Reasonable coaching decisions can appear obstructive when that coach’s team is in the midst of a losing streak. Arm-chair quarterbacks have been a phenomenon since games have aired on television. Nowadays, given the way social media opens the doors for all, the epidemic is even more pronounced.
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman has addressed it multiple times this season. His team, losers of five straight games after Saturday’s three-point defeat at the hands of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, has heard plenty of criticism. From Alma to Yellville and all points in-between, odds are you know someone who is convinced they have a better plan for the Razorbacks than Pittman does.
For weeks, one of the biggest questions about Pittman was why he didn’t require offensive coordinator Dan Enos to run a different play on various 4th-and-short instances. Such a down-and-distance presented itself against the Crimson Tide on Saturday, too. Twice, actually.
At the start of the second quarter, on 4th-and-1 from their own 34, the Razorbacks punted and Alabama responded with an 83-yard touchdown drive. Two drives later, now down 21-6 with 2:50 left in the half, Pittman decided to punt on 4th-and-1 from Arkansas’ 34 again. The Hogs defense held on the ensuing drive that time.
Each time, there were questions as to why Arkansas didn’t choose to go for it. In hindsight, given the loss happened by three points, it may feel like Pittman should have been more aggressive and put KJ Jefferson in a position to rumble for it. But at that point in the game, especially once down 21-6, both the defense and offense were playing badly and the momentum was fully in Bama’s hands.
Defending Sam Pittman’s Decisions
If Arkansas had gone for it and failed so close to their end zone, it essentially would been a death knell. Sam Pittman should, and did, have more confidence in a rapidly improving punter in Max Fletcher and a mostly stalwart defense than his offense, given the body of work in all three phases so far this season.
In fact, the ESPN broadcast crew suggested on air that Pittman didn’t have enough confidence in his offensive line to go for it, even. The Hogs coach was asked about the approach after the game.
“We were trying to just keep it close to the fourth quarter,” Pittman said. “We’ve lost some games in the fourth quarter and we made a big emphasis. … Offensively, we decided to run the ball a little bit on third down. Other teams had had some success against them. Even though we didn’t play the entire game offensively well, I thought in the second half we showed some sparks that we could score. Really, the coaches made adjustments. [Quarterback] KJ [Jefferson] made some plays.”
Even though his season hasn’t gone as well as years past, Jefferson’s ability is such that he can alter games with just one play. The evidence came in the second half when he broke out of a would-be sack and dumped it off to Var’keyes Gumms for 25 yards. The play left Alabama football coach Nick Saban coach equating KJ with a cow’s ass and his own defensive back with a gnat:
Seven plays later, Arkansas pulled within three points. And the trust that Pittman may not have in his offensive line, he certainly does have in his defense.
Turning the Tide in Arkansas vs Alabama
Halftime allowed Arkansas to make effective changes on that side of the ball. So effective, in fact, Arkansas outscored Alabama 15-3, outgained Alabama 152 yards to 141 and forced the Crimson Tide into four punts. That, more than anything else, allowed the Razorbacks to make a game of it in the fourth quarter.
Still, until that trust comes, Arkansas is going to have its moments of struggle on offense. Running back Rocket Sanders missed another game because of a knee injury, leaving the preseason All-American with fewer than 100 yards rushing in the three games he’s played. Pittman said he had no idea when Sanders may return, either, if he does.
Arkansas is a changed team without him healthy. As fair as Rashod Dubinion has been as a reserve the last few years, Sanders is the workhorse.
His loss combined with the offensive line struggles is more reason for both the shotgun fourth-down play calls and choices to punt that the Razorbacks have made this season. To get things back on the track on the ground, it will be interesting to see if Pittman and Enos find a way to get reserve tailback AJ Green more carries because the numbers show he deserves it.
Even though Rocket Sanders has only played in half the number of games, and averages less than half the yards per carry, he’s still gotten two more carries on the year. That shouldn’t be:
Injuries aren’t an excuse. They’re a reason. But with five games left and Arkansas needing to win four to reach bowl eligibility, reasons are going to be rendered irrelevant. Every team has them. The question is how they’re overcome. If they’re overcome. The one-score losses have to turn into wins. Quickly.
“We got beat by three at LSU. We needed a stop. Got beat by three today. We had the ball with an opportunity to tie it up,” Pittman said. “You’ve got to have those drives. We’ve got to finish somehow and we’re just not doing it.”
Arkansas Football Homestretch
Four of those last five games, at least, come back home in Fayetteville. Next up is a Mississippi State team that has looked, and been, worse than the Razorbacks all season. Arkansas’ bye week follows that. Now is the real time to see Pittman’s and Arkansas’ mettle.
“I think the good Lord puts us in a lot of situations. I do. To learn and different things,” Pittman said. “I hope we learned from it as coaches. I hope it’s made us stronger. Hope it’s made us a better team. I think there’s a lot of things to learn from it. How you address your team. How the team responds to you. There’s a lot of things. Five in a row is a lot in a row. Your main concern is how do you motivate the team, how to make them better.”
Pittman did well with situational decision making-against Alabama, but would do better by insisting Enos get the ball more into the hands of AJ Green, one of Arkansas’ few playmakers on the ground this season.