Defense dominates Ole Miss with unheralded recruits, walk-ons
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FAYETTEVILLE — On paper, the Ole Miss offense going up against the Arkansas defense should have been a mismatch.
The Rebels came into the game with one of the most explosive units in the country. They had just put up 48 points on 647 yards against Alabama’s vaunted defense. Quarterback Matt Corral was completing 76.1 percent of his passes with only one interception.
By contrast, the Razorbacks had shown significant improvement, but were missing multiple starters. When they took the field Saturday, their lineup featured a pair of former two-star recruits at linebacker, a two-star true freshman at one corner and a redshirt freshman walk-on at the other cornerback.
Several other former or current walk-ons and two-star recruits also got reps. Vegas set the over/under total at 77.5 points, as it should have been a matchup nightmare against the likes of Elijah Moore, Kenny Yeboah, Jonathan Mingo, Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner.
But it wasn’t.
Not only did the defense hold its own against the dangerous Ole Miss offense, but it actually carried Arkansas to a 33-21 win over the Rebels at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The Razorbacks came down with six interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns. That matched their total from all of last season and marked only the second time in the last 50 years Arkansas has had that many in a single game. (It also had six against Mississippi State in 2003.)
“I was planning on getting seven when the game started, but we'll take six,” head coach Sam Pittman joked. “That's coaching, that's playing, that's being in position, that's reading eyes. That kid Corral had one interception going into today (and) we picked him six times, so that's coaching and that's players learning and obviously being able to get it done, as well."
Hudson Clark, making his second career start as a redshirt freshman walk-on, got things started when he came down with a pass intended for Moore - snapping Corral’s streak of 78 attempts without an interception.
He told reporters that he read the scissors route by the Ole Miss receivers and broke on the ball. It was a similar story with his second interception, as he saw the out route coming and jumped in front of the pass.
It all tied back, Clark said, to the coaching he received from defensive coordinator Barry Odom and cornerbacks coach Sam Carter throughout the week.
“The game plan, they tried to keep it as simple as possible,” Clark said. “We were in zone most of the time, then we’d run a little blitz to and put an extra guy in the box. We just saw how fast they would go and how fast they got set up. I felt like it was easier for us to be able to sit back in the zone and read the quarterback because we worked on that all throughout practice.”
Clark ended up coming down with a third interception at the end of the game. That is tied for the second most in a single game by a player in UA history. The last player to do it was Michael Grant against ULM in 2006 and the last to do it in a conference game was David Hogue in a Southwest Conference matchup with SMU in 1970.
The only other time Clark could ever remember getting three interceptions in one game was in a freshman game back in high school.
It was an incredible performance by a player most fans had probably never heard of before he replaced an injured Montaric Brown against Mississippi State a few weeks ago. Clark admitted he was buried on the depth chart well into camp, but now, Pittman said everyone has “heard of him now - three times at least.”
Former four-star recruits Jalen Catalon and Greg Brooks Jr. had one interception apiece and they were both clutch plays. Catalon’s was returned 35 yards to give Arkansas a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter, while Brooks got his in the red zone.
“Coach Carter had been telling us all week that we had a chance to be one of the best secondaries to come through Arkansas,” Clark said. “We got a lot of picks in practice. I mean, it’s different on the field, but that was definitely a confidence booster.”
The other pick-six was by linebacker Grant Morgan, a former walk-on and two-star recruit who was essentially playing with one arm because of an elbow injury suffered in the Mississippi State game.
The equipment protecting the injury likely prevented him from making another two interceptions early in the game, but he finally caught one with Arkansas clinging to a 26-21 lead with a little over three minutes remaining. He then weaved his way 23 yards to the end zone.
Morgan - who said his arm would have to fall off for him to come out of the game - finished with 19 tackles, including three for a loss and one sack, and a pair of pass breakups.
“You saw him holding that elbow on a play late in the fourth quarter and it didn’t stop him from picking a pass and running it back for a touchdown,” Pittman said. “He’s a tough kid. He is Arkansas. That’s what he is.”
With Bumper Pool out with an injury, Morgan was joined by fellow former two-star recruit Hayden Henry at linebacker. He finished with eight tackles - including two for a loss - and a pass breakup. Their backups were former two-star recruit Andrew Parker and walk-on Jackson Woodard, who combined for three tackles.
Pittman said they pulled Woodard - a true freshman out of Little Rock Christian - off the practice squad this week, as backup linebackers Deon Edwards and Levi Draper were also out with injuries.
“We were a little thin at linebacker, but they all came to play,” Pittman said. “The team believes in each other. That’s the key. They believe in each other and they try to make each other better and hold each other accountable. That’s a big deal.”
The unlikely contributors were just what the Razorbacks needed because their offense struggled at times to finish off drives against an Ole Miss defense that came into the game ranked last nationally in most categories.
“Ole Miss has a great offense, fast tempo and everything, and I was really impressed on how fast we got lined up with them,” wide receiver Treylon Burks said. “Just the plays that our back end made, Hudson Clark had a heck of a game, Jalen Catalon, really the whole defense.”
Perhaps the showing from Odom’s unit shouldn’t have been as surprising, though.
Earlier this month, they shut down Mississippi State and revealed the blue print for slowing down the air raid attack after it had torched LSU a week earlier. The hope, Morgan said, is that trend of laying the ground work for the rest of the SEC to follow will continue.
“We talked about it throughout the week, we wanted to be able to set the standard on what other teams did against these offenses, (that) we played them so good that they were able to say, ‘Alright we want to do what Arkansas did against these teams,’” Morgan said. “It's become an offensive minded league. They want to score sixty-something points a game, but we say the heck with that.”