FAYETTEVILLE — Step One toward a University of Arkansas upset of No. 7 Texas A&M on Saturday is containing ace tailbacks Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane.
“They’re an SEC-style offense, so they want to run the ball,” Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool said.
Step 2 for the No. 16 Razorbacks is keeping tight end Jalen Wydermyer in check. Wydermyer dented Arkansas for 92 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a 42-31 Texas A&M win last season.
Next for the Hogs: Not allowing slot receiver Ainias Smith, whose status for Saturday is questionable, to run free as he did against Arkansas last year.
It’s a lengthy list of must dos for defensive coordinator Barry Odom, based on Texas A&M’s strength at the various skill slots.
“Their offense is loaded with skill players,” Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said. “Certainly, everybody knows about Spiller. They have a lot of talent.”
Added Pool, “Spiller is a great back. We faced him last year. They’ve got weapons and we’re just continuing to game plan and simplify our looks.”
All of the above players made it to the end zone against the Hogs last year at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas.
In the cases of Smith and Wydermyer, each player scored twice against an Arkansas defense that lost safety Jalen Catalon on a targeting penalty and ejection with 59 seconds left in the first quarter with the game tied 7-7. The Aggies’ Smith scored on the next play and quarterback Kellen Mond led another touchdown drive on their next possession to go up 21-7, and Arkansas could not keep pace.
Still, Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher is expecting a big challenge from an Arkansas defense that ranks 18th nationally in allowing 265.7 yards per game.
“I mean the versatility, very sound in what he does and how does things, how he attacks you with different blitz packages, run packages, coverages,” Fisher said of Odom. “I mean, every play he makes you think, makes you have to communicate and talk, make calls and do things.
“I think Barry does an outstanding job. I think he does a great job of making in-game adjustments. … He’s always changing, never does the same thing. He has a lot of versatility, and he’s a good dude, man.”
The Razorbacks simply could not contain all of the Aggies weapons last year.
Smith scored on a 35-yard pass reception and a 15-yard run on back-to-back series in the first quarter. The speedster had a game-high 121 all-purpose yards.
Wydermyer, a 6-5, 255-pound junior caught a 6-yard scoring pass midway through the second quarter and a 15-yard touchdown in the third quarter and had a team-high six catches for 92 yards.
Mond was not sacked by the Hogs, ran for 32 yards and operated Fisher’s play-action schemes efficiently by completing 21 of 26 (80.7%) for 260 yards and 3 touchdowns.
“Coach Fisher’s been so good with that type of play action and hiding the ball and ‘where is it?’ and all those things, then hitting a wide-open guy,” Pittman said to describe how Wydermyer damaged the Arkansas defense last year.
The Razorbacks allowed some free-running wideouts and backs to get behind the defense the last two weeks, but both Texas and Georgia Southern missed deep throws or dropped passes in most of those instances.
“Last week guys got behind us,” Pittman said. “That was one of our things that we need to clean up. I understand it was off the option, but it still has the same principles as play action. So we’re going to know where [Wydermyer] is. He’s a wonderful player. He hurt us big time last year. Much respect for him. He’s one of the better tight ends in the country.”
Spiller and Achane scored from 6 and 30 yards, respectively, in last year’s game.
This season, the 6-2, 225-pound Spiller ranks sixth in the SEC with 250 rushing yards.
“The way he approaches the game is every bit as impressive as everything he does,” Fisher said. “On the field he’s been extremely productive. He’s learning to be a complete football player.”
Achane, a 5-9, 185-pound sophomore, is 11th in the SEC with 203 rushing yards. Spiller and Achane both average better than six yards per carry.
With all that skill talent available, the Razorbacks would like to put as much responsibility on Texas A&M quarterback Zach Calzada to make plays as they can. Calzada, a 6-4, 200-pound sophomore, lost a battle with Haynes King for the starting job during camp but came in after King suffered a broken bone in his leg during the first half of a 10-7 win against Colorado on Sept. 18.
Calzada and the Aggies struggled offensively in that game, but they bounced back last week in a 34-0 rout of New Mexico. Calzada completed 19 of 33 passes for 275 yards and 3 touchdowns, one each to Achane, and wideouts Demond Demas and Moose Muhammad.
“Now the kid’s throwing better. He’s got better confidence,” Pittman said.
“He’s stepped in and done a great job,” Pool said. “I think they had a quarterback battle right up to the first game so both those guys are very capable.”
The Aggies would like to see Calzada get the ball in the hands of those myriad playmakers and let them get to work. Calzada’s numbers in a clean pocket vs. pressure are striking.
When he has been kept clean, Calzada has a 90.1 pass grade and 88.9% adjusted completion percentage, according to Pro Football Focus. When he has faced pressure, Calzada has a 42.0 pass grade and a 46.2% adjusted completion percentage.
On the protection front, the Aggies have had to replace four offensive line starters with right tackle Kenyon Green being the only returner. Center Luke Matthews and right guard Layden Robinson, both listed as starters this week, are questionable due to injuries.