FAYETTEVILLE — It would have been easy for Sam Pittman to downplay, or flat-out ignore, the storyline of Bobby Petrino returning to Reynolds Razorback Stadium this week.
After all, the current Arkansas football coach said he’s never crossed paths with the former coach and their tenures in Fayetteville were nearly a decade apart.
Instead, Pittman has talked openly about it, referring to Saturday’s game against Missouri State — where Petrino is in his third season — as a “homecoming” and giving him a lot of credit for putting the Razorbacks on the map in 2010 and 2011 during this week’s SEC coaches teleconference.
A few days earlier, the first thing out of Pittman’s mouth in his opening statement at Monday’s weekly press conference was his excitement about the matchup and Petrino’s return.
“Last time Arkansas was relevant, relevant was when Coach Petrino was here,” Pittman said. “We’re very grateful for his time here and what he did for the program. We’ve used that in recruiting. Without him and his staff, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
Addressing it right out of the gate was probably a wise decision by Pittman. He understood it would be the biggest story of the week and dominate not only the headlines created by media, but also the sports talk radio airwaves, message boards and social media.
Most of the current Razorbacks were in elementary school when Petrino took Arkansas to the Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl in back-to-back seasons, but they know all about it based on the buzz around campus this week.
“Even though we didn’t grow up in Arkansas…we’ve heard in class and stuff people talking about it,” offensive lineman Brady Latham said, sitting alongside fellow Oklahoma native AJ Green. “We know he’s a great coach and we know he had a lot of success here. It brings a lot of hype to the game and that’s awesome.”
A couple of hours northeast of Fayetteville, though, the buzz is a little different in Springfield, Mo. The Bears, ranked No. 5 in the latest FCS poll, have their eyes set on a national championship, but have to navigate the MVFC — the FCS version of the SEC. While knocking off a top-10 FBS team would bring it a lot of publicity, Saturday’s result ultimately has no bearing on Missouri State’s title hopes.
During his weekly press conference Monday afternoon, it wasn’t until Petrino was specifically asked about it — five minutes and several questions in — that he brought up his time at Arkansas. He said he wouldn’t know how he felt about the return to Fayetteville until he arrived there and shifted the focus to his players.
“I think we’ll see when I get there. Right now what I’m going to do is just focus on the week of preparation and what our players need to do. I’m sure there will be some feelings and emotions when I step in the stadium, but it’s really not about me. It’s about our football team.
Later in the interview, Petrino said he hadn’t really reflected on his time at Arkansas recently, pointing to the fact that it was “quite a while ago.”
Back to the task at hand, the added excitement surrounding the game and facing an accomplished coach like Petrino will “probably” help grab the Razorbacks’ attention more than a regular FCS matchup, Pittman said, but he wasn’t really worried about that in the first place.
“We certainly have things to work on that we have to get better before we worry about who we are playing,” Pittman said. “I’ve been proud of our team ever since we’ve been here with them putting the game before away and playing the next game, so I feel pretty confident we’ll get them focused.”
Influence on Current Players
Although most of the team was pretty young at the time, Bobby Petrino’s last two years came at an impressionable time for some of the older players and had a notable influence, particularly on the in-state kids.
For example, defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols — a Springdale native — said he remembers watching the Razorbacks beat Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl following the 2011 season.
“Living in Arkansas and growing up in Arkansas, everybody looks up to Arkansas football,” Nichols said. “I was around 10 or 11 those years, and growing up watching that kind of makes you want to play football. That’s part of the reason why I fell in love with football, just seeing them play and play hard having those two seasons with 21 wins.”
It was also critical for some of the out-of-state players because it played a part in them coming to Arkansas. Pittman wasn’t lying when he told reporters he used Petrino’s success as an example of what is possible at Arkansas when talking to recruits.
“Throughout my whole recruitment process with Coach Pittman and Arkansas, all he talked about was those past years,” linebacker Chris Paul Jr. said. “We kind of fell off a little bit, but Coach Pittman wanted to work us back to the winning program that we are. That was definitely every visit, every phone call, every time he could bring it up, he would.”
Of course, part of the reason Pittman had to do that was because he didn’t have much else to recruit to. The Razorbacks were coming off back-to-back 2-10 seasons prior to Pittman’s arrival. A year before that, they went 4-8 in Bret Bielema’s final season.
Even in 2020, Pittman’s first year at the helm, Arkansas managed just a 3-7 record — albeit against a very difficult 10-game, all-SEC slate. To shift the focus away from the four consecutive losing seasons, he had to pitch the idea of getting the program back to where it was about a decade earlier.
“They always tried to speak on that stuff because obviously Arkansas wasn’t where they wanted to be,” Green said. “He just always talked about how they wanted to build a new team and start fresh. I always wanted to be a part of that. That’s one of the reasons I came here.”
Meanwhile, about the time Sam Pittman took over the dumpster fire Chad Morris left behind at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino made his return to college football in an arguably tougher situation.
After a year away from coaching, he inherited a Missouri State team that went just 1-10 for its 10th straight losing season and — all while navigating the challenges of the pandemic, including a spring schedule — led the Bears to their first FCS playoff appearance in 30 years.
Last season, Missouri State went 8-4 and nearly knocked off Oklahoma State — which eventually won the Fiesta Bowl — in the season opener. Needless to say, Petrino has quickly turned the program around.
“He’s a great coach — he was when he was here and with the Falcons and Louisville,” Pittman said. “They tried several different people before him, and he’s been able to go in there and get them back to the playoffs. He’s just a really good coach.”
As has been the case for many coaches, one key to his success has been the transfer portal.
Much like it was for himself, Petrino has made Missouri State a landing spot for players seeking their second or third chances. In fact, the Bears have 47 total transfers on their roster — including 26 who have experience at the FBS level.
“I think they have really good talent,” Pittman said. “Obviously coach Petrino knows how to recruit and knows what he had need-wise and and has done an exceptional job of roster management and getting guys on his roster that can play.”
Included in that group is quarterback Jason Shelley, who started games at Utah and Utah State before ending up at Missouri State, as well as a name familiar to Arkansas football fans: Jordan Jones.
A speedy wide receiver from Smackover, Jones actually started his career with the Razorbacks and is one of only seven freshmen in school history with 400-plus receiving yards. He finished with 401 as a redshirt freshman in 2017.
After catching two passes for 12 yards in Missouri State’s opener at Central Arkansas, Jones missed last week’s game against UT-Martin with a concussion suffered in practice. He is expected to be back Saturday and is listed as a starter on the Bears’ depth chart.
Facing a Bobby Petrino Offense
Despite his less-than-stellar reputation off the field and his propensity to have a wandering eye when it comes to job-hopping, Bobby Petrino is still known as one of the top offensive minds in the game.
His 2010 team at Arkansas broke the school record for total yards per game (482.5) and yards per play (7.1). Even Nick Saban, arguably the greatest coach in college football history and whose teams of that era were known for their defense, recognizes Petrino’s greatness.
“I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for Bobby,” Saban said on this week’s SEC coaches teleconference. “He’s a really good offensive coach. Always created a lot of issues and problems for you when you had to play against him — run and pass. So he’s one of the, in my opinion, one of the better offensive game planners out there and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the issue he creates when you play against him.”
That point has been made to the current Arkansas football players, as both defenders made available to the media this week — defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols and linebacker Chris Paul Jr. — used the word “genius” when talking about him.
“We have to prepare this week like we are playing anybody else — like we are playing Alabama or Georgia, the best in our conference,” Nichols said. “There’s no time to slack, especially this past weekend seeing these top-10 teams losing games they’re supposed to be favored in.
“There’s no time to slow down. This is not an off week. This is not a week where we can just relax like ‘Hey, we’re going to go out there and win the game,’ because they’re coming to play.”
Through two games, Missouri State’s offense has produced like you’d expect a Petrino offense to produce.
Despite going on the road against a solid UCA team and facing a ranked UT-Martin squad, the Bears are averaging 31 points on 396 yards. They also have the fourth-best team passing efficiency in the FCS at 192.8.
“I think he’s fantastic,” Pittman said. “Schematically, he knows what he wants to do. … I’ll tell you one thing, he knows the personnel he has because he uses the best ones on his team and a lot of times that doesn’t happen.”
Pittman added that he’s a big fan of running back Jacardia Wright, a transfer from Kansas State who has rushed for 158 yards so far this season. However, the stars of the offense are in the passing game.
Shelley, the aforementioned quarterback who previously played at Utah and Utah State, is the reigning MVFC Offensive Player of the Year and has completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 563 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. A true dual-threat, he’s averaging 8.2 yards on carries excluding sacks and has the Bears’ lone rushing touchdown.
“He can run and has a very good arm,” Pittman said. “We have to keep him locked up in that pocket. We’ve got to get to him. If we don’t, he’s very accurate with the ball and has some really good wideouts.”
His top target is Ty Scott, who began his career at Central Michigan and earned first-team All-MVFC honors last season after hauling in 66 passes for 1,110 yards and eight touchdowns. So far this year, he’s already made 16 receptions for 256 yards and three touchdowns.
A Homecoming in Fayetteville
Needless to say, Saturday is no average SEC-FCS matchup.
Excitement surrounding Arkansas football is already at its highest since the pre-motorcycle wreck era. Coming off a nine-win season capped by a win in the Outback Bowl, the Razorbacks have yet to trail in 2022 despite facing a top-25 foe and SEC team in their first two games.
Thanks to a wild week of upsets, Arkansas checked in at No. 10 in the latest AP Poll – a dramatic turnaround from where it was when Pittman arrived.
“Sam’s done a great job,” Petrino said. “When you watch them play, first and foremost you see they have deep beliefs in what they’re doing — what they’re doing offensively, what they’re doing defensively. The coaches really believe in it and the players go out and execute it. What he’s done with that program, he’s done a great job.”
Of course, Missouri State is also rolling and its players believe in their head coach, too. It nearly resulted in the Bears taking down Oklahoma State last year. The same team that came within half a yard of reaching the College Football Playoff had to stop two drives in the final three minutes to stave off an upset last September.
Last week, all that experience gave Missouri State the edge in a tight 35-30 win over UT-Martin in a top-15 FCS showdown. Facing a fourth-and-1, Scott gave a hand signal to Shelley and they connected on a fade route in the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“That’s awesome,” Petrino said. “When someone has that type of confidence and that type of belief, that’s what you want. That’s what you’re trying to develop young men to do, is not be afraid to fail. Go make the play to win.”
The Bears will bring that mindset into Reynolds Razorback Stadium for a 6 p.m. CT kickoff. The Arkansas vs Missouri State game will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus and ESPN-Plus.
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