FAYETTEVILLE — Through the first four games of the season, Arkansas football had a third quarter problem.
The Razorbacks had been outscored in the 15 minutes immediately following halftime in each contest and the third was the only quarter in which they had a negative scoring differential.
In what head coach Sam Pittman deemed the lone silver lining in its 49-26 loss to No. 2 Alabama, Arkansas flipped the script Saturday night. All three phases helped the Razorbacks outscore the Crimson Tide 16-0 in the third quarter and pull within one possession entering the fourth.
“The only real positive of the day, to be honest with you, is we came out in the third quarter and fought,” Pittman said in his postgame interview with Razorback Sports Network.
Prior to that outburst, Arkansas had been outscored 41-13 — or about an average of 10-3 — in third quarters this season.
That stat was not lost on Pittman, who told reporters earlier in the week that it was being addressed, with plans to simulate coming out of halftime in practice. The Razorbacks also switched things up during the actual halftime Saturday.
“We just stayed in here and stretched,” Pittman said. “I talked to them and the captains talked to them. It’s the same things we did at practice. We just changed it up.
“We hadn’t won a third quarter all year so we changed it up. I don’t know if it worked or not or if it was because we were down 21. I do know the kids answered the challenge and that was good to see.”
One of those captains was linebacker Bumper Pool, who said the practice and halftime tweaks were beneficial and led to the dramatic third-quarter improvement.
“We made specific periods about starting the third quarter,” Pool said. “We changed up our halftime routine. We all got up there and spoke and kind of said, ‘Listen, we’ve got a shot. We’ve got some things we can pull out in the second half.’”
Big Plays for Alabama Football
Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, that good mojo didn’t carry into the fourth quarter.
With Alabama’s lead down to 28-23, Arkansas was on the verge of forcing a third straight punt and second straight three-and-out. However, on third-and-15, backup quarterback Jalen Milroe — playing for the injured Bryce Young — managed to avoid pressure and scramble 77 yards.
Two plays later, the Crimson Tide were in the end zone and that was all she wrote on Arkansas’ comeback attempt. Both coaches pointed to the play as a critical turning point.
“I’m proud of the team for the way we came out and fought back into the game — we were in it, in it,” Pittman said. “That play right there seemed to take the wind out of our sails and we couldn’t convert the next time we had the ball.”
“It stopped the bleeding for sure because that was 3rd-and-long in bad field position,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “If we don’t make a first down there… That was a huge momentum swing in the game in my opinion. After that, we played better. After that, I think they didn’t play as well.”
Alabama’s next two possessions lasted all of three plays and 55 seconds, with Jahmyr Gibbs scoring on runs of 72 and 76 yards. Up until that point, the Razorbacks had actually done a decent job of slowing down the talented transfer from Georgia Tech, as he had averaged just 3.9 yards on his first 15 carries of the game — well short of the 6.9 he was averaging coming into the game.
“I thought we did a good job of bottling him up for most of the game,” Pool said. “Then Alabama, they’ll break a run on you and they can take it to the house. We’ve got to watch the tape and figure out where we need to improve the most and continue to move on to Mississippi State.”
Pittman said Arkansas’ top goal was to prevent explosive plays, but they gave up “way too many.” The Razorbacks had allowed only two runs of 70-plus yards during their first 27 games under Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom, but allowed three in the fourth quarter Saturday.
Prior to the big fourth-quarter runs, the most damning statistic for Arkansas’ defense surrounded its failure to get off the field on third downs.
Alabama ended the game 9 of 14 (64.3%) on third downs, but started out 8 of 10. It averaged 16.1 yards on third-down plays — a number inflated by a 47-yard touchdown pass on third-and-3 and a 53-yard completion on third-and-6.
Both of those passes were thrown by Bryce Young, whom Pittman said was picking his defense apart before getting hurt.
Perhaps most frustrating for the Arkansas football staff was the fact that the Crimson Tide converted all three of their third-and-long situations, moving the sticks even when they needed 10, 15 and 18 yards.
Milroe’s aforementioned 77-yard scramble came on third-and-15, while he also had a 12-yard scramble on third-and-10 and connected with JoJo Earle for a 22-yard touchdown on third-and-18. The latter of those plays actually came after a rare third-down stop, but Alabama was called for pass interference on the play.
Instead of declining the penalty and making it fourth down, Pittman opted to take it and back Alabama up. Given a second chance, Earle made a player or two miss after hauling in a screen pass and found the end zone to make it 28-0.
“I thought (Saban) was going to go for it on fourth-and-3,” Pittman said. “I thought we could hold him for less than 10 yards on third down, get a turnover, whatever it may be. I was discussing that with everybody…we all agreed that was the best thing.”
Arkansas came into Saturday’s game allowing opponents to convert third downs 39.3 percent of the time, which ranked 79th in the FBS and 12th in the SEC. Including the Alabama game, that went up to 44.3 percent (No. 108 nationally) — significantly worse than last year’s 33.5 percent rate that ranked third in the SEC.
“You sit there and think you’re going to get off, then they make a play,” Pittman said. “It’s very deflating, but that’s part of the game. It’s happening too often to us. We’ve got to figure out how to get off the field when we have an advantage with the sticks.”
Surprise On-Side Kick
One of the biggest plays during Arkansas’ third-quarter rally came on special teams. After scoring a touchdown to pull within 28-14 midway through the quarter, Sam Pittman dialed up a surprise on-side kick.
It was executed flawlessly. Kickoff specialist Jake Bates kicked the ball in a way that it bounced up in the air and he was able to field it himself just after it went the required 10 yards. He was aided by linebacker Chris Paul Jr. flying in and taking out an Alabama player.
“Seeing it on tape, we felt like it was there,” Pittman said. “Bates was really good at it. He had done it at his previous school. It just seemed like the right time to use it. It worked, and we went down and scored, so that was a good deal.”
Arkansas ended up getting all the way down to the 3-yard line on the ensuing possession, but KJ Jefferson was stopped behind the line of scrimmage on third down and Pittman opted to kick a field goal.
After the game, he revealed that he had another trick up his sleeve, as the 22-yard kick by Cam Little was originally called to be a fake. However, the Razorbacks checked out of it because the look wasn’t there.
Sanders and Sanders Shine Again
As has been the case a few times this season, running back Rocket Sanders and linebacker Drew Sanders — no relation — had arguably the best games for Arkansas’ offense and defense, respectively.
On offense, Rocket Sanders ran for 101 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. He is just the second Arkansas player to hit the century mark against Alabama in the post-Darren McFadden era, joining Rakeem Boyd (102 yards in 2018).
It was also the fourth time in five games that Rocket Sanders has eclipsed 100 yards this season. He now has 609 total rushing yards in 2022, giving him more than he had all of last season.
On the other side of the ball, Drew Sanders notched a team-high 12 tackles. Included in that total was another sack, giving him 6.5 for the season.
That is already the most by any Arkansas player since Armon Watts had seven in 2018, plus he remains well on pace to have the Razorbacks’ first double-digit sack season since Jake Bequette in 2011.
Making Saturday’s performance even more special for Drew Sanders was the fact that it came against his former team, but he blocked out the noise surrounding that storyline.
“When I’m in game mode, I’m in game mode,” Sanders said. “I’m not there to make friends. I’m there to play the game. After (the game), it was great seeing all the guys and I got to talk to them a little bit, but when it’s game time, it’s game time.”
Another Huge Attendance for Arkansas Football
The announced attendance for Saturday’s game against Alabama was 75,579, which is the fifth-largest crowd in Reynolds Razorback Stadium history. It was also the largest since the all-time record (76,808) was set against Alabama in 2010.
Through the first four home games of the season, Arkansas has an average attendance of 74,225. With home matchups against Liberty, LSU and Ole Miss looming, the Razorbacks have an excellent shot at breaking the single-season school record for average attendance in Fayetteville. That was set in 2006, when Arkansas won the SEC West in front of an average Fayetteville crowd of 73,895.
Arkansas Football Injury Report
Here are some updates on several Arkansas football players who are dealing with injuries…
- WR Warren Thompson (undisclosed): Dressed out and went through warmups, but did not play… Limited throughout the week with an undisclosed injury, so Pittman said they felt they’d be better off starting Ketron Jackson and giving Jaedon Wilson a few snaps
- DB Myles Slusher (calf): Started at nickel, but came out of the game late in the first quarter after getting beat on a deep ball… Pittman revealed after the game that he wasn’t fully healthy and “his calf was all tight”
- RB Javion Hunt (non-injury): It’s not injury related, but reserve running back Javion Hunt is no longer with the team after quitting late last week… He is expected to enter the transfer portal when the portal opens back up in December
- WR Quincey McAdoo (wrist/arm): Did not dress out, but was spotted with a cast on his right wrist/arm… Had been contributing on special teams
- WR Kalil Girault (wrist/arm): Did not dress out, but was spotted with a cast on his right wrist/arm… Walk-on who doesn’t play
- WR Isaiah Sategna (ankle): Dressed out and went through pregame warmups after not dressing against Missouri State or traveling for Texas A&M because of a rolled ankle
- DE JJ Hollingsworth (non-injury): Did not dress out against Alabama, but not because of an injury
- DT Taurean Carter (knee): Out for a while, timeline for a return is unknown
- S Jalen Catalon (shoulder): Out for the season
- CB LaDarrius Bishop (knee): Out for the season
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…