Missouri Loss Cements Baffling Late-Season Slide in Area Where Arkansas Once Took Pride

Ricky Stromberg, Brady Latham, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger

COLUMBIA, Mo. — For a team that prides itself on being physical in the trenches, Arkansas has had some major issues punching the ball into the end zone near the goal line this season.

That problem reared its ugly head again Friday afternoon when the Razorbacks failed to score a touchdown on three straight plays from the 2-yard line in the fourth quarter of their 29-27 loss to Missouri at Faurot Field.

Throw in a season-low 113 rushing yards plus a season-high seven sacks allowed, and it was an abysmal showing by Arkansas’ offense in the Battle Line Rivalry.

“They whipped our butt, that’s what happened,” head coach Sam Pittman said. “They whipped us. They physically dominated us. They did it in the run game, and they did it in the protection game. I don’t know how else to say it. We got dominated physically is what happened.”

Failures inside the 5-yard line, specifically, have been common in Arkansas’ losses this season.

Against Texas A&M, KJ Jefferson’s ill-advised leap from the 3-yard line resulted in a fumble and the Aggies scooped-and-scored, sparking a comeback. More recently, Jefferson was stopped just short of the goal line on a potential game-tying two-point conversion against Liberty and the Razorbacks turned it over on downs at the 3-yard line instead of kicking a field goal against LSU.

That doesn’t even include the Mississippi State game, when Arkansas failed to convert a pair of fourth-down plays inside the 10 — including one at the 1-yard line — or a fumble at the goal line that almost proved costly early against Missouri State.

The fumbles could be written off as mistakes by the ball carrier and even the Mississippi State game has the excuse of being one of two games Jefferson missed, but the late-season struggles against Liberty, LSU and Missouri were perplexing considering Pro Football Focus had rated Arkansas’ offensive line as the best in the Power Five through October and the unit had been the backbone of the Razorbacks’ balanced attack.

“It’s kind of common knowledge when you get down there, they’re going blitz the absolute heck out of us,” offensive lineman Dalton Wagner said. “They’re going to try to bring everything they can because what’s the worst that’ll happen? … So they’re going try to bring it, and if nothing else, they’ll try to settle us for a field goal. So pressure’s coming from every which way. They’re loading the box on us.”

Stalling at the 2

Thanks to a solid 11-yard punt return by Bryce Stephens late in the third quarter, Arkansas had its best field position of the game. It was really in a good position thanks to a late hit penalty on Missouri that gave it an additional 15 yards on the final play of the third quarter.

Back-to-back runs by Rocket Sanders and KJ Jefferson covered another 30 yards and got the Razorbacks down to the 5. Then they took a shot into the end zone with a slant to Ketron Jackson Jr. and Missouri was called for pass interference to set them up with a first-and-goal at the 2.

That’s when things went wrong. Jefferson didn’t get anything on a keeper up the middle on first down and then Trey Knox motioned behind Ricky Stromberg, took a snap under center and was stopped for no gain on a keeper.

“It wasn’t there,” Pittman said. “There was a pair of Gs in there or a pair of shades, however you want to look at it. That one there we should have went to something else. It just wasn’t there. It was a surprise thing we felt like we could sneak it in, but it just wasn’t there.”

On third down, Jefferson’s pass into the end zone fell incomplete. Rather than try a fourth play like he did a couple weeks earlier against LSU, Pittman opted to take the points and Cam Little kicked a 20-yard field goal to pull Arkansas within 29-27.

However, considering they were knocking on the door of taking the lead, needing to overpower Missouri’s defense for just 2 more yards, it was a disappointing result.

“I don’t know if we scored there if we would have won the game or not, but I do know that we would have been ahead,” Pittman said. “You think your next decision is if you’re going for two or not, which we were, but yes, very disappointed. They played good defense down there. Certainly, another physicality-type deal and we got whipped.”

Missouri Overwhelms Arkansas Run Game

For the third time in four games, Arkansas struggled to get things going in the run game, managing just 113 yards on 38 carries. It was the Razorbacks’ worst total since rushing for 110 last season against Alabama.

Rocket Sanders led the way, but had just 47 yards on a season-low 10 carries. He came into the game needing 98 yards to surpass Ole Miss’ Quinshon Judkins for the SEC’s regular-season rushing title.

“I think that we were getting smashed in the run game and we were trying to find our way, and sometimes those are run-pass options,” Sam Pittman said. “It might be called a run or pass, but we were physically getting handled in the run game. We felt like we needed to throw it a little bit.”

In losses to Liberty, LSU and Missouri down the stretch, Arkansas averaged just 130 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. That’s a dramatic difference from the other nine games this season, in which the Razorbacks averaged 254.6 yards per game and 5.4 yards per carry.

Tigers Amp Up Pressure on Jefferson 

Perhaps the biggest difference in the game, and something that helped Missouri keep that rushing total so low, was the fact that KJ Jefferson was sacked seven times.

It was the most sacks Arkansas has allowed since giving up eight to Alabama in the 2020 finale. It was also the most the Tigers have had since racking up nine in last year’s opener against Central Michigan. The last time they had seven in an SEC game was way back in 2013, when they did it twice — against Kentucky and Vanderbilt — during their 11-1 SEC East championship season.

Sam Pittman said they’d seen on film that Missouri brings pressure from time to time, but what it did on Friday didn’t allow Jefferson — a dangerous runner when he gets out of the pocket — to escape.

“Off the edge and up the middle, they were pushing the pocket,” Pittman said. “There wasn’t a place for KJ to go. We were getting beat around the edge, and we were so deep that he couldn’t step up.”

Jefferson did get 74 yards on 12 true carries, but the seven sacks brought his total down to 38 yards.

After allowing only 11 sacks in the first seven games of the season, the Razorbacks gave up 20 in the five games after the bye week. That’s an increase from 1.6 per game to 4 per game. The issue was particularly bad in losses to Liberty, LSU and Missouri, when Arkansas gave up four, five and seven sacks, respectively.

Sam Pittman Decisions

As mentioned above, Sam Pittman had a decision to make when the Razorbacks failed to punch it in the end zone from the 2-yard line. Unlike in the LSU game, he took the context of the game and decided to kick the field goal.

“There were about eight minutes left in the game,” Pittman said. “We had three timeouts left. Obviously, there was another opportunity there. I chose to take the points and cut it to two because we hadn’t made a yard in the three previous plays.”

The decision ultimately proved to be the right decision because Arkansas got two more possessions with a chance to take the lead. Unfortunately, despite needing only a field goal to do so, the Razorbacks couldn’t get it done.

They gained just eight total yards and went three-and-out on both possessions. The second of those came after a Drew Sanders sack forced Missouri into a long field goal that it missed.

Momentum seemed to be on Arkansas’ side, but after a 4-yard completion to Jadon Haselwood, Jefferson overthrew a deep ball to Matt Landers and was sacked on third down.

With his defense playing better of late and still in possession of all three timeouts, Pittman decided to punt from his own 40 rather than go for it on fourth-and-7. That gave the ball back to Missouri with just under 3 minutes remaining.

“I guess what you’re saying is, do you think we can call three timeouts, get the ball back and have a better opportunity to win the game rather than going for it on fourth-and-7, and then continuing the drive at that point,” Pittman said. “I felt like the best thing for us to do is to try and pin them down there, have them run the ball three times, get the ball back and see if we can’t kick a field goal.”

That decision ultimately backfired on Pittman. Even though Reid Bauer’s punt pinned the Tigers down at the 14, the defense failed to get the three-and-out it really needed.

Facing a third-and-4 with 2:01 remaining, Missouri went to the air and connected on a 22-yard pass. It was able to run the clock down quite a bit, leaving only 14 seconds left by the time the Razorbacks got the ball back.

Check out what Sam Pittman, KJ Jefferson and Dalton Wagner had to say after Arkansas’ loss to Missouri:

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