Sam Pittman has a better winning percentage as the Arkansas football coach than Bobby Petrino…against the spread.*
The Razorbacks covered the 19.5-point spread set by BetSaracen, but still came up short where it matters the most on Saturday, falling 24-21 to No. 11 Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
It marks the 10th time Arkansas has lost by three or less since Pittman took over in 2020, which is two more than any other FBS team over that span, and drops it to 5-13 in one-possession games
Four years into his tenure, though, most fans are tired of hearing about how “close” they are, regardless how tough the opponent was – a distinction Pittman tried to make after the game.
“You know, one-possession losses sometime get skewed,” Pittman said. “You’ve got a stat and all that kind of stuff, but when you’re a three-touchdown underdog and you get beat by 3 and that goes in the same category of, you’re a 3-point favorite and you lose by 3, it’s not the same thing.”
That doesn’t change the fact that every Arkansas coach before him, dating back to the start of the Frank Broyles era in 1958, combined to post a .549 winning percentage in games decided by a field goal or less. If Pittman won those games at a similar clip, he’d be 7-6 rather than 3-10 – or about one more win per season.
As much as that previous comment sounded like him taking a so-called “moral victory,” Pittman insisted that wasn’t the case and said he wasn’t happy with the result by any means.
“They’re disappointed that we lost, I think that’s first and foremost,” Pittman said of his team. “I want to make that very clear. We’re not happy to get beat by Alabama. You aren’t, I’m not…nobody is. Our players aren’t.”
The players echoed that sentiment, with quarterback KJ Jefferson telling reporters, “We’re tired of losing,” and running back Rashod Dubinion saying flat out, “I don’t take (moral victories).”
Fourth-and-1 Decisions by Arkansas Football
Referencing the point spread wasn’t the only postgame comment that should have raised an eyebrow of Arkansas football fans waiting for those “moral victories” to turn into real victories.
“We were just trying to keep it close until the fourth quarter,” Sam Pittman said about the Razorbacks’ rally. “We’ve lost some games this year in the fourth quarter and we made a big emphasis (on that).”
That mindset is likely why the fourth-year coach twice opted to punt on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter, when Arkansas was desperately trying to keep the game from slipping away after an early 6-0 lead.
As our very own Eric Bolin pointed out, they were very defensible decisions. The Razorbacks were struggling to move the ball, Alabama’s offense was starting to find its groove and punter Max Fletcher had been booting the heck out of the ball of late.
The second time the situation arose, though, ESPN color commentator Dusty Dvoracek advocated for a fourth-down try and went so far as to say, “I think you have to.” Play-by-play man Dave Pasch echoed those sentiments and said it was a “pretty easy” decision, all while an ESPN Analytics graphic showed “go” as the best option according to the numbers.
With the ball on its own 34 and trailing 21-6 as the time clicked down to three minutes remaining in the half, Arkansas left its offense on the field before Pittman called a timeout. During the stoppage of play, the ESPN crew suggested putting KJ Jefferson under center and running the play popularized by the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Wouldn’t this be the Tush Push, especially when you’ve got a quarterback that’s 247 (pounds)?” Pasch said. “Just get a couple guys behind him, shove him forward.”
After much criticism and multiple email exchanges between offensive coordinator Dan Enos and students, the Razorbacks finally ran that play on third-and-1 the previous week at Ole Miss and were successful. However, it was the first time they dialed up the QB sneak from under center this season and Pittman said during the week that they specifically put the play in, with tempo, for that game.
On fourth-and-1 plays against Kent State, BYU and Texas A&M, he and Enos had Jefferson hand the ball off out of the shotgun, only to be stopped short.
Rather than risk the same result against Alabama, they chose to punt it away, leading Pasch to draw the same conclusion BoAS did following the Texas A&M loss: “(Pittman) obviously does not trust his offensive line.”
Making the decision even more frustrating was that Arkansas never actually lined up. Instead of trying a hard count in an effort to get Alabama to jump offsides, the players stood around until the timeout was called just before the play clock expired.
Another Head-Scratcher by Pittman, Enos
Later in the game, Arkansas made another head-scratching play call that quickly got overshadowed by what followed.
Trailing by 18 late in the third quarter and having gone three-and-out on their previous five full possessions, the Razorbacks dialed up a handoff to Rashod Dubinion on third-and-8.
At the time, they had only 27 rushing yards on 21 carries. Including the previous two games, Arkansas had averaged just 1.2 yards on its last 89 carries. It led to the following exchange on the ESPN broadcast:
Dvoracek: “Third-and-long and you hand it off?”
Pasch: “A conservative call again there.”
Dvoracek: “I get you’re struggling to protect, but man.”
Luckily for the Razorbacks, Jaylen Key grabbed Dubinion’s face mask as he went out of bounds for a 2-yard gain. That gave them a first down, marking the first time they moved the chains in more than 30 minutes of game time.
To its credit, Arkansas capitalized on the mistake and scored back-to-back touchdowns to pull within a field goal, but without the penalty, it never would have gotten the opportunity to do that because of how conservative it was playing.
Calls like that and punting on fourth down seemingly fly in the face of Sam Pittman’s comments earlier in the week, when he said they’d “let it all hang out” and “let it fly” without being intimidated by the logo.
Instead, those decisions bring to mind his admission a few days after Arkansas’ last trip to Tuscaloosa. In 2021, the Razorbacks found themselves in a shootout with the Crimson Tide and scored with about a minute left to pull within 42-35 before a failed onside kick sealed their fate.
That touchdown drive required a fourth-and-11 conversion, which never would have happened had Pittman not called a timeout to get his punt team – essentially waving a white flag – off the field.
“We’d played such a good game and we’re down on the 35, and we’re 14 down,” Pittman said. “I go, ‘If we don’t make it, they’re going to score again, and there’s a chance they can score again and beat us by 21, and that’s not going to be the tell-tale.’”
In between sending the punt team out and calling the timeout, though, Pittman changed his mind and told reporters that “no matter what the outcome is, we’ve got to play to win.”
At times on Saturday, he seemed to play not to lose. Pittman succeeded just enough for Arkansas football bettors to rejoice, while Arkansas fans were left to wallow in a fifth straight loss.
*Sam Pittman is now 26-16-1 against the spread at Arkansas, giving him a .616 winning percentage. That is slightly ahead of Petrino’s mark of .604 (29-19) with the Razorbacks.
Watch Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman’s full postgame press conference following Arkansas vs Alabama here:
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…