What went wrong for Arkansas Razorbacks on defense in 42-31 loss at Texas A&M Aggies
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What went wrong on defense against Texas A&M

Arkansas' defense struggled in Saturday's loss at No. 8 Texas A&M.
Arkansas' defense struggled in Saturday's loss at No. 8 Texas A&M. (Sam Craft-Pool Photo)

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The campaign for Barry Odom to win this year’s Broyles Award suffered a blow Saturday night.

After four solid performances to start the season, Arkansas’ defense couldn’t get off the field in a 42-31 loss to No. 8 Texas A&M at Kyle Field.

Led by veteran quarterback Kellen Mond, the Aggies scored touchdowns on six straight possessions - not counting the kneel down at the end of the first half - with a balanced attack that racked up 442 yards.

It was a flashback to last season, when the Razorbacks gave up the most points and yards per game in school history, rather than a continuation of the turnaround under Odom. However, linebacker Bumper Pool said the blame shouldn’t be placed on the Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator because he felt like they were plenty prepared.

“They came out and did exactly what we thought they were going to do,” Pool said. “At the beginning of the game, we were calling out a lot of their plays and they made adjustments… (They) just executed better and we didn't tackle good enough, and that's uncharacteristic for us.”

A lot of the credit for how well Texas A&M moved the ball belongs to its offensive line, which Pool said was one of the best Arkansas has faced all year.

With four seniors and a five-star sophomore up front, the Aggies came into Saturday’s game having allowed just two sacks all season - both of which came in their season opener against Vanderbilt - and they didn’t allow any against the Razorbacks, leading to head coach Sam Pittman praising their pass protection in his postgame interview.

“We weren’t just sitting back there going, ‘Okay, we give up,’” Pittman said. “We tried a lot of different things and they seemed to pick up every blitz. We brought some safety blitzes, some corner blitzes and they seemed to do a nice job and Kellen was on.”

Despite not throwing the ball a ton, that protection allowed Mond to pick apart Arkansas’ secondary. That was particularly evident on third down.

Texas A&M converted 7 of 11 third down attempts, moving the chains through the air six times on those plays. Pittman said the Aggies used a lot of comeback routes, plus tight end Jalen Wydermyer managed to really hurt them despite Pool saying he was a point of emphasis leading up to the game.

“The bottom line is, if we can’t get pressure on the guy and he’s sitting back there, guys are going to eventually get open and that’s what happened tonight,” Pittman said. “They caught the ball well and blocked well and basically did whatever they wanted to a lot of the time on third downs.”

It also helped that Texas A&M was also effective running the ball. Isaiah Spiller was held to 82 yards on 21 carries - well below his SEC-leading 6.7-yard average coming into the game - but other guys stepped up to help fill the void.

Mond was more active running the ball than he’s been all year, running for a season-high 32 yards on six carries, plus Ainias Smith contributed 31 yards on three carries and Devon Achane scored on a 30-yard run. The trio combined for 102 yards and played a big part in the Aggies averaging 5.1 yards per carry, which opened up the passing game.

“Any time you have a threat where you can turn around and hand the ball to Spiller and you’ve got a big, physical O-line, then you can play-action off of it and run some naked boots off of it,” Pittman said. “They’re really talented and they got us.”

Making his fourth career start against Arkansas, Mond completed 21 of 26 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns. With an 80.8 completion percentage, he was more efficient than any quarterback has been against the Razorbacks this season.

“He's been in this league quite a while,” Pool said. “When you get a guy like that in the SEC playing like that, they're going to be successful. We didn't do enough to interrupt him.”

Arkansas’ defense suffered a big loss late in the first quarter when safety Jalen Catalon was disqualified for targeting. Smith scored on a 15-yard run on the very next play to give Texas A&M a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

Although he was able to remain on the sideline, losing the talented redshirt freshman was a hit to the secondary, but Pittman didn’t use it as an excuse.

“(He’s) one of the best players we have and he's a leader back there,” Pittman said. “I’m sure our defense missed him, but let's make no mistake now - we've had a lot of people out this year and played good defense.”

Ultimately, the discipline of Texas A&M’s offense won out.

“I know one thing, they didn’t shoot themselves in the foot,” Pittman said. “They didn’t have snaps that went left and right and dropped balls and all that kind of stuff. They didn’t do that. They had enough concepts to get open and they played catch, and they did a nice job with it.”

On the flip side, it seemed as though playing with a defense littered with former and current walk-ons, inexperienced players, and guys playing through injuries finally caught up to Arkansas against an Aggies team that came in with - as Pool described it - a good game plan.

“Obviously they had two weeks, just like us, and we didn't make enough plays,” Pool said. “I thought we were a little undisciplined in our zones, which is uncharacteristic of us, but at the end of the day, they're a good team.”

The most glaring difference Saturday compared to previous games for Arkansas’ defense was a lack of turnovers.

Coming into the night with an NCAA-leading 10 interceptions, the Razorbacks failed to come down with any of Mond’s passes. In fact, they got their hands on only a couple, as they were credited with just two pass breakups.

“We needed a few of those,” Pittman said. “We’ve really been living on those. We’ve been living on some goal line stands, we’ve been living on fourth-and-one. We just didn’t get them tonight, that’s all. But we’ll bounce back.”

Arkansas will try to get back on track when it returns to Fayetteville next week. It hosts Tennessee at 6:30 p.m. CT Saturday for a game that will be televised on either ESPN or the SEC Network.