defense

Big plays critical, crushing for Arkansas in Texas A&M series

Limiting explosive plays a key if Hogs hope to end skid vs. Aggies

By Bart Pohlman

If there’s been one common denominator in Arkansas’ four straight losses to Texas A&M under Bret Bielema, it’s been the propensity to give up big plays on defense.

Big plays are backbreakers for defenses everywhere. Your team could have been playing well enough on defense all game long, but one missed assignment and all that work goes up in smoke as a speedy receiver burns past the secondary for a momentum-swinging touchdown.

That’s exactly what’s happened to Arkansas each of the past four years: The Hogs have given up a whopping 29 plays of 20 or more yards to the Aggies in those matchups.

But it doesn’t stop there. Of those 29 plays, 15 went for 30-plus yards, 12 went for 40-plus yards and an astonishing seven went for 50 yards or more.

None of the big plays in the 2013 game went for touchdowns, but in the last three meetings, 10 of Texas A&M’s 14 touchdowns came on plays of 20-plus yards, including six touchdowns scored from more than 40 yards out.

The A&M game hasn’t been an isolated incident for the Hogs. Last year, Arkansas gave up 40 plays of 30-plus yards, which ranked last in the SEC and tied for 119th nationally out of 128 teams.

But so far, in 2017, that hasn’t been the case. Arkansas ranks fourth nationally, having only given up four plays of 20-plus yards, and is the only team in the country that hasn’t allowed a play of 30 yards or more this season.

Certainly, the fact that the Hogs have played one less game than almost everyone in college football plays a role in those rankings, but it’s still a major improvement.

“One of our key objectives to play great defense is to limit big plays,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said.

Rhoads broke down how Arkansas is trying to limit the explosive plays this season.

“If I’m in man coverage, I’ve got to compete,” he said. “I think the phrase 50-50 ball has grown in its use. You’ve got to win more of those balls than you lose in those situations. Moving up front, it goes to taking care of your gaps and taking care of your run fit responsibilities. You can have a big play given up in the A gap if you’re not there to fit it or don’t tackle it well, just as easy as you can on a post play. Or you can give it up on a bubble just as easy as you can on a ball that travels 50 yards in the air.

“So, it’s positioning of ourselves, leverage on the football and a high priority of maintaining upfield leverage to protect our goal line.”

If Arkansas can finally limit the big plays against the Aggies, the Razorbacks might taste victory in AT&T Stadium for the first time since the 2012 Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State.