Arkansas football is having a hard time getting out of its own way.
For the third time this season, the Razorbacks came up short in a one-possession game while committing double-digit penalties, as they were flagged 10 times in their 27-20 loss to Ole Miss on Saturday.
Six of those were pre-snap penalties and a seventh was an inexcusable illegal substitution out of a timeout, plus Arkansas turned it over twice via a pair of KJ Jefferson interceptions.
“Ole Miss beat us and all that, give them the credit, but if we just play smarter football, we can go in there and celebrate instead of feel like this for the fourth week in a row,” head coach Sam Pittman said.
That was actually the third time Pittman mentioned not “playing smart” during his 16-minute postgame press conference at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss.
More Costly Penalties vs Ole Miss
In the first quarter, a defensive holding penalty on Hudson Clark wiped out what would have been a second straight 3-and-out and led to Ole Miss’ first points of the game, a 27-yard field goal.
Another holding penalty cost the Razorbacks 20 yards of field position, as it eliminated a 10-yard punt return by Isaiah Sategna. Instead of starting on the Rebels’ side of the 50, they started at their own 31 — and then a snap infraction on Patrick Kutas put them behind the chains to begin the drive and they ultimately went 3-and-out.
Following a fourth-down stop in Ole Miss territory, Arkansas had an excellent chance to maintain momentum and score a touchdown to tie it up. However, false starts on Ty Washington and Brady Latham led to a short field goal by Cam Little. It was the fifth time in six trips inside the 10 that the Razorbacks failed to get in the end zone, dating back to the LSU loss.
“Our (issue) tonight was just playing smart football,” Pittman said. “That’s what it was. It wasn’t anything else. I mean, that’s what it was. As hard as it was up front on offense, if we just play smart, I just got to believe that one of those field goals would turn into a touchdown (and) you’d have a different ball game.”
Perhaps the most inexcusable penalty came just before halftime. The Razorbacks were about to get the ball back with 34 seconds left, but had 12 men on the field when Ole Miss punted on fourth-and-1, giving the Rebels a first down.
It didn’t lead to points because Ole Miss eventually missed a field goal as time expired, but it was a frustrating penalty because Arkansas was coming out of a timeout. Two Razorbacks ran off after initially lining up for the play and there was still an extra defender on the field. Because of an offseason rule change that banned back-to-back timeouts, Pittman couldn’t stop the play to prevent the penalty.
“We were going to go after it,” Pittman said. “I believe it was right before the half, so I used a timeout. Either that or I was going to make Lane go for it on that side. I was hoping that he would so we might have an opportunity to score right before the half. But we were going to go block it. We had too many guys out there.”
Pittman said again, at another point in the press conference, that even with all of its other struggles, Arkansas still “had a chance to win the game if we play smart.”
He also had no explanation for how his team could refrain from committing any penalties against Texas A&M — just the second time Arkansas had done that since joining the SEC in 1992 — to having 10 against Ole Miss.
Even with the penalty-free game, the Razorbacks are tied for 117th and tied for 111th nationally — out of 133 teams — in penalties and penalty yards per game this season. They’ve ranked 80th or worse in penalties each year under Pittman.
“Man, isn’t that crazy,” Pittman said. “We had zero last week and then we come back and basically at practice we did the same thing we did the week before and I don’t think it would be any different. It was loud last week too. They stemmed on us last week too. But I mean nobody can win doing that. I’m the head coach and that’s my responsibility to get it fixed. We’re trying, but we just haven’t got it fixed.”
Not the Only Issue for Arkansas Football
Sam Pittman hinted at it when discussing his team’s inability to “play smart” on Saturday, but the Razorbacks are also struggling mightily to move the ball on the ground.
They ran for a season-low 36 yards on 29 carries against the Rebels a week after rushing for just 42 yards on 39 carries against Texas A&M.
“I felt like we were going to run the ball a little bit better,” Pittman said. “We don’t have to run the ball for 200 yards, but we gotta run for 100-something to get people off the throwing game.”
It was Arkansas’ lowest rushing total since 2018, when it managed only 16 against LSU, and it’s the first time it has been held under 100 rushing yards since the first two games of the Pittman era, when they had 77 against Georgia and 63 against Mississippi State.
The last time the Razorbacks were held under 50 rushing yards in consecutive games was more than two decades ago, when they opened the 2001 season with 25 yards against UNLV and 19 yards against Tennessee.
Arkansas has also yet to produce a 100-yard rusher this year. It’s the deepest into a season the Razorbacks have gone without such a performance since 2012, when they didn’t get one until Dennis Johnson ran for 161 yards against Ole Miss in the eighth game of the year.
Through six games this season, Arkansas is averaging just 111.5 yards on the ground, which ranks 114th nationally. It’s even worse on a per-carry basis, ranking 123rd with 2.97 yards per carry.
That’s a dramatic fall from the previous two years when the Razorbacks had the seventh-best rushing attack in the country, churning out 227.8 and 236.5 yards per game.
“We’ve got to find a way to run the football,” Pittman said. “Until we do that, we’re putting way too much pressure on our quarterback, our offensive line to protect during those times and our wideouts to get open. It’s hard to win a game when you can’t run the football.”
It doesn’t help that the offensive line – both in its original configuration and its reshuffled form Saturday – is struggling to hold up in pass protection, either. With another five allowed Saturday, the Razorbacks have given up 23 sacks this season. At 3.8 per game, that ranks 123rd nationally.
Pittman indicated that has played a role in KJ Jefferson’s performance this season, which hasn’t been quite up to par from the last two seasons.
“I think the wear and tear of him getting hit back in the pocket, I think that has worn on him a little bit mentally,” Pittman said. “I don’t think he’s as calm back there in the pocket as what he was a year ago. I don’t know that anybody would be as calm back there if you’re getting hit. I think he did the best he could do under the circumstances.”
The Razorbacks also allowed nine tackles for loss against Ole Miss and are now averaging 7.8 per game, which is tied for 125th nationally.
Arkansas Football Penalties Under Pittman
|Year||Penalties per Game||FBS / SEC Rank||Penalty Yards per Game||FBS / SEC Rank|
|2020||6.4||t-81st / 13th||45.7||35th / 4th|
|2021||7.9||121st / 12th||63.1||t-103rd / 10th|
|2022||6.4||t-81st / 7th||55.5||76th / 7th|
|2023||7.7||t-117th / 14th||64.0||t-111th / 13th|
Watch Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman’s full press conference recapping Arkansas vs Ole Miss:
More coverage of Arkansas football and Arkansas vs Ole Miss from BoAS…