ARLINGTON, Texas — Four years into his tenure leading the Arkansas football program, Sam Pittman does not trust his offensive line.
That’s a damning statement for a man whose entire reputation is based on trench play, but after the Razorbacks gave up 15 tackles for loss — including seven sacks — in an ugly 34-22 loss to Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium, it’s hard to blame him.
The veteran offensive line coach couldn’t remember the last time he’d been part of a team that gave up those kinds of numbers. For Arkansas, the 15 TFLs were the most it’s allowed since 2001.
Perhaps most alarmingly, though, the Razorbacks went for it on fourth-and-1 and failed to convert with quarterback KJ Jefferson handing the ball off from the shotgun rather than lining up under center — the third time they’ve done that in four games.
“Once he gets under center, the front of the defense is certainly going to change,” Pittman said. “Honestly, if we felt better about him sneaking, we would do that. But no… They’re going to have five guys within the A and B gap.”
Taken at face value, that’s a legitimate reason. However, every defense is going to clog the gaps like that and offenses across the country attempt it — and convert.
Most notably, the Philadelphia Eagles do it at the NFL level. Their quarterback? The 6-foot-1, 223-pound Jalen Hurts. The same Jalen Hurts that Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos said Jefferson “reminds me of” back in February.
But Jefferson is even bigger. He’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, plus he lifts weights. He’s also perfectly comfortable with going under center.
“Of course I’m comfortable with taking the snap under center,” Jefferson said. “We work it. We practice it all week. So I’m comfortable under center.”
The only logical conclusion is that Pittman doesn’t feel like his line, specifically the three veterans on the interior — left guard Brady Latham, center Beaux Limmer and right guard Joshua Braun — can get the push necessary for Jefferson to fall forward for the yard or less required to move the sticks.
Instead, running backs Dominique Johnson (against Kent State), Rashod Dubinion (against BYU) and Rocket Sanders (against Texas A&M) have been stopped shy of the line to gain.
The Fourth-Down Decision
This week’s situation was set up by an offsides penalty on Texas A&M. The Razorbacks punted the ball away on fourth-and-6 and Max Fletcher’s punt was downed at the 19.
However, the flag made it fourth-and-1. Arkansas kept the punt unit on the field, but called a timeout and Sam Pittman changed his mind.
At that point of the game, the Aggies had covered 176 yards on 25 plays over three possessions. They scored a touchdown, made a field goal and missed one, helping them to a 10-6 lead.
With 2:54 remaining, Rocket Sanders took a handoff and Arkansas “missed the cutoff (block) on the back side,” leading to him being dropped for a 1-yard loss.
“Well, it was six inches,” Pittman said about his decision to go for it. “Sometimes you make decisions on how everything’s kind of feeling during the game and we hadn’t stopped them. They had missed a field goal, but we hadn’t stopped them — no matter where the starting point was.
“We had three timeouts left. I thought if we make the first down right there, that we could go down and either cut the lead to one or take the lead.”
Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher went out of his way during his postgame press conference to say he agreed with the decision.
“I totally understand why they went for it,” Fisher said. “They’re right there at midfield, they get it, get momentum and can get down there and score — because the score at that time was 10-6.”
Instead of grabbing momentum for themselves, the Razorbacks gave it to the Aggies.
They went 39 yards in eight plays, capped by a two-yard touchdown pass from Max Johnson to Earnest Crownover with just 13 seconds left in the half.
“I know there’s a risk, too, if you don’t make it because you’re sitting there at the 40,” Pittman said. “I just felt very confident about our short yardage. We had a really nice game plan. I thought we’d make it. We just didn’t.”
The fact that Texas A&M was getting the ball back to start the second half made it even worse, although the Razorbacks did get a pick-six from Lorando Johnson on the first play of the third quarter.
Offense Falters for Arkansas
That defensive score — its third of the season — gave Arkansas a glimmer of hope in the second half, pulling the Razorbacks within 17-13.
They ended up limiting the Aggies to a field goal, recovering a fumble in Texas A&M territory and forcing a three-and-out on their next three defensive possessions, giving Arkansas a chance to tie or take the lead multiple times, but the offense never capitalized. It went three-and-out, kicked a field goal without a first down and threw a pick-six, respectively, on the subsequent drives.
After starting the game 4 of 5 on third downs, the Razorbacks failed to convert their next nine. It wasn’t until a 48-yard touchdown pass from KJ Jefferson to Andrew Armstrong late in the fourth quarter — too late to really make an impact — that they found success again, finishing the game 5 for 15.
“When you look at it, we weren’t any good when we went and got field goals,” Pittman said. “We were converting third-and-12 and third-and-8. We had two ugly plays and a first down, two ugly plays and a first down, so we never were really in any kind of rhythm.”
Until that long play, Arkansas was on track for its worst offensive performance since getting shut out by Georgia’s historic defense in 2021. Up to that point, it was without an offensive touchdown and had only 126 yards – well shy of the 162 allowed by the Bulldogs the year they won their first of back-to-back national titles.
“Sometimes you go play somebody and they’re doing something that you didn’t practice,” Pittman said. “They’re putting this spy or…line movement that you didn’t practice. What’s bothersome about it is we practiced it and what they gave us was (what) we practiced.”
The Razorbacks actually moved the ball some early in the game, but their first two possessions ended with field goals.
Cam Little booted a career-long 52-yarder to open the scoring before making a 25-yarder when the same issue that plagued Arkansas a week earlier reared its ugly head again.
After failing to get in the end zone on three separate trips inside the 10-yard line against LSU, the Razorbacks made it four straight when Rocket Sanders took a delayed handoff and was tackled for a two-yard loss on third-and-4 from the 5.
“We have to come away with touchdowns in those situations,” Jefferson said. “Those touchdowns lead to more touchdowns and building our confidence when we do get in the low red zone. Moving forward, that will be a big point of emphasis that we have to focus on when we get into those situations and those scenarios.”
Arkansas OL Struggles
The stops on fourth-and-1 and in the low red zone were just two of 15 tackles for loss by Texas A&M on Saturday. That’s the most Arkansas football has allowed since Tennessee also notched that many in a 13-3 win over the Razorbacks on Sept. 8, 2001.
Seven of those were sacks of KJ Jefferson, which is tied for the second-most Arkansas has allowed during the Pittman era.
It was the first game redshirt sophomore Devon Manuel started at left tackle, but redshirt freshman Andrew Chamblee – who started the first four games – rotated in some during the second half. It didn’t really matter who was in the game, though, as Pittman said the Aggies “dominated us on the edge.”
“I think part of it is we’re playing pretty good defensive ends, but you’re going to play them every week,” Pittman said. “Part of it is we’re young. We got a lot of learning curve to do. We do have, in my opinion, the best tackles we have out there.”
Asked for his perspective on the issues up front, Jefferson said it wasn’t all on the offensive line and even shouldered some of the blame himself.
“It started with communication, everybody being on the same page — O-line, tight ends, running back, including myself to be able to transfer protection or know where the pressure is coming from,” Jefferson said. “That’s what it boils down to, just communication up front.”
Regardless of the cause, Saturday’s performance up front was further evidence of an offensive line that has dramatically regressed from the previous few seasons.
What makes that so concerning is the fact that this is the first year Arkansas’ offensive line is primarily made up of linemen brought in by Pittman.
After players he inherited accounted for 178 of 180 offensive line starts his first three seasons, only center Beaux Limmer and left guard Brady Latham remain from those dominant units. Despite that inexperience and early struggles, Pittman is still confident they can put it together over the final seven games of the season.
“I still think we’ve got a good enough offensive line to protect him, I do,” Pittman said. “We’re just not doing it right now. It’s not five of them, it’s somebody. And as you well know, if one of them has trouble, you’re in trouble. We’re just not as consistent as what we have been in the past.”
Key 2023 Arkansas Football Stats
Here’s how Arkansas football stacks up in several key offensive stats through five weeks of the 2023 season.
(out of 14)
(out of 133)
(28.0 ppg w/o D/ST TDs)
(t-11th w/o D/ST TDs)
(t-72nd w/o D/ST TDs)
|Total Offense||342.2 ypg||14th||t-103rd|
|Passing Offense||215.6 ypg||12th||93rd|
|Pass Yards/Attempt||8.49 ypa||8th||37th|
|Rushing Offense||126.6 ypg||12th||t-99th|
|Sacks Allowed/Game||3.60 sacks/game||12th||t-121st|
|TFLs Allowed/Game||7.40 TFL/game||t-12th||t-119th|
Watch Sam Pittman’s full interview following the Arkansas vs Texas A&M game:
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