FAYETTEVILLE — Now in his fourth season in charge of the Arkansas football program, Sam Pittman is still struggling with critical in-game decisions.
He admitted as such after the Razorbacks’ ugly 7-3 loss to Mississippi State at Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday.
Facing a fourth-and-2 late in the third quarter, Pittman hesitated before sending his field goal unit out for Cam Little to attempt a 51-yarder, which is well within his range. Despite having all of his timeouts, he let the play clock expire before the snap and opted to punt instead of trying a 56-yarder after the delay of game penalty.
“I didn’t know what to do to be perfectly honest with you, so I was probably eight seconds in on the 40-second clock,” Pittman said. “I decided to kick a field goal and we didn’t get it off in time. That’s the truth. I did not want to call a timeout at that point because I wasn’t even sure I wanted to kick a field goal to be perfectly honest with you.
“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t make the decision fast enough. Once I got it in there, I thought we had plenty of time to kick it, but at that point I wasn’t going to burn a timeout because my feeling was I wasn’t for sure I was making the right decision anyway.”
There’s no guarantee Little would have made the kick, but he had booted four field goals of at least 50 yards over the previous four weeks — including a 56-yarder at Ole Miss, which is the longest in school history without the aid of a kicking tee.
Even with that leg, Pittman said he didn’t consider trying a field goal from that same distance because he didn’t want to give Mississippi State that field position. His hesitation to even send him out for the 51-yarder cost the Razorbacks a chance at three points.
That would have pulled Arkansas within a point. To be fair, though, getting that final point still might not have happened because of the sheer ineptitude of the Razorbacks’ offense.
“Guys, we’re struggling so much on offense that you know and I know, we’re grabbing over here, grabbing over here — trying to find something that will work,” Pittman said. “Don’t think we panicked, because we were (only down) 7-3 at half.
“It was just frustrating that we couldn’t get two, maybe three first downs in a row. Something would happen, whether it be a negative run, a fly sweep, incomplete pass, sack — whatever. You had a very aggressive defense, (so) we thought some type of screens, quarterback draws, crossing routes, things of that nature might be able to help us, but we just couldn’t protect it long enough, couldn’t hit him or couldn’t get open.”
Firing Dan Enos Leads to Kenny Guiton Promotion
Fast forward not even 24 hours, though, and Pittman showed little hesitation when it came to making a decision to fire offensive coordinator Dan Enos.
On Sunday afternoon, the UA announced that Pittman had replaced Enos with interim offensive coordinator Kenny Guiton, a former Ohio State quarterback who was on the Buckeyes team that knocked off Arkansas in the 2011 Sugar Bowl.
Guiton’s promotion from wide receiver coach indicates that Arkansas will return to something closer to the fast-paced RPO system that Enos’ predecessor, Kendal Briles, ran.
Briles originally played a big role in bringing Guiton to Fayetteville in 2021. They had worked together in Houston in 2018 with an offense that ranked fifth nationally in scoring (43.9 ppg) and seventh in the country in total offense (512.5 ypg).
In 2021, Guiton said he felt that Briles had considerably streamlined his system at Arkansas compared to what he did in Houston. “I think it’s cleaner,” Guiton said. “It’s easier verbiage, you know. It’s easier for the guys to kind of get down. Back when we were at Houston, it was a lot of memorization and guys just literally had to remember a certain signal, see it and go. But now, it’s more clean. I think guys can relate to things, and I think it’s easier on the guys to play even faster, which is kind of weird to say about that offense.”
Can’t Protect the Quarterback
Considering what went down on Saturday, it was high time for a change. For the sixth straight game, Arkansas couldn’t keep quarterback KJ Jefferson off the ground.
Mississippi State racked up four sacks and hit him many more times than that, forcing him to scramble and try to make something with his legs.
Asked if the Bulldogs did anything different than what they were expecting up front, Pittman said Mississippi State brought a little more outside pressure than they had in the past, but for the most part, it was the twist game they prepared to see throughout the week.
It was the same story as the previous five games, in which Arkansas had allowed 24 sacks.
“Movement has given us problems all year and you saw it again today,” Pittman said. “I felt we’d have success against this team because we knew where the movement was coming from. I don’t think we got surprised with the movement. I think we got physically manhandled on some of the movement.”
Arkansas entered the game ranked 125th out of 133 FBS teams in sacks allowed per game at 3.86. After giving up four on Saturday, it will likely fall further down that list.
“Especially as an offensive lineman, you want to pride yourself in protecting KJ,” left guard and team captain Brady Latham said. “I know it’s frustrating for KJ. He’s an extremely good player, and we need to give him time to make plays, so that’s something that we need to fix.”
KJ’s Bad Day Throwing the Ball
When the offensive line did hold up and give KJ Jefferson time, he struggled to connect with receivers on throws he typically completes.
He finished the game 19 of 31 (61.3%) passing for 97 yards and an interception. His completion percentage looked better than what it seemed, though, as some of his incompletions were nowhere near their intended receivers.
It was such a poor showing that Pittman was asked about Jefferson’s health in the postgame, but he told reporters that the fifth-year senior isn’t dealing with any injuries. Instead, the struggles could just be a cumulative effect of all the aforementioned hits he’s taken.
“Maybe he just had a bad day because he had a good week of practice,” Pittman said. “Again, I don’t believe there’s any type of injury there. I would have known about that. Maybe weeks of getting hit in the pocket have rattled him. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s an injury.”
Despite the rough performance, Pittman said the thought of inserting backup Jacolby Criswell was never discussed during the game.
Arkansas’ Nonexistent Run Game
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Arkansas’ offensive issues this season has been its lack of a run game.
All-SEC running back Rocket Sanders has missed most of the season because of a knee injury and was out again Saturday, but the Razorbacks were thought to have a deep stable of backs that would be capable of picking up the slack.
Whether it’s their fault or it falls more on the offensive line, that simply has not happened.
Arkansas finished with only 103 yards on 37 carries against Mississippi State – a miniscule 2.8 yards per carry. It’s the fourth straight game it failed to average at least 3 yards per carry.
“When you get a four-yard run, I’m not positive that’s a celebration, but it has become that way,” Pittman said. “So you’re asking me how that’s become that way, I really… I don’t not want to answer it, but I don’t know that I have the perfect answer for it either.”
Through eight games this season, the Razorbacks are averaging just 109 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry — marks that’d be their worst since 1997.
“We’ve got to get push and we’ve got to focus on dominating the guys in front of us,” Latham said. “I think that’s an effort on all five guys and that starts in the film room, the weight room, how we eat, how we prepare. It doesn’t just show up on Saturdays. And that’s what we need to do.”
Pittman also pointed to that inability to run the ball when asked about the Razorbacks’ failures in the low red zone.
After the defense came down with an interception on the second play of the game, Arkansas quickly got inside the 10, but once again stalled out and had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Cam Little.
Dating back to the LSU game, the Razorbacks have driven inside their opponent’s 10-yard line eight times. Only two of those trips ended with touchdowns. The other six resulted in field goals.
“Guys, when you can’t consistently run the football, you’ve got problems scoring in the red area, in the red zone,” Pittman said. “We actually had some decent runs today, but we’re so feast and famine. You know, 4 (yards), minus 2, things of that nature. We just can’t be as consistent as what we need to be.”
What’s Next for Arkansas Football
An open date is on the horizon, but Arkansas football still has four games remaining after that, starting with a road trip to Florida on Nov. 4.
The Gators were off this week ahead of their annual rivalry game against Georgia. They’re allowing only 20.0 points on 312.4 yards through seven games, both of which ranked fifth in the SEC entering this week.
That means it’ll be yet another challenge for the Razorbacks, Pittman and now a new interim offensive coordinator in Kenny Guiton.
“We’ve got a lot of decisions to make,” Pittman said. “We owe it to our team. We owe it to the fans. We’ll figure that part of it out. … We have a lot of talent on offense. We ought to be playing better than what we are. That’s me. I’ve got to figure that out.”
It remains to be seen if Guiton’s promotion and the extra time will do anything to help the offense, but Pittman said he and his staff are still searching for answers now that their output has dipped to 26.5 points and 305.9 yards per game.
“When you struggle, a lot of times when it’s not going your way, you’ve got to have something that can bring a spark to them,” Pittman said. “We just haven’t found that.”
Arkansas Football Stats – Offense
(Rank, out of 133 teams)
|Scoring Offense||26.5 ppg|
|Total Offense||305.9 ypg|
|Rushing Offense||109.0 ypg|
|Passing Offense||196.9 ypg|
Watch Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman’s full postgame press conference after losing to Mississippi State:
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