FAYETTEVILLE — By the third time he was asked about it Saturday night, Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman was tired of talking about his offensive line.
In his eyes, there was plenty of blame to go around for another subpar performance by the Razorbacks’ rushing attack in their 28-6 win over Kent State.
That’s why, when he was posed a question about his plans for settling on a particular five up front rather than rotating at multiple spots, Pittman paused for a few seconds before going on a mini rant.
“Guys, we’re not the only team in the world that’s played five O-linemen,” Pittman said. “I mean, somebody’s playing six or seven. I’m trying to figure out who our best linemen are and if I feel like they’ve earned opportunities to play.
“What’s the difference in an O-lineman and a frigging D-lineman? We play nine of them guys. If I feel like they’re good enough to help us win, it’ll help us in the long run. I understand that we’re supposed to play five guys. We do, but…that ain’t why we’re not running the ball, guys.”
Some of that was likely Pittman’s frustrations about the Razorbacks rushing for just 172 yards and averaging only 3.8 yards per attempt carrying over to the postgame — the same frustrations felt by Arkansas football fans who believed those numbers should’ve been much higher against a Kent State defense that just allowed 389 rushing yards and a school-record 8.5 yards per carry to Gus Malzahn and UCF.
When a fourth reporter joked that he wouldn’t ask about the offensive line, Pittman took the opportunity to apologize and also, probably fairly, point out his resume as an offensive line coach before landing his dream job at Arkansas.
“Listen, we’ve made too much out of that,” Pittman said. “I’m sorry, but I’ve coached (offensive) line for 30-something years. I know how to coach an offensive line and I’m trying to get our guys ready. I should have answered it just like that.”
Finding the Right Combination
For the first three years of his tenure, Sam Pittman relied on a pretty steady offensive line consisting of players he inherited from the previous staff.
In fact, offensive linemen he brought to Fayetteville accounted for only two of 180 total starts up front from 2020-22 — and both of them were by Ty’Kieast Crawford, who originally committed to the Razorbacks under Chad Morris, ultimately signed with Charlotte and transferred to Arkansas after Pittman was hired.
Beaux Limmer and Brady Latham are still around, but the latter missed the season opener because of a concussion, forcing the Razorbacks to start four newcomers against Western Carolina. In that game, Florida transfer Joshua Braun flipped from right to left guard, Crawford started at right guard and redshirt freshman Andrew Chamblee got the nod at left tackle.
Chamblee also started against Kent State, but has rotated with Devon Manuel — who was the projected starter before getting hurt in fall camp — and even got a handful of reps at right tackle in Week 1.
The two constants on the offensive line have been Limmer at center and sophomore Patrick Kutas at right tackle. Braun remained in the starting lineup Saturday, but moved back to right guard, where he rotated with Crawford.
Leading up to the season, Pittman talked about this being a strength for this year’s team because it could keep offensive linemen fresh. He said he left confident in as many as eight different players up front — which is why he took exception to a reporter asking if they were still auditioning for roles.
“I don’t know why you’d audition,” Pittman said. “That wouldn’t make any sense. You’d probably want to play guys you feel like have the talent and have the right to maybe be a starter.”
Change of Plans for Arkansas Football
Last week against Western Carolina, when the Razorbacks managed just 105 rushing yards and averaged only 2.9 yards per carry, they shifted to an aerial attack to move the ball.
KJ Jefferson and Jacolby Criswell were extremely efficient, combining to complete 20 of 25 passes (80%) for 274 yards and four touchdowns — numbers that probably could have been even higher had they really opened things up against the FCS foe.
On Saturday, neither the ground nor aerial attack was particularly effective. With a 14-6 lead and only 105 total yards at halftime, Pittman told offensive coordinator Dan Enos to change whatever he needed, but the offense’s success ultimately boiled down to the players on the field.
“On offense, I told Dan, ‘I’m not worried about how many rush yards we have. I’m trying to score a point. However we score it, I don’t care,’” Pittman said. “But we just weren’t throwing and catching it very good either. A lot of times you can hang your hat on one of them, so we just challenged the offense to be more physical, strain harder.”
Entering the day with plans to run Jefferson only in short-yardage situations, the Razorbacks’ inability to handle “any type of movement” up front forced them to lean on their star quarterback’s legs.
Of course, it wasn’t all on the offensive line. Pittman pointed to mistakes by the running backs, as well, including when Arkansas failed to convert a fourth-and-1 at its own 34-yard line on the first possession of the third quarter.
“I think you open up the second half and we’ve got a pin-and-pull and we run outside the kickout block,” Pittman said. “That’s not the O-Line, you know what I mean?”
Some of the run game struggles in Week 1 could be attributed to Western Carolina’s game plan, which had slowed Arkansas’ running backs by bringing its safeties down to make plays, which ended up opening the passing game.
That wasn’t necessarily the case this week, as Pittman called out his team’s physicality on more than one occasion.
Sure enough, the Razorbacks are averaging a miserable 1.7 yards before contact on run plays through two games, according to SEC Stat Cat. That’s a full yard less than last season, when they ranked second in the conference behind only Georgia in that category. It’s still a small sample size, but 1.7 yards before contact would have ranked 12th in the SEC last year.
“There’s a lot of reasons why we’re not dominating the line of scrimmage like we have before and some of it has to do with we’re just not moving the line of scrimmage up front like we have in the past,” Pittman said. “We’re just not moving them.
“We’re not knocking them off the football right now. We’re not blocking particularly well on the edge. We’re just not blocking particularly well, period. AJ (Green) got in a little bit of a groove there at the end and (Rashod Dubinion), but we’re just not a real physical football team.”
Strong Finish and Looking Ahead
The struggles up front were a contributing factor in Arkansas going three-and-out twice in its first three possessions and finding the end zone just once in its first five, not including when it ran out the final 18 seconds of the first half.
Failing to get a first down on the opening possession of the second half proved to be the turning point, though. The Razorbacks scored touchdowns on their next two drives, covering 91 yards in 12 plays and 73 yards in 15 plays.
“I think they kind of wore us down,” Kent State head coach Kenni Burns said. “You look at us a little bit in the second half up front, I think our guys are playing hard but they got fatigued a little bit.”
That was particularly evident on Arkansas’ final possession of the game, even though it didn’t result in points. After a goal line stand by its defense, the Razorbacks managed to run off the final 6:05 without giving the ball back by rushing 11 times for 61 yards.
“The last drive was what we were anticipating would happen the whole day, where we’re covering them up and moving them six, eight, four, five, whatever (yards) at a time,” Pittman said. “It’s frustrating right now for the kids and for the coaches that we’re not running the ball consistently. We’ll continue to work on it.”
It was an encouraging finish, but doesn’t change the fact that Arkansas’ run game has fallen well short of expectations through two games.
Despite facing two of their easiest opponents on the 2023 schedule, the Razorbacks — who finished seventh nationally in rushing each of the last two seasons — have averaged just 138.5 yards on the ground. After picking up more than 5 yards per carry in 2021 and 2022, they’re also averaging only 3.4 yards per attempt through two games.
With a rematch against BYU on the horizon, though, Arkansas isn’t hitting the panic button just yet.
“At times it is frustrating, but I mean, I know what type of team we have and I know what those guys are capable of doing,” KJ Jefferson said. “It’s just all about building good days and building consistency. We’re all trying to figure out different things and it’s early in the season still. We’ve got a long season ahead of us.”
More on Arkansas Football
Here are a couple transcripted excerpts from Sam Pittman in the press conference:
On whether some good can come out of the subpar offensive performance:
You look around the country, it’s happened for years — you get surprised. In other words, you get surprised and you lose, and you get surprised and you win. Well, obviously, the second is a lot better than the first. I felt like we had a good week of practice, I did. I thought the distractions were to a minimum.
Obviously, Rocket – when you have key players that get hurt, all that kind of stuff. But we didn’t come out like we came out like I thought we’d come out on a home opener, and that bothers me. But I love our kids, and I love the locker room, the culture. I think we’ll fix all this, I really do. I think we’ll play a much better football game against a, no disrespect, a much better football team coming in here next week. I think we’ll show and have a much better passionate football team out there than we had today.
On Isaac Tessla’s big 36-yard catch:
Wasn’t that crazy? He catches everything. I kept telling Dan, I kept saying let’s go, let’s go. Because I didn’t want it to get reviewed, but they’re going to review it anyway. It doesn’t matter how fast you snap the ball, but the guy can catch. We didn’t particularly throw it well today, so we’ve got to figure out all that kind of stuff, but he made some TeSlaa catches like he always does. Armstrong made a really nice catch down in our end zone, too.”
Watch Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman’s full press conference here:
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