 2012. And this team could shape up to be Jimbo Fisher’s best in his three seasons at the helm. The chances of a victory are slim against the No. 8 team in the country.
But respect is on the rise for the Razorbacks, who received 15 votes in the latest AP poll. A win certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and it would likely catapult them into the rankings.
If that is to happen, once again the defense will need to play a big part.