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‘Everybody’s locked in’: Hogs, Cougars ready for high-stakes matchup

by Tom Murphy | September 16, 2023 at 7:28 a.m.
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson passed for 367 yards and a career-high five touchdowns in last year’s 52-35 win over BYU in Provo, Utah. The teams are both 2-0 going into tonight’s game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, and the Razorbacks are seeking their third consecutive 3-0 start. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- An event 44 years in the making could happen today for the University of Arkansas at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

But the Razorbacks will have to beat BYU to make it a reality.

The Cougars (2-0) and Hogs (2-0) square off at 6:30 p.m. in the first marquee Power 5 contest of the season for both schools and a rematch from Arkansas' 52-35 win last Oct. 15 in Provo, Utah.

If the Razorbacks complete the series sweep they will open 3-0 for the third consecutive season, the first time the program will have accomplished that feat since teams coached by Lou Holtz did it from 1977-79.

Both head coaches, the Hogs' fourth-year boss Sam Pittman and BYU's eighth-year Coach Kalani Sitake, have shared their fondness for the other this week, and both have dished on the magnitude and meaning of the game.

"I think all of us want to do well for our brand, for our logo, for the SEC logo," Pittman said. "And this is, make no mistake, a huge game for us. I'm sure it is for BYU."

BYU competed as an FBS Independent for 12 years from 2011-22 after stints in the Skyline (1938-61), Western Athletic (1962-98), where it won the 1984 national championship, and Mountain West (1999-2010) conferences before landing in the re-shuffled Big 12 this season.

"In terms of the Big 12, there's a lot of energy, a lot of excitement, and that's our fans and our players," Sitake said. "I'm excited about it too. I mean, we know that we have a conference to play for, a conference to represent.

"We love the partners that we're involved with ... and just really impressed with everyone in the Big 12, so we're happy to be a part of that conference and looking forward to representing this weekend against a quality SEC team like Arkansas."

The Cougars have won six games in a row dating to November of last year, when the loss to Arkansas was the second of four setbacks in a row that preceded their current streak.

The Razorbacks maintain the "Rocky Mountain High" of winning in Utah last season won't influence their mindset for this meeting.

"I don't think there's any concern that we're going to underestimate BYU," senior guard and team captain Brady Latham said. "We're playing them again, but we have a really new team. We've got a lot of new guys up front. We've got new guys at almost every position. ... We've got a lot of transfers. So this is a new team. They're a new team. They're a really good team."

Arkansas tailback AJ Green concurred, saying, "It really doesn't matter what team comes in here, we're never going to underestimate them. We're going to play them as if we were playing Bama, as if, as Coach Pitt likes to say, we were playing the Green Bay Packers."

Revenge might be a motive for the Cougars after the Razorbacks scored on eight consecutive possessions in front of their home fans last year, but they aren't being overt about it publicly.

"The fans probably weren't happy about that game, obviously," Sitake said. "But for our players, this is a whole separate deal, and I think that is the way we've got to keep it. Just focus on what is the task at hand, and that is making sure we do our part to be ready: Go out there, scout them out. We have watched them on film. They are very impressive."

Little Rock native Caden Haws, a junior defensive tackle for the Cougars, made it clear the returning players haven't forgotten the feeling from falling to the Razorbacks last year.

"I think everybody kind of has a little bit of a bitter taste from what happened last year," Haws said. "Everybody's locked in. We know we travel well, we play well on the road.

"Last time we went down to SEC country, we beat Tennessee, so we're excited to go and show what we're about."

Indeed, BYU won 29-26 in double overtime at Tennessee in 2019 as part of the Cougars' 4-7 mark against SEC teams.

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson passed for 367 yards and a career-high 5 touchdowns and tailback Raheim Sanders rushed for 175 yards and 2 touchdowns as the Hogs racked up 644 yards in last year's game. They scored seven touchdowns and a field goal on eight consecutive series against the Cougars but were denied at the 1-yard line late in the game, just as Arkansas did to Kent State last week.

Pittman noted a contrast in his team's preparation and focus this week as compared to the lead up to wins over Western Carolina and Kent State.

"Being on national TV and a night game at home you have a different vibe," Pittman said. "You've been to practice and I'm sure you feel the vibe that's different. These are what guys come to Arkansas for. But yeah, we need to represent our brand and the SEC and certainly that's part of it on our mind as well."

Arkansas defensive end and team captain Trajan Jeffcoat said on Pittman's radio show Wednesday he could sense a change around the program this week and that practices have been more physical.

"I can tell it's a little bit different," Jeffcoat said. "I try to keep it poised and I try to keep my teammates poised as well. We don't want to get too high and we don't want to get too low. It's definitely going to be a dogfight and we respect the other team, but we also know who we are."

Additionally, the Razorbacks had a lackluster offensive performance in last week's 28-6 win over Kent State and they haven't gotten what has been a prolific ground game in recent seasons chugging yet. Arkansas, which will be missing Sanders with a knee issue for the second straight game, sits at 82nd in the country with 138.5 rushing yards per game.

"Definitely after the Kent State game I feel like Coach Pitt kind of challenged us because we didn't really play up to our standard," Green said on Pittman's radio show Wednesday. "So coming into practice on Monday, I already knew practice was going to be like a game-type deal. ... Everybody was flying around, making up mistakes that we had in the game.

Redshirt sophomore linebacker Chris Paul said his belief the Razorbacks are playing with passion lets him think they will improve from last week's showing.

"There's always something you're going to have to fix after a game," he said. "No team is perfect, no game plan is perfect and things of that nature. But the way that we go out there and carry ourselves and the mentality we have, that's what stays consistent and that's what keeps me excited every weekend and every day."

The transfer portal has made a huge difference for both programs.

The Cougars have a much different roster with 60 new players. The Razorbacks did not have that much turnover, but they have new coordinators on both sides of the ball and a lot of transfer personnel in their two deep.

Arkansas is more than a touchdown favorite but there's a little recent history going against them.

The Razorbacks have struggled to win at home on the back end of marquee home-and-away series for more than a decade.

Arkansas was swept by Rutgers in 2012-13. The Hogs won 49-28 at Texas Tech in 2014 and at TCU 41-38 in double overtime in 2016. But they turned around and lost to the Red Raiders and Patrick Mahomes 34-24 in 2015 and fell to TCU 28-7 in 2017, both at Razorback Stadium.

The Hogs do have a quite satisfying recent return win, however, a 40-21 trouncing of Texas on Sept. 11, 2021, after falling heavily at the No. 7 Longhorns in 2008.

Pittman called BYU a tradition-rich program and expects a tough showdown.

"They've won six in a row, so we certainly have our work cut out for us," he said. "They're a big, physical football team and doing a lot more on defense than they did a year ago and playing really well. So we're excited for our kids to get here, excited for our crowd to see a big-time football game here in our stadium."

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