Bye-bye, Chad Morris. May your legacy, er, liability of Arkansas football be cast to the depths where it rightfully belongs. This is Sam Pittman time.
The whispers and hushed tones were resurfacing about Arkansas football. The Hogs had lost three straight SEC games and if Arkansas didn’t beat Mississippi State on Saturday night at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, it would be four.
Trips to LSU and Alabama in the next two weeks very well could have made it six, meaning Missouri, a team Arkansas hasn’t beaten in five years, would have come to Fayetteville in the final week of the regular season with a chance to keep the Hogs from a bowl game after a 4-0 start.
The name ‘Morris’ was slowly arising from its tomb in the Arkansas fandom psyche where it had been repressed since the hiring of Pittman as his replacement in late 2019.
Back to the depths from whence you came, foul name.
Arkansas’ 31-28 win over Mississippi State allows a beleaguered fan base, a beleaguered program, to take an official next step. The Razorbacks, now 6-3, will not finish 2021 below .500 in the regular season for the first time since 2016. And it’s because the man who took over for He Who Shall No Longer Be Named decided to come home.
Going Bowling Under Sam Pittman
Pittman isn’t an Arkansas native. But as much as folks from the Natural State and Sooner State rib each other, Oklahoma is practically Arkansas. The Razorbacks are Pittman’s first-ever college head-coaching job. He spent seasons from 1994 to 2019 as an assistant coach at the FBS level, almost never being brought up as a potential head of a program.
Arkansas took a chance on a former son (Pittman coached offensive line with the Razorbacks from 2013-15) and is now reaping the benefits. Not only is Arkansas not bad, the Hogs could be legitimately good. Like good good. A win against LSU and Missouri and then another in a bowl game would equal nine wins, the most since before the motorcycle crash heard round the world.
But let’s not put the cart in front of the horse just yet. As coaches tend to say, celebrate for a night then get back to work.
Razorbacks’ Keys to Beating Mississippi State
Arkansas needed talent, precision, poise and toughness to beat what he called a “good-ass football team” in Mississippi State. The Bulldogs entered Saturday ranked No. 17 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. Treylon Burks and Grant Morgan – among others – have given Arkansas the first part of the equation all season long. Nose tackle John Ridgeway, who went down in the fourth quarter with an apparent foot injury, injected a whole heap of the last part. The precision and poise? That’s the Pittman effect. And no one has benefitted from it more than KJ Jefferson.
Arkansas’ sophomore, first-year starting quarterback has developed in front of our eyes. His dreadful start against Rice had the always-angry contingent calling for Malik Hornsby. After a half of football. Ye of little faith. Jefferson, who will never be the most finesse and accurate passer, completed 19 of 23 passes against the Bulldogs. He had eight completions on Arkansas’ go-ahead drive in the final 2:22.
“I love him,” Pittman said after the game. “I’m not saying I knew we were going to go down and score because that’s a lie. But I felt confident if we got the first first down of that drive, which we did fast, I felt like we could score. He’s a heck of a quarterback.”
With apologies to Mississippi State’s Will Rogers, who threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns against Arkansas, Jefferson is the third best quarterback in the SEC in his first year as a full-time player. The only two who are better, Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, are arguably the two front-runners for the Heisman Trophy.
The precision came from Jefferson’s passing. The poise came on the drive as a whole, especially on the penultimate play of the series. Facing a 2nd-and-4 from the Mississippi State 9 with less than 35 seconds left, Jefferson looked like he was going to be sacked for about a four-yard loss. Instead, he broke free of the would-be tackler, then staved off three more Mississippi State defenders, turning that loss into a five-yard gain and a first down.
A five-yard gain in the box score isn’t much. But Johnson probably isn’t getting the ball on a carry if it’s 3rd-and-8, 3rd-and-9, and therefore isn’t likely to score on a touchdown. Instead, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound signal-caller, whose running game had been bottled all night, found the will.
Nothing good comes without a little luck. Arkansas received that, too, when Nolan McCord’s potential game-tying field goal attempt went wide left. Before that, Mississippi State’s starting kicker, Brandon Ruiz, missed two field goal attempts, including one from 22 yards. Mike Leach, the man with whom Arkansas brass discussed the vacant position in 2019, was less than pleased.
“There’s an open tryout – and you can announce this – there’s an open tryout on our campus for kickers,” Leach said. “Anybody that wants to kick or walk on and kick at Mississippi State, we’ll hold a tryout any time you can get over there to our building, providing you’re cleared by the NCAA.”
Arkansas won’t follow suit. Freshman kicker Cam Little made three of his four attempts and on one tied the Arkansas freshman record of 51 yards. It was the first time Arkansas had won the battle of special teams against an SEC team since before anyone can remember.
But that’s the magic of Pittman. He has a special-teams coach. He has coordinators he trusts. He has players that love him. He has a fan base that adores him. He does it all while maintaining the cool, collected attitude he carried from the days he would enter Arkansas’ media rooms in the bowels of the Smith Football Center, throw his feet up and hold court as an assistant under Bret Bielema.
The stakes are higher now, which seems to be just fine with him. He’s proud of what his team accomplished Saturday night.
For the first time in decades, Arkansas, the state, has a genuinely likable coach to whom it, too, can show the same pride. After the divisiveness marking far too many years under Houston Nutt, the successful but prickly Bobby Petrino, inconsistent Bret Bielema and that high school coach in Texas, that’s a welcome change indeed.
“I’m very, very, very proud of our team and our coaches and our administration,” Pittman said. “We didn’t just win the Super Bowl but it feels like it. Very, very excited to know we’re going to play in December or January.”
Aren’t we all, coach. Aren’t we all.
Hear Sam Pittman’s speech after the Razorbacks’ Mississippi State win here:
Where does Pittman rank among the all-timers? We delve into that in our latest post: