FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ defense knows there will be opportunities Saturday.
The coaching staff has made it abundantly clear in preparation this week.
Southern Miss has turned the ball over an NCAA-high 10 times through two games under first-year coach Todd Monken. To make matters worse for the Golden Eagles, three of the turnovers have been returned for defensive touchdowns.
“It was 10 times in 2 games,” Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers said Wednesday night. “So we’ve got to make it 15 in 3. We’ve got to keep those numbers high.”
Arkansas, which hasn’t exactly had a reputation for taking the ball away from opponents the past couple of years, is aiming to force Southern Miss into more sloppy play when the teams meet Saturday in Razorback Stadium at 11:21 a.m.
The Golden Eagles’ no-huddle, spread attack has had trouble enjoying much success so far this season because of its mistakes, fumbling away scoring chances in its season opener and throwing a handful of interceptions last Saturday.
It’s a big reason Southern Miss’ losing streak has stretched to 14 games, which is the longest active skid among Football Bowl Subdivision teams. While Monken wasn’t there for 12 losses, he didn’t shy away from the impact the turnovers have had in the program’s two games under his guidance.
“There’s nothing more deflating than a turnover,” Monken said.
Especially when considering this fact: The first touchdown Southern Miss has allowed in each of its first two games have come off first quarter turnovers.
Texas State returned a fumble 44 yards for a touchdown two weeks ago to take a 7-0 lead early in the first quarter of its 22-15 win. Nebraska also took a 7-0 lead with an interception return for a touchdown last Saturday, then made it 21-3 late in the first quarter after another pick six off quarterback Allan Bridgford.
It was part of a four-interception performance from USM’s quarterbacks.
“The first two were ones that led directly to scores,” Monken said. “Not indirectly, directly to scores … The week before it was the fumbling issue. Then this week, obviously, we did a better job of protecting it as we are building and trying to set a certain standard. But obviously we have to do a better job of holding onto it.”
Arkansas doesn’t plan to let Southern Miss get comfortable with the football, though.
“Their coaches are probably staying on them hard about not turning the ball over,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said. “So that’s one thing we’ve got to do. Make them turn it over. Get takeaways. That’s one thing we haven’t gotten in the last game is takeaways. That’s one thing we’re going to try to do as a defense.”
Turnover talk has been an emphasis in practice this week for another reason.
Arkansas didn’t force any during its 31-21 win against Samford last Saturday, which nearly became too close for comfort after the Bulldogs took a 21-17 lead in the third quarter. Linebacker Braylon Mitchell said the staff “kind of got onto us about.”
Defensive coordinator Chris Ash said it was a “disappointing” statistic Wednesday night, especially after Arkansas forced two turnovers in its season opener.
“We’ve got to get that going,” Ash said. “We got a couple in the first game that made a huge difference in the outcome of that game. Every game our goal is to get two or more takeaways and we didn’t get it. These guys have put it on the ground for whatever reason and we’ve got to hope that trend continues.”
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said the Razorbacks have preached “attacking the football.” But he wasn’t alarmed about the lack of turnovers against Samford, saying droughts happen before a defense can suddenly “hit a pot of gold.”
Arkansas’ players know, at the very least, they’re playing a team that has shown a willingness to hand out plenty of gifts Saturday.
So the Razorbacks know it’s up to them to make the trend continue.
“Five turnovers a game,” Arkansas linebacker Austin Jones said about Southern Miss’ turnover average through two games. “We want to make it another five.”