Ah, The Red Zone. It’s like a sword. You live by it. You die by it.
On a night when the Arkansas football team otherwise played its best game of the season, those final 20 yards to the end zone – on both sides – proved too large a quagmire for the Razorbacks to overcome in a 34-31 loss to No. 12 LSU in Baton Rouge on Saturday.
Arkansas had tied the game at 31 with 5:08 left before LSU had a final shot. The Tigers made it down to the Arkansas 7 with 1:44 left. If LSU had scored on the next play, the Razorbacks would have had more than a minute to respond in kind. The Hogs had already hit paydirt on their two previous drives, too, so the possibility was there.
Instead, LSU took its time. Arkansas’ defense stood up, stuffing the TIgers for runs of three yards and one yard on the next two plays. The problem, though, was that only about 12 seconds were left at that point. LSU took a final shot at the end zone on a fade, but it fell incomplete before Damian Ramos came on for the game-winning field goal, leaving Arkansas just five seconds to work with once they received the ball on the ensuing kickoff. KJ Jefferson’s heave was intercepted at the 20-yard line, and that was the ball game.
ESPN announcers Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit debated the merits of Arkansas’ decision to stop LSU on those two running plays, both suggesting the Hogs might have been better off letting LSU into the end zone immediately after the Tigers were down to the 7-yard line. If Arkansas had two or three timeouts left, then there would have been no question that playing things by the textbook would have been the way to go. But Arkansas didn’t have any timeouts left, so LSU football coach Brian Kelly could have his way with the clock.
Unorthodox Idea to End Arkansas vs LSU
Perhaps Arkansas might have been better off allowing a touchdown. But if Pittman had actually given playing matador defense a shot, it would have overlooked the fact that LSU is also a smart and well-coached team. To think the Tigers would have just taken the ball into the end zone presumes Kelly doesn’t know what he’s doing. Sam Pittman surely knows Kelly is savvy, thus his decision to try to have the Razorbacks make a stop.
“Before somebody asks, did I think about letting them score? Yes, but I don’t think they would have,” Pittman said. “We talked about it. I decided to come all out and try to jar a fumble. So we went after them those last plays. Could we have let them score? Absolutely, we let them talk about it. I thought chances would be better with no timeouts to jar it loose and or block a field goal.”
Kelly seemed to concur, though he wasn’t asked directly about whether he would have pulled his players up short of the end zone. He wanted to leave Jefferson as little time as possible considering the quarterback’s 289 yards passing and three touchdowns.
“It was just one of those games where we were the last one to have the football and I wasn’t interested in letting Arkansas have another chance,” Kelly said.
Plus, letting the other team score a football would come across as “off brand” for Pittman, who preaches physicality and blue-collar work ethic among his players. Simply letting the Tigers walk into the end zone would have caused plenty of buzz, and if Arkansas didn’t end up scoring a touchdown in the following drive it’s possible that the film of such a failed tactic that goes against the the game’s traditional values could be used in negative recruiting going forward.
Kirk Herbstreit initially proposed the idea of the Razorbacks’ playing matador defense, but a few minutes later walked that back a little. “I think it goes against the DNA of the Arkansas program,” he said on the ESPN broadcast.
“Try and understand, from his perspective. I think a couple guys up here, wearing ties, are looking down at the field and can say ‘Hey, just whatever it takes. Let them score, just to give KJ Jefferson a chance now.’”
Bigger Issue for Arkansas Football
The chances Jefferson and the Arkansas football team needed to cash in on had come earlier in the game. The red zone on the other side of the ball ultimately proved to be more significant. Arkansas was inside LSU’s 20 three times. Three scores resulted on those trips, but two of them were field goals. On the first such, Arkansas had the ball 1st-and-goal from the LSU 7 before Cam Little made a 23-yard field goal to give Arkansas a 3-0 lead. The second looked eerily similar: 1st-and-goal from the LSU 6 and Cam Little kicked a 23-yarder to make it 6-0.
Either one of those get turned into touchdowns, the game looks entirely different because LSU is playing from two possessions down instead of two field goals down. Arkansas’ lone red-zone touchdown came on its final score: an 11-yard touchdown reception by Luke Hasz from KJ Jefferson.
Instead, the crowd wreaked havoc. Just before Little’s first field goal, Arkansas had the ball 3rd-and-goal on the 1. A Joshua Braun false start changed the Hogs’ play-calling plans. Six of Arkansas’ eight offensive penalties were false starts and another was a delay of game.
“We just weren’t getting set fast enough. The clock was fast tonight,” Pittman said. “They (the officials) were standing over it and we subbed. When we subbed and they stood over it again and we got in trouble. We quit substituting during that live-ball drive. But no, it’s our fault. The crowd played a part in it. They did exactly what we thought they were going to do.”
Penalties Persist for Hogs
In all, the Hogs were flagged 11 times for 69 yards, with nine of those coming in the second half. Frustrating, sure, but also less than the 14 penalties and 125 yards given up by Arkansas last week. That overshadowed the best offensive performance of the season and one of the best in the Pittman era, considering the continued absence of preseason All-American running back Rocket Sanders.
Accordingly, the doomsayers will be all over it, claiming Pittman is finished and offensive coordinator Dan Enos isn’t good enough, nor is the defense and so on and so forth. Essentially, a rehash of what went down in the aftermath of last week’s 7-point loss to BYU. Issues persist, undoubtedly. Pittman said as much. But change that goal-line stand at the end. Or let Arkansas have three timeouts in the final minute. Or turn one field goal into a touchdown.
Do any of those things and we aren’t sitting here talking about any of this. Do any of those things and Arkansas is inching back toward the Top 25 heading into a game against a Texas A&M team that has looked less than great so far and just had its starting quarterback injured vs Auburn. So let’s maybe have some perspective this week, eh?
At least a bit more than everyone had last week, please.
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