Fri October 06, 2023

By Lance Hawley

Hogs Get Ready for Ole Miss
By Otis Kirk

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas hopes to snap a three-game skid on Saturday when it faces No. 16 Ole Miss in Oxford.

Arkansas (2-3, 0-2) faces an explosive offense at Ole Miss (4-1, 1-1). The Rebels are coming off a 55-49 win over LSU that included over 700 yards of total offense. Sam Pittman knows the Rebels offer a great challenge to his team.

"We’re looking forward to going to Ole Miss," Pittman said. "Man, what a great offense they have. So many weapons. Starts with their quarterback, but certainly (Quinshon) Judkins is a wonderful running back. They have two of them actually. Defense is playing so much better this year. Physical. Just a huge challenge for us. Great wide out and tight ends. O-line is good. Huge challenge for us, but we’re really looking forward to going over to Oxford and playing."

Judkins topped the SEC in rushing last season. This season, Judkins has rushed 90 times for 378 yards and five touchdowns. He also has caught nine passes for 84 yards and a touchdown. Judkins rushed for 177 yards in the win over LSU last week.

"Well, he just hadn't had as many opportunities like you just spoke about," Pittman said. "Every time he runs the ball, he's really physical. I do think 24 (Ulysses Bentley IV), their other back, is really good as well. So, I think they're sharing the load a little bit more. Obviously, the carries that he had last week, it was a big game for them and they got him the football. I believe he led the SEC in rushing last year. He's still the same guy. He's incredible. He's a really good player. I think just the opportunities came to him a little bit more Saturday than what they had previously."

While Judkins got going against LSU, Raheim "Rocket" Sanders has only played two games for the Hogs. He too has struggled in his two games rushing 26 times for 76 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also has four receptions for 32 yards. Did he shake off the rust last week and ready for a big game against Ole Miss?

"We're hoping so, buddy," Pittman said. "Any time you're a little rusty, which I felt like he probably was last week, and not totally 100 percent, you're not going to be able to play as good as you normally would. I believe the knee is feeling much better than it did last week. Obviously, he played and made a nice run on the screen and things of that nature. Any time you have some problems with an injury, a lot of times the confidence in your mind goes towards the injury more than towards the performance. I think by being hit and all those things, he probably feels a lot better about it. He's had a good week."

Last season, Arkansas defeated Ole Miss 42-27. In that game, Sanders rushed 24 times for 232 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught five passes for 29 yards. How big would it be to get that version of Sanders back?

"It would be huge," Pittman said. "Obviously, we have to block for him better up front than what we have and all that, but he's also in the past broke a lot of tackles. When he gets healthy, he'll do that again. We need some explosive plays, and he's certainly one of the ones who can give it to us."

Quarterback KJ Jefferson also feels that Sanders could be nearing a breakout game following his performance against Texas A&M.

"He said it himself, he just wanted to know the rust off and get back into a rhythm with things," Jefferson said. "It's kind of hard sitting out and then trying to come back and pick up where you left off. This week, he's approached it like a vet. Been very mature about the situations and just been working his tail off in practice and focused on the little small details that are going to help separate him and help get him into a groove early on in the game so he can play a factor in the game. He's been having a great so far. Like you said, just knocking the rust off and getting back into the rhythm of things and getting back to playing the way he wants to play."

Ole Miss' lone loss was 24-10 to Alabama. Pittman was asked what it is about the Ole Miss offense that stresses opposing defenses?

"They’re really good at protecting the quarterback, and they’re really good at run blocking," Pittman said. "I think those are where the two things start. Obviously having high-powered running backs. As much as we talk about Ole Miss high-powered [passing] and all that, they’re a running football team. They want to run the football, and they’re really good at it, because you have to get out of the box to cover them, and then once you do that, they’re going to run the football. Really good at route-running and attacking coverages. In other words, flooding coverages.

"You saw it against Alabama on tape, you saw it obviously against LSU last week. But Lane (Kiffin) is really good about playing fast, knowing what he thinks a defense is going to line up in. And then playing fast and looking over, and then having the play answer off of what he sees on the field. That’s where they have such an advantage, because they’re speed, speed, speed, speed. And then if he really wants t get a look at it, he’ll just clap and hold and get a look at it. Then he’ll basically flood areas, and they’re really good at it. (Jaxson) Dart’s been throwing the ball really well."

Pittman has done some adjusting on his much maligned offensive line this week. Patrick Kutas has gone from tackle to center, Beaux Limmer center to guard and Brady Latham guard to tackle. Does Pittman have any reservation letting a sophomore make his first start at center on the road?

"Well, I mean, I wouldn’t have moved him in there if I didn’t think he could do it," Pittman said. "I’m comfortable with how he’s looked I practice. Obviously Beaux still has that opportunity to play there, as well. But I’m comfortable with how he’s… He was excited to move in there. I think he wants to be the center, which obviously makes a big deal. But I’m comfortable with his first two practice days. I thought it went well on Monday and we had a little bit more noise, that takes a little bit to get used to because it’s just different. When you clap and have noise, it’s different than if you say ‘set hut.’ So those things are just something he’s gotta get used to and he’s working awful hard at it."

With true freshman Luke Hasz out for the season with a broken clavicle. North Texas transfer Var'keyes Gumms is expected to get an expanded role

"The change in the offense would be due to we just have to get better," Pittman said. "Some of the things we might do would be going into that. We’re very comfortable with the other tight ends that we have. You know, sometimes opportunity, we find out more about a guy than obviously if he’s standing over on the sidelines. I’m very comfortable with the tight ends that we have. Will we change some? We might because we always do a little bit just trying to attack the defense that we’re getting ready to play. Very comfortable with how it’s gone the first two days, but obviously very sorry that we don’t have Luke. Just a great kid. But we’ll go ahead… anyway, we’re going to be fine and we haven’t changed much."

In 2021, Arkansas went to Ole Miss. In that game, Jefferson completed 25-of-35 passes for 326 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed 20 times for 85 yards and three touchdowns in a 52-51 loss. Pittman was asked if that was Jefferson's best game?

"Yeah, I mean he’s obviously played some good games but that one certainly sticks out," Pittman said. "We’re trying to invite anybody that is either like second cousins or anybody like that this week. Anybody who he’s half related to. But naw, seriously it was one of his better games, going back home. Everybody needs motivation. We try to do that as well. But a man who has inner motivation plays a lot better than if he’s trying to get it externally from a coach or something like that. Everybody has to have a reason and certainly he had his a couple of years ago and we hope he does again."

Arkansas and Ole Miss will kickoff at 6:30 p.m. Saturday night and televised on the SEC Network.

Photos Courtesy of Craven Whitlow CW3 Sports Action