FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas will face Kansas in Wednesday’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl and hoping to end 2022 on a successful note.
Both teams enter the game with 6-6 marks. The Jayhawks jumped out to a 5-0 start to season, but then hit a wall. Arkansas started 3-0, lost to Texas A&M and then had close losses to Liberty, LSU and Missouri. The Hogs lost four games by a combined nine points so it was a very thin line between winning six or eight, nine and possibly even 10.
“I think, to be honest, our red zone offense,” Sam Pittman said. “You can look at those (numbers) in two of the games. We didn’t get the ball in from the 2 twice — obviously Missouri and LSU. I think that you look at our secondary play, certainly it needs to improve a lot. I think we can do that. It was injury-wise and consistency both that we’ve got to get better there. But those are the two things there, and to be honest with you, obviously, I didn’t think that we maintained our strength or we were strong enough.
“Nutrition has something to do with that, as well. If you look at our players at the end of the year versus when it started in fall camp, we don’t look like the same team. That is nobody’s fault but my own, but I did not feel like we had maintained or improved in those areas, and we’ve got to improve on the field. But we at times got physically beat and I didn’t feel like we were having those problems in the second year here. Obviously we played some really fine teams my first year here. I felt like we got whipped physically some and we certainly have to change that, too. There’s several offensive and defensive reasons where I think we lost four games by nine points. We don’t want to be saying that again, so it’s my job to fix it. I think we’re headed in that direction.”
Here’s five keys for Arkansas to win its third Liberty Bowl in a row.
KJ Jefferson Has Big Game
This is always a key for Arkansas no matter the game. Jefferson was missing Treylon Burks in the Outback Bowl last year, but he stepped up and earned MVP honors at the game. Jefferson will be missing Jadon Haselwood, Trey Knox and Ketron Jackson this season plus Ricky Stromberg on the offensive line. But he will have Rocket Sanders to help in him in the running game and Matt Landers has been outstanding at wide receiver this season. Jefferson didn’t have a receiver as good as Landers to throw to against Penn State. Jefferson has to be outstanding against the Jayhawks and if he stays healthy there’s no reason to think he won’t. Bryce Stephens, Hudson Henry, Jaedon Wilson, Nathan Bax, Isaiah Sategna, Sam Mbake and Harper Cole need to step up and help Landers.
Run With Success
Kansas isn’t very good against the run. Even without Stromberg, Arkansas has four of its five starters on the offensive line and Ty’Kieast Crawford has been patiently awaiting his turn. It has arrived now though he will be at right guard for this game. Sanders rushed for 1,426 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Kansas gives up 193.7 yards per game on the ground which ranked No. 115 in the FBS. Jefferson, Sanders, AJ Green and Rashod Dubinion should be able to punish the Jayhawks on the ground if they can pass it well enough to keep the Kansas defense honest.
Get Touchdowns In Red Zone
As Pittman has noted, Arkansas has gotten to the 2 in close games and had to settle for field goals. And please no tight end sneak at the Kansas 2. Arkansas’ playcalling has been predictable at times in the red zone. They will run in the middle on first and second down. Pass on third down and then run up the middle on fourth down. Kansas is very likely to put some points up against the Arkansas defense so the Hogs can’t waste scoring opportunities.
Defense Don’t Give Up Big Plays
The Jayhawks can put points on the board. They averaged 34.2 points each outing this season which was third in the Big 12 and No. 27 in the FBS. They average 424.9 yards per game on offense which is No. 38 in the FBS. Arkansas’ defense will be missing linebackers Drew Sanders and Bumper Pool. Pooh Paul stepped in against Missouri and due to Pool’s injuries this season has a vast amount of experience. However, true freshman Jordan Crook hasn’t played much linebacker this season. He has a vast amount of talent and will be a standout in the future, but the Hogs need him to be good on Wednesday. Cameron Ball gets the start on the defensive line with the loss of Isaiah Nichols to the transfer portal, but the redshirt freshman has been Arkansas’ most productive interior defensive lineman this season even as a third-stringer. Ball has a team-leading 28 tackles among interior defensive linemen, 1.5 for loss and a quarterback hurry.
Win Third Down on Both Sides of Ball
If Arkansas is successful converting third down and then able to get off the field on defense forcing a punt the Hogs chances of winning grow tremendously. Barry Odom isn’t here to call the defense and that will fall on Michael Scherer’s shoulders. But Arkansas should be fine in that respect as Scherer played for Odom at Missouri and has learned from him as a coach. Plus Deke Adams and others are helping with the game plan. On offense, the key will be not getting behind the chains with so many receivers missing. The Hogs need to get third-and-short situations and that should lead to good results.
The kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday and televised on ESPN.