Passing gains: Aggies, Petrino figure to test Hogs

Offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino (left) and quarterback Max Johnson will use their prolific passing schemes when Texas A&M faces Arkansas on Saturday in the Southwest Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Razorbacks, however, rank 41st in the country in total defense, allowing 320.2 yards per game. (AP/Sam Craft)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas figures to find out if it has truly made advancements in its pass coverage Saturday at Arlington, Texas.

The Razorbacks (2-2, 0-1 SEC) will face the prolific passing schemes of Texas A&M (3-1, 1-0) and offensive coordinator and former Hogs coach Bobby Petrino at 11 a.m. Central at AT&T Stadium in the annual Southwest Classic.

Petrino and old/new starting quarterback Max Johnson will take on an Arkansas defense called by first-year coordinator Travis Williams that got off to a solid start against the pass before LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels lit it up starting just before halftime last week.

Before it was done, Daniels had thrown two 49-yard touchdown passes in the span of four plays straddling the halftime break and finished with 320 passing yards and four touchdowns in No. 12 LSU's 34-31 escape against the Razorbacks.

Arkansas ranks 41st in the country in total defense, allowing 320.2 yards per game, and 75th in passing defense with 231.2 yards allowed.

Although those numbers aren't terrific, they represent a major improvement for a unit that gave up a staggering 294.7 passing yards per game last season to rank dead last in the country.

Petrino's Missouri State team surpassed that average with 357 passing yards by veteran Jason Shelley last Sept. 17, when the Razorbacks rallied from a 27-17 fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Bears 38-27.

"Missouri State's quarterback was mobile as well as what Max Johnson is, so we'll see," Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said when asked if the Razorbacks could learn some tendencies from last year's Petrino offense. "Yeah, we have looked over that to see what some of his tendencies might have been and how they relate to the team that he's coaching this year."

Pittman said the Arkansas coaches have picked up mixed influences from the Aggies offense, including from Coach Jimbo Fisher and analyst Jim Chaney, who worked as offensive coordinator with Pittman six years at Tennessee (2012), Arkansas (2013-14) and Georgia (2016-18).

Pittman called Petrino, who led Arkansas to a 34-17 record from 2008-11, a great coach.

"Watching them, I think there's a lot of Coach Petrino, a lot of ... heck, I see a lot of Jim Chaney in them," Pittman said. "Obviously, Coach Fisher. I think he's got a lot to do with it, too.

"I don't see a whole lot of difference in this year than what they were last year. There are some differences, but they're still a physical running team. ... But Coach Petrino is one of the best offensive minds in the game, and we respect him a lot.

"They're doing a really nice job on offense. ... So they're throwing it well and they're running it well. They have the same staple of physicality that they've been using in the past."

The Aggies quickly transitioned to Johnson last week after losing starter Conner Weigman to a lower leg injury just before halftime against Auburn. Johnson threw two touchdown passes in the second half, a 22-yarder to his brother Jake and a 37-yard completion to standout Evan Stewart as Texas A&M notched a 27-10 win.

Johnson, a fourth-year sophomore making his 18th SEC start, will be supported by an offensive line that has a combined 69 starts, including 26 by right guard Layden Robinson and 19 by center Bryce Foster.

The Razorbacks held LSU scoreless for its first three possessions before Daniels guided drives for four touchdowns and two field goals on the Tigers' last six series.

"I think our defensive front, we need to be ready for the tempo more," Arkansas junior defensive end Landon Jackson said. "I think last week they started tempo-ing and our defensive line, I mean we've got to be able to play the same when they're tempo-ing us that we do whenever they're not.

"I think that played a part in it. And we've got to play better football. We've got to have less penalties and just play cleaner ball."

Pittman said the Razorbacks did a great job mixing coverages early in the game last week.

"Our goal was to frustrate the quarterback and I thought we did it early," he said. "Then after that, we didn't so much. But I think our D-line is playing well. I think we've got to figure out our third-down package a little bit more. ... It's not getting the pressure that we want, so we may look at something a little different there."

Pittman said he hopes for more repeat performances of the first half, when the Razorbacks kept LSU out of the end zone until the final 30 seconds.

"Our defense, we played really well for almost a half and then got beat a few times," he said. "The defense as a whole, if you look at the front and the linebackers, played pretty well. We got beat in man coverage a few times and got beat in some zone coverage. That's got to get fixed and I think if we do we can put a full game together and certainly that's what we're hoping happens this week."

Something has to give in the early going between the Hogs' defense and the Petrino offense. Arkansas has not allowed a score on an opening drive this season, while the Aggies have scored on all their first possessions, with touchdowns against New Mexico and at Miami, and field goals in the past two games against Louisiana-Monroe and Auburn.

Arkansas freshman cornerback Jaylon Braxton, who started the season-opener and got 25 reps last week, said there are staples to a Petrino offense.

"Lots of explosive plays," he said. "They like getting the ball to their playmakers a lot in open space, so we just have to keep the top on the coverage."

In the run-game matchup, Arkansas is 21st in the nation with an average of 89 rushing yards allowed and Texas A&M ranks 72nd with 149.5 rushing yards per game.

Johnson, the first left=handed quarterback to start at Texas A&M since Jeff Granger in 1992, has six career 300-yard passing games, including 435 yards with 3 touchdowns at Ole Miss in 2020. Johnson completed 11 of 21 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 39 yards in last year's 23-21 win over Arkansas.