ARLINGTON, Texas — For about a quarter, it appeared that Arkansas football was going to cruise to a rare comfortable SEC win. Then, almost as if someone flipped a switch, things went off the rails and devolved into a typical crazy, wacky Southwest Classic.
After dominating on both sides of the ball and jumping out to a 14-0 lead, the No. 10 Razorbacks let a few questionable play calls and a bizarre 97-yard fumble return spiral into a deficit they couldn’t overcome in a 23-21 loss to No. 23 Texas A&M inside AT&T Stadium.
The brunt of the fan base’s criticism was focused on Kendal Briles. Generally a brilliant play caller, the third-year offensive coordinator had Arkansas in the top 20 nationally in total offense through the first three weeks of the season and was in charge of a unit that had more success against the Aggies’ top-10 defense Saturday night than anyone else in 2022.
However, as he has shown a propensity to do — such as the four-and-9 run up the middle a week earlier against Missouri State — Briles also made a handful of head-scratching calls.
Asked about a few of them specifically in his postgame press conference, though, head coach Sam Pittman stood up for his offensive coordinator.
“I didn’t like the ones where we tried to run stretch and we lost a yard, too,” Pittman said. “I didn’t like the passes that we overthrew. I didn’t like those. I didn’t like whenever we ran inside zone and we got a yard. I didn’t like them, either.
“We got an offensive coordinator, a damn good one, and whatever we decide that we’re going to do, we do it as a staff. I wish they would have worked, but they worked in practice and I’m not questioning his calls.”
The Malik Hornsby Decision
After punting on its first possession, Arkansas got into a groove offensively and scored touchdowns on its next two drives to take the aforementioned 14-0 lead.
Following a fourth straight three-and-out forced by their defense, the Razorbacks were — seemingly — on their way to delivering a knock-out blow. In his first game of the season, Dominique Johnson had just ripped off carries of 12, 8 and 7 yards to get Arkansas into Texas A&M territory.
Rather than continuing to pound the ground game, Pittman and Briles dialed up the Malik Hornsby package. Three plays later, Arkansas had to punt it away because a pass to Hornsby fell incomplete, another pass to Hornsby resulted in a loss of 1 yard and a fumble on a double reverse to Hornsby resulted in no gain.
Even though Max Fletcher’s punt was downed at the 7, the stalled drive gave Texas A&M some life. Devon Achane ran 63 yards to move the chains for the first time and, in just five more plays, the Aggies ended the shutout.
A Wild Fumble Return TD
While that sequence of Hornsby plays has been pointed to as a turning point, it’s also worth noting that Arkansas responded to that score with a long drive down to the 3. With a chance to push their lead back to two scores, KJ Jefferson tried leaping over the pile from the 4-yard line.
Chris Russell Jr. knocked the ball out for Texas A&M, Tyreek Chappell scooped it up at the 3 and started taking it back the other way. He was wrapped up by Rocket Sanders at the 18, but managed to hand it off to Demani Richardson, who took it the remaining 82 yards for a wild scoop-and-score touchdown.
“I mean, it was a huge play obviously — it went from 21-7 to 14-13,” Pittman said. “It was first down, too. … It was a huge play in the game and unfortunately is happened to us. But we can’t do that on first down. If it was fourth down, that’s a different story. Unfortunately it just got popped out.”
After the game, Jefferson acknowledged that he should not have jumped from that spot, but rather lower his shoulder and bulldoze his way into the end zone like he has so many times before.
“They just made a great play on the ball,” Jefferson said. “I needed to be more aggressive and go down to the goal line and just finish the play.”
Losing a fumble near the goal line is never ideal, but it was particularly disappointing for the Razorbacks considering they had ball-security issues a week earlier when they were nearly upset by FCS Missouri State.
In that game, Sanders fumbled at the goal line and Jefferson also lost a fumble. Throw in an interception and they were minus-3 in the turnover battle — a fact Pittman harped on multiple times in interviews with the media and spent time on at practice.
“I’ll say this: If kids did everything you coached them, you’d be 15-0 and undefeated,” Pittman said. “They’re human. I mean, certainly that was one of our emphasis. We had six of them from the week before. He wanted to score and that happened.”
If the Hornsby package got the ball rolling, the fumble was the break Texas A&M needed to spark the win — despite it missing the PAT and still trailing 14-13 at halftime.
“I don’t know if it saved (the game), but it made it a lot easier to win,” Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Whether it’s a pass, whether it’s a run, whether it’s a fumble, those are the kind of things you got to have.”
Victory Doinks Off the Upright
Even though the Razorbacks saw their 14-point lead turn into 9-point deficit, they still had a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter.
In the red zone and facing a second-and-5 with a few minutes left, Jefferson didn’t cleanly field Ricky Stromberg’s snap. It was almost disastrous, but Sanders managed to fall on it.
“The snap didn’t really reach me,” Jefferson said. “It hit the top of Ricky’s butt, and then it just kind of bobbled on the way back to where we were. Luckily we got on it.”
Although Arkansas maintained possession, it put it in a third-and-long situation. Following a timeout, Jefferson was forced to scramble and gained only one yard.
Pittman let the play clock run all the way down before using his second timeout with 1:35 left and sending the field goal unit out — a decision he later questioned himself in the postgame press conference.
“There was no question in my mind we were going to make it,” Pittman said. “I was just trying to get all the time off. In hindsight, if we’d had two (timeouts), maybe they’d have to punt and maybe we’d have an opportunity. But that one there… Now that we didn’t make it, I certainly question it.”
Cam Little’s potential go-ahead 42-yard field goal hit the top of the right upright and harmlessly fell to the ground, essentially sealing the victory for Texas A&M. Only 1:30 was remaining and Pittman had just one timeout to burn, so the Aggies ran out the clock.
“I know he’s distraught, but (Little) didn’t mean to miss it. It just didn’t go through,” Pittman said. “We had a lot more opportunities than just that you know. But it came down to that play and we were just unfortunate. But he’ll win a lot of ball games for us before his career is over and he already has.”
Quick Flush for Arkansas Football
Arkansas can’t spend much time dwelling on how Saturday night’s game unfolded because it has yet another stiff challenge looming in the next game.
Fresh off a 55-3 annihilation of Vanderbilt, Alabama will come to Fayetteville with a 4-0 record and No. 2 ranking. It is expected to be another large crowd at Reynolds Razorback Stadium and Pittman was confident the heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M wouldn’t linger into next week.
“I love our kids — they’re tough and resilient,” Pittman said. “They know Alabama’s got a really good team and the place will be sold out and rocking in there next Saturday night, so we need to give… A lot of people spent their hard-earned money to come watch us play and we’ll be ready to play.”
That sentiment was echoed by the players, with wide receiver Jadon Haselwood going so far as to say the loss would fuel them moving forward.
“I’d say this probably put a little chip on our shoulder,” Haselwood said. “All we can do is work. It’s not going to stop. College football is going to keep going. We got to get better weekly. We can’t go down just because we lost. We got to keep rising up.”
What was shaping up to be a top-10 showdown and potential destination for ESPN’s College GameDay show — which hasn’t been to Fayetteville since 2006 — may have lost some luster, but the Razorbacks could still get right back in the mix for the SEC West title with their first win over the Crimson Tide since that 2006 season.
“Our team is hurting right now, but Alabama was going to be a big game whether we won tonight or we whether we didn’t,” Pittman said. “It’s still going to be a big game.”
Watch Sam Pittman’s full postgame press conference here:
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