One of the most noticeable trends in the NFL is the devaluation of running backs. But in the second best league around, the SEC, the rushing attack is still vital.
And it's Arkansas' bread and butter.
The No. 16 Razorbacks (3-0) are currently ranked eighth in the country in rushing yards per game (282.3 ypg) and fifth in rushing touchdowns (11). It's not just one running back seeing the bulk of the carries.
Five Hogs, including quarterback KJ Jefferson, will enter AT&T Stadium on Saturday with more than 100 rushing yards and at least one touchdown on the ground. In their last two appearances against Texas schools, the Hogs have rushed for more than 200 yards for the game.
And yes, the No. 7 Aggies (3-0) are focused on just that.
“They like to ground and pound you and catch you lacking, because they ground and pound you so much and then get the ball in the air,” A&M safety Leon O’Neal said. “Y’all saw that versus Texas.”
In Week 2, Arkansas grounded and pounded the Aggies' traditional rival Texas. Four found the end zone while the Razorbacks recorded a season-high 333 rushing yards in a 40-21 victory over the then-No.15-ranked Longhorns.
Entering conference play, the Aggies' run defense has been the lone concern for defensive coordinator Mike Elko.
A&M finished the 2020 campaign second in the nation in rushing yards allowed, giving up a mere 92 yards per game. Currently, the team ranks 86th after three weeks of action, allowing opponents to average 162 yards.
Dealing with dual-threat quarterbacks also has been a issue for the ninth-ranked defense nationally. Kent State's Dustin Crum rushed for 63 yards at Kyle Field. Colorado's Brendon Lewis tacked on 76 in Denver.
Jefferson, another mobile quarterback, plays a game similar to that of former Auburn Heisman-winning QB Cam Newton. He currently ranks second on the team in rushing with 180 yards and is averaging 7.5 per run.
“(Jefferson) is 245 pounds, tall and athletic, can run, and he’s strong,” A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He has that (big) body, and just because you hit him doesn’t mean he’s going down. He’s going to be a heck of a challenge. There’s no doubt.”
Last season, A&M's worst game stopping the run came against Arkansas at home. The Aggies allowed 222 yards, but held the Razorbacks to just one rushing score.
The Hogs might have lost Rakeem Boyd, but they still have three runners in the SEC's top 25. Trelon Smith leads the way with 216 yards, while Jefferson and Sanders (137) are close behind.
“Football is a game of imposing your will — and imposing your will on the lines of scrimmage,” Fisher said. “That’s what Arkansas is doing a great job of, and what we’re going to have to do in this game.”
Both teams head to Arlington for the Southwest Classic ranked for the first time since 2016. No matter the record, the old rivals have played each other close in the past.
Since the game returned to AT&T Stadium in 2014, five matchups have been decided by seven points or fewer. Three games have gone into overtime.
The Aggies defense hasn't allowed a point since the first quarter of the Colorado game in Week 2. They have, however, allowed over 100 rushing yards in two of three games.
One-dimensional likely teams won't contend in the SEC. While Jefferson can throw, Arkansas keeps the chains moving by pounding the football into the heart of the defense until the whistle blows.
The Aggies have won nine straight in the series -- all since joining the SEC -- and getting to 10 won't be easy if the Razorbacks control the line of scrimmage.
“We’ve got to tackle, and we’ve got to fill holes,” O’Neal said. “We’ve got to make sure we play Texas A&M football the way we play Texas A&M football. (If so) we should leave there with a win.”
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