Trying to Save Season in The Swamp Dredges Up Arkansas-to-SEC Baptism Story

Billy Napier, Sam Pittman, Arkansas football, Florida football, Arkansas vs Florida
photo credit: Florida Athletics / Arkansas Athletics

What makes Saturday’s Arkansas vs Florida matchup so intriguing is all the mystery now surrounding the showdown in Gainesville. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos’ firing two-thirds into the season by head coach Sam Pittman may be out of the ordinary for the Arkansas football program, but at least we have some precedent for sudden shakeups.

Anyone who was around Arkansas’ team in 1992 the week after Jack Crowe, who was beginning his third season as head coach, was unceremoniously dumped after the season-opening 10-3 loss to The Citadel, had no idea what was truly in store the very next Saturday on the road at South Carolina, which had recently joined the SEC alongside Arkansas. The seemingly reborn and raucous bunch of Razorbacks blitzed the Gamecocks 45-7.

Having sat through a game every bit as ugly as what we endured this past Oct. 21 when Sam Pittman’s Hogs lost 7-3 to Mississippi on the same field, I found it hard to imagine the Razorbacks could somehow regroup without Crowe and with veteran defensive coach Joe Kines taking over and somehow bringing enough fire to turn everything around in a week. I figured talent had something to do with it, and Arkansas didn’t have a whole lot in 1992 — but sometimes it’s in the right mental approach.

An Arkansas Football History Lesson

Rick David, the 1992 starting safety who now lives in Little Rock, told me the sudden shift on that staff was refreshing to everyone. He, in fact, called Enos’ firing a day before it occurred, having picked up that there was obviously little trust left between Enos and his star quarterback. KJ Jefferson was “ruined,” David said, by the beleaguered coordinator’s ideas that seemingly took away the strengths he’d displayed the past two years under Kendal Briles.

Meanwhile, the current defense looks well-coached in every facet, from tackling to coverage to setting edges. Yes, they may lack the difference-makers along the front line that would consistently shut down SEC offenses, but they’ve given Arkansas a chance. 

Kines provided that as well, first as defensive coordinator when he joined Crowe’s staff in 1991 following a completely disastrous previous season, when Crowe replaced the departed Ken Hatfield and went 3-8. Things picked up like they had in 1991 against The Citadel, which could do nothing offensively.

Unfortunately, the Razorbacks’ offense, for several reasons but especially because of disjointed offensive line play, was mired in proverbial mud. It could do little as well, fumbling away a touchdown that was all The Citadel needed to spring a gargantuan, “FCS-beats-FBS” upset.

Just as a reminder: With only 63 scholarships compared to an FBS school’s 85, The Citadel was a very good FCS team in 1992. Mississippi State has significantly more athletes than The Citadel possessed back on that Labor Day weekend of 1992, but Mississippi State still isn’t good. Its offense is anemic, having abandoned the late Mike Leach’s Air Raid for a more conventional offense. The Bulldogs’ defense is average at best.

The Dan Enos Failure

Yet, Enos could find little that worked running or passing on Oct. 21; he couldn’t inspire Jefferson to lift his own performance beyond pathetic; and Arkansas managed just 3 points, that off an interception deep in Bulldogs territory. The closest the Hogs came to an actual touchdown was a defensive fumble scoop-and-score that was waved off by an official’s earlier whistle at the snap.

So, not unlike Jack Crowe in 1992, Dan Enos found himself without a job the day after such an ignominious defeat. He had eight games to get things right, and for a while he had his defenders (including this columnist) noting that his first Razorback stint had started slowly before finishing with a 7-wins-in-9-games flourish.

This time, it never materialized — even though Arkansas was within 3, 12, 7, 3 and 4 points in its five SEC losses — and he lost the players on his side of the ball. He had plays where opposite-side linemen both pulled — an odd design to say the least. Whether it was run or pass, linemen often dropped-stepped as their first move, negating much chance of a downhill run getting started. It’s also fair to say he didn’t have as much as Briles had to work with, with much less talent at the tackles and the receiver positions, a lame Rocket Sanders to start the season, and a demoralized Jefferson, who had endured constant pressure and too many sacks for eight straight weeks.

But why then also tighten the splits of the linemen, as if he had a Georgia roster that could outmuscle people? Why were the plays so slow to develop? Why call two straight runs for little and then a deep pass on third-and-8 when teams were obviously bringing the house against a line that couldn’t protect? Why answer student emails about refusing to call a quarterback sneak when everyone else in America would have, then suggest one of the college kids should try coaching? 

If one didn’t know better, you’d almost think by the Mississippi State game that Enos was trying to fail. Apparently some of his players sensed something like that.

Perhaps, as Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin says, stresses were going on behind the scenes that evoked Chad Morris living apart from his DFW family. Irwin had heard that Enos’ wife did not return to Fayetteville with him during the off-season.

“I’ve heard some stuff about them being separated, maybe in the process of getting a divorce,” Irwin said on Monday’s “Ask Mike.” “I’m not sure what’s going on there, but he apparently was here by himself and that can weird you out.”

Even with all the close SEC losses so far in 2023, one never felt that the Hogs’ offense had enough to flip the results at the end. LSU finished off its win over Arkansas with a game-winning field goal, and Alabama gave Arkansas just one failed fourth-quarter possession to erase a late 3-point margin. Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Mississippi State seemed safe with their late leads.

’92-Like Turnaround for Arkansas vs Florida?

However, what we didn’t know until later in 1992 and afterward — that Rick David and other players on that team felt like a new day had dawned with Crowe’s firing — seems to be happening again today with the shuffling of coaches on the offensive side. 

An easy road does not await them, of course. The road has been very unkind to the Hogs in all Arkansas vs Florida matchups. Then, Auburn brings a stout defense to Fayetteville on Nov. 11, while Missouri is having its best season since 2007. But at the same time, Arkansas still has something to play for and maybe an attitude now on offense to pull off a November to remember, a magical 4-0 finish that gets the Hogs into a bowl game and gives Sam Pittman momentum to continue his program building. After all, supposedly a very good recruiting class is committed.

We still remember with utter shock two Saturdays in a row back in 1992, one where the Hogs unthinkably lost to an FCS team only to come back and win their debut SEC game on the road by more than five touchdowns. We found out much later how much a needed leadership change meant to the 100-plus guys on a football team, who no longer felt defeated. And though that whole season would be full of ups and downs, they never hung their heads and felt defeated, even upsetting No. 4 Tennessee on the road and destroying LSU 30-6 at Fayetteville to end the first run though the SEC.

Sure, it’s different this time around — it’s a coordinator that’s been fired, it’s really only one side of the ball that’s felt beaten before the game starts. In their ninth game of a disappointing year, Arkansas has to play in “The Swamp,” a stadium in which the program has never won. The quest they face is extremely difficult even with an attitude adjustment. But with some new life and belief among the Hogs, perhaps a ‘92 repeat is in the offing for this home stretch. 


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