It turns out Arkansas football doesn’t just have an abysmal offense. All it took to jump-start the unit was a new coordinator.
In Kenny Guiton’s first game calling plays, the Razorbacks piled up a season-high 481 yards — more than their previous two games combined — and came away with a 39-36 overtime win over Florida at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla., that Sam Pittman described as “damn awesome.”
He’d never admit it, but the fourth-year coach also took a subtle shot at former offensive coordinator Dan Enos — whom he fired Oct. 22, the day after a 7-3 loss to Mississippi State — during his postgame press conference.
“What Kenny did, I thought he ran what we practiced,” Pittman said. “And (that’s a) big deal.”
That was a major point of contention and reason behind him moving on from Enos after only eight games. Guiton called more rollouts for quarterback KJ Jefferson, opposed to traditional drop back passes, and utilized the stretch run play that has been successful for Arkansas in the past.
More than anything, though, Pittman said the wide receiver coach-turned-interim offensive coordinator brought a “swag” and “charisma” to the unit that had lost its spirit.
“He brought a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of belief in the kids,” Pittman said. “A good coach gets his kids to play better than they are — not as good as they are, better than they are.
“A lot of coaches have the ability to do that, and some don’t. Kenny is one of those guys that has that ability and kids want to play for him. They respect him, so they want to do well. You could feel it all week.”
Making the performance even more impressive is the fact that the Razorbacks had three starters go down with injuries over the course of the game.
Tight end Ty Washington looked like he was on his way to another big game with two early receptions, but he got hurt on the third play of the day. Leading receiver Andrew Armstrong racked up 103 yards on three receptions and nearly had an incredible touchdown grab, but he didn’t hang on to it when his head hit the turf. That caused him to leave and not return. Right tackle Patrick Kutas also went down with an injury.
“We played a lot of kids, but (Guiton) was solid as a rock,” Pittman said in his postgame radio interview. “His preparation was solid as rock. And more importantly, the kids and myself believed in him.”
Without Washington, the Razorbacks used the more blocking-minded Nathan Bax in an increased role. Ty’Kieast Crawford filled in for Kutas, getting his first offensive action since Week 2. Armstrong’s replacement was Tyrone Broden, who ended up catching the game-winning touchdown in overtime.
Pittman said he brought Guiton up in front of the team in the locker room after the game, but couldn’t get anything more than his name out before the players erupted in cheers.
“Everybody loves KG,” Broden said. “He’s so up-tempo, upbeat. He’s just a great guy that everybody wants to play for, so it’s easy to go out there and play for him.”
Much Improved Arkansas Offense
The Razorbacks had a balanced attack under Kenny Guiton, with 255 yards through the air and a season-high 226 yards on the ground.
KJ Jefferson completed 20 of 31 passes and threw for two touchdowns, giving him 64 career touchdown passes to tie Brandon Allen atop the UA’s all-time list.
Where he really hurt the Gators, though, was with his legs. Even with five sacks, Jefferson still ran for 92 yards on 17 carries. Take out the sacks and he averaged 9.4 yards per carry, with his longest run being a 25-yard touchdown scamper late in the fourth quarter — the Razorbacks’ first rushing score in SEC play.
After sitting out the last two games nursing a knee injury that also caused him to miss three games earlier in the season, Rocket Sanders looked like the All-SEC running back he was expected to be, rushing for 103 yards on 18 carries while adding another 14 yards on two receptions.
Arkansas was in danger of going an entire season without a 100-yard rusher for the first time since 1983, but in Guiton’s first game calling plays, it nearly had two.
Jefferson and Sanders punctuated their efforts with arguably their best runs in overtime. On first-and-20, Jefferson kept the ball on a read and ran over a defender on his way to picking up the first down. On the next play, Sanders was nearly stopped behind the line of scrimmage, but kept his balance and bounced the run outside for an 11-yard gain, setting up the game-winning touchdown pass.
“They had their passion back,” Pittman said. “I did say maybe a week and a half ago we had maybe lost our edge on offense, lost our passion on offense. Evidently you can get it back because we had it back today.”
Flipping the Script vs. Florida
Behind the much improved offensive performance, Arkansas snapped its six-game losing streak and won in Gainesville for the first time. It had been 0-5 in The Swamp before Saturday.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Pittman said. “In two weeks’ time a lot of stuff went on in the program, and the kids just stayed with us and stayed believing.”
The Razorbacks had every excuse to fold, too. They still shot themselves in the foot with penalties and had to overcome a pair of controversial calls in the fourth quarter — things that have doomed them to losses in the past.
With just under 10 minutes remaining, Graham Mertz hit Eugene Wilson III for an 18-yard gain on third-and-9. Arkansas appeared to strip the ball at the end of the play, but officials ruled that his forward progress had been stopped, meaning it wasn’t reviewable. However, the ball appeared to come out before the whistle and Wilson was still moving forward when the whistle blew.
Then, in the closing seconds, Florida was flagged for an illegal substitution because its field goal unit started running onto the field while the offense lined up to spike the ball. The clock was stopped because the Gators had just converted a first down, so there was no 10-second runoff, but Arkansas wasn’t given sufficient time to make its own substitutions. Had the official stood over the ball to allow the Razorbacks to substitute, time would have expired.
Alas, Trey Smack’s 44-yard field goal was wide right and Arkansas managed to come out on the right side of a three-point game for once. Five of its six losses have been by one possession.
“We never have had a bad football team,” Pittman said. “We’ve had some bad luck, we’ve had some bad results, and bad coaching by me and things of that nature. But we’ve always had a decent team, we’re just, we’re losing games like that. And to win, that was incredible.”
In the overtime period, Arkansas won the coin toss and chose to start on defense. It limited Florida to a field goal, setting up the heroics of KJ Jefferson, Rocket Sanders and Tyrone Broden.
The 4-yard touchdown from Jefferson to Broden gave the Razorbacks their first walk-off touchdown since 2016, when Austin Allen scored on a 5-yard run to cap a double-overtime win at TCU.
“That was a surreal moment,” Jefferson said. “We really needed that.”
Pittman really needed the win, too. His seat had really begun to warm amid the losing streak, especially after the ugly home loss to Mississippi State, and some outlets — including this one — were breaking down his buyout situation.
The win ensures he’d be owed $16.1 million, instead of $10.7 million, if Arkansas decides to fire him after this season. But he wasn’t worried about any of that during the postgame celebration in the locker room.
“That’s why you do it, to see the looks on the kids’ faces after a game like that,” Pittman said. “I love money, I like all kinds of stuff, but I like seeing them kids happy way more than I like anything else, as far as football goes.”
Arkansas Offense — Enos vs. Guiton
|Stat||First 8 Games||Arkansas vs Florida|
|Off. Points vs. FBS||19.3*||32**|
Watch Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman’s full postgame press conference following the Arkansas vs Florida game:
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