COLUMBIA, Mo. — As much as Sam Pittman has revitalized the program after the worst stretch in its history, heartbreak has also become an even more familiar feeling for Arkansas football since he took over.
With a 2-point loss Friday afternoon — a 29-27 defeat at the hands of Missouri — the Razorbacks now lead the country in losses by a field goal or less since 2020, Pittman’s first season at the helm. It was their eighth, breaking a tie with Toledo.
“Those close ones, they hurt,” Pittman said. “They actually hurt the worst because you’re sitting there and you’re thinking, ‘Well maybe we could have done this, could have done this on one play to change the outcome of the game.’”
|Losses by a FG or less since 2020
|t-3. Arkansas State
|t-3. Iowa State
|t-3. Texas State
|t-3. Virginia Tech
Pittman is now 18-17 overall as head coach of the Arkansas football program, which means nearly half of his losses have been by 3 points or less.
The Razorbacks did manage to win a couple of those games last year, beating Mississippi State and LSU by three in back-to-back weeks, but that’s it. They went 0-3 in games decided by 3 points or less in Pittman’s first season and are now 0-4 in such games in 2022. The eighth close loss was against Ole Miss last season, when they went 2-1.
“It’s frustrating when you lose these close games,” linebacker Drew Sanders said. “We haven’t done a great job in them finishing as we should. We’ve just got to finish better.”
Most of those losses have literally been decided in the final two minutes, even if Friday’s desperation lateral play didn’t necessarily qualify as a potential game-winning play.
Two years ago, a botched call by officials led to a last-second field goal in a 2-point loss at Auburn, Arkansas had a game-tying field goal blocked with 1:24 remaining in a 3-point loss to LSU and gave up a last-second field goal in a 2-point loss at Missouri.
Last season, the Razorbacks scored a touchdown as time expired and opted to go for 2 and the win against Ole Miss, but failed to convert.
The first three of those losses this year were also heartbreaking. Cam Little’s potential game-winning field goal doinked off the top of the upright with 1:30 left in Arkansas’ 2-point loss against Texas A&M, KJ Jefferson’s game-tying two-point conversion with 1:11 remaining was stopped just short of the goal line in a 2-point loss to Liberty and a two-minute drill was abruptly ended by a fumble with 1:19 left in a 3-point loss to LSU.
Opening Drive Failures
The Razorbacks entered the week ranked in the top 20 nationally in total offense, but they’ve taken a little bit to get going all season.
In fact, by starting Friday afternoon’s game with a three-and-out, Arkansas ended the regular season with only one opening drive resulting in points. That is a significant step back from last season, when it had seven scoring drives to open a game (three touchdowns and four field goals).
Making that stat even worse is that half of the Razorbacks’ 12 games have started with a three-and-out, including the last five games.
That is well short of their goal of at least two first downs on the opening drive, which right tackle Dalton Wagner acknowledged is kind of a feeling out period and generally tougher than the ensuing possessions.
“It’s a whole different game when you’re watching on TV versus when you’re out there,” Wagner said. “When you go out there, that first drive is the drive to figure out ‘Okay, how fast is this guy really? How strong are these guys really? How fast are the backers flowing? How are the safeties rolling down on it. What pressure are we looking at?’
“At the end of the day though, regardless, the goal is to score a touchdown on it, and we’ve got to be better on opening drives.”
The only time Arkansas managed to score on its opening drive happened in the second week. Against South Carolina, it covered 63 yards on 13 plays, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Rocket Sanders.
The Razorbacks’ other opening drives ended with a punt 10 times and a fumble once (at BYU).
When asked about why his offense has struggled with opening drives, Sam Pittman simply said, “I don’t know. I wish I did now.”
“We tried all kinds of different things,” Pittman elaborated. “It’s hard to score on your first drive, I get that. But one for the whole year is not very good. We’ve got to get it fixed somehow.”
Things have gone a little bit better after halftime, but Friday was not one of those instances, as KJ Jefferson was nearly sacked on third-and-long, but — instead of a 3-and-out — he threw his fourth interception of the season.
Arkansas put together touchdown drives on its first possession of the second half against Cincinnati, BYU, Auburn and Ole Miss. In the other eight games, it’s had only two three-and-outs — but also two interceptions. Jefferson opened the second half against Missouri State with a pick, as well.
Jadon Haselwood’s Steady Consistency
He may not have lived up to his hype as the No. 4 overall player in the 2019 recruiting class, but Jadon Haselwood has put together a really solid and consistent season in what appears to be his final year of college football.
With three receptions in the first half against Missouri, the Oklahoma transfer has now caught at least three passes in all 12 games this season. He ended up catching four more in the second half, finishing with seven receptions for 74 yards.
“I wish we could’ve held up a little bit more tonight so we could get some more balls to him,” Pittman said. “Haselwood’s a tough man, both mentally and physically. He’s much older than what his age (is), to be perfectly honest with you — the way he acts, the way he carries himself.”
Entering the game just outside of the UA’s single-season top-10 list, Haselwood now ranks eighth with 59. His first catch broke a tie with Boo Williams (52 in 2000) for 11th, his third moved him past D.J. Williams and Joe Adams (54 in 2010 and 2011, respectively), and his fifth moved him past Mike Reppond (56 in 1971).
With one reception in the bowl game, he would become just the seventh different Arkansas player to catch at least 60 passes in a season. It’s happened seven times previously, but Drew Morgan did it twice.
Pittman told reporters that he’s going to try to convince him to return for another season with the Razorbacks, but Haselwood has already accepted an invitation to the East-West Shrine Bowl and preseason comments by Pittman indicated they expected him to be a one-year player despite him having two more years of eligibility.
Brady Cook or Michael Vick?
He has run the ball really well for Missouri over the past few weeks, but Brady Cook looked like a bonafide dual-threat quarterback against the Razorbacks.
The redshirt sophomore rushed for 138 rushing yards on 18 carries — an average of 7.7 yards per attempt — for the Tigers on Friday.
A big chunk of that came in the first half, when he racked up 125 yards on 10 carries. That blew past his previous career high of 106 rushing yards against Tennessee two weeks earlier.
“We had him hemmed, then he’d bounce outside and we lost contain,” Pittman said. “We couldn’t ever get him turned back inside. Then they had some designed inside runs like the one he scored the touchdown on.”
It was the first time an opposing quarterback eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground against Arkansas since Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden Jr. ran for 196 yards in a 2019 matchup. However, he was a wide receiver playing quarterback for the Wildcats.
The last true quarterback to hit that milestone was Jordan Ta’amu of Ole Miss back in 2018, when he rushed for 141 yards.
That used to be a relatively common occurrence for the Razorbacks, as they saw seven quarterbacks do over a 48-game span between 2015-19. They’ve now had it happen just once in the past 41 games.
Rocket Misses Title, but Hits Milestone
After Ole Miss running back Quinshon Judkins was held relatively in check in the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving, Rocket Sanders needed 98 yards to surpass him for the SEC’s regular-season rushing title.
He didn’t come particularly close to hitting that mark despite ended the first quarter with 31 yards on seven carries. Sanders had just three carries for 16 yards the rest of the game.
While that 47-yard total was well short of catching Judkins, meaning Sanders ends the regular season as the SEC’s second-leading rusher with 1,426 yards.
However, it was just enough to not only move him into fourth on the UA’s single-season list behind Darren McFadden (twice) and Alex Collins, but also eclipse 2,000 career rushing yards. He is just the 19th player in school history to reach that milestone.
Arkansas Football Injury Report
Here’s the latest on several Arkansas football players dealing with injuries…
- LB Bumper Pool (hip): Did not travel to the game after having hip surgery Wednesday… Pittman told reporters after the game that the surgery “went well”… Will not play in the bowl game, so his Arkansas career is over
- LT Luke Jones (undisclosed): Limped off the field early in the second quarter and was replaced by Ty’Kieast Crawford… However he was back in for the next series and played the rest of the way
- DE Jordan Domineck (ankle): Traveled and played in the game… Apparently not limited by the ankle injury suffered during the Ole Miss game
- LS Eli Stein (finger): Did not travel to the game after suffering a finger injury during the Ole Miss game… John Oehrlein handled the long snapper duties Friday afternoon
- DT Taurean Carter (knee): Been out since getting hurt in the Spring Showcase… Pittman said the earliest he might return is the Missouri game, but he didn’t come up during Monday’s press conference
- RB Dominique Johnson (ACL): Out for the year
- QB Kade Renfro (ACL): Out for the year
- CB LaDarrius Bishop (knee): Out for the year
- S Jalen Catalon (shoulder): Out for the year
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…