Sure, “Yessir!” and “Turn that damn jukebox up!” are more catchy, but no phrase better captures what the Sam Pittman era at Arkansas has been about so far than “bounce back.”
In the big picture, the Arkansas football program bounced back from consecutive 2-10 seasons to where it is a threat to beat most good teams on most Saturdays. In 2020, it rebounded from a ridiculous call at Auburn to win two of its next three games against SEC foes. Then, despite losing four games in a row to finish out that season, the Hogs started the 2021 season strong to break into the Top 10 for the first time in a long time.
After that, Arkansas suffered a three-game losing streak only to again bounce back, winning five of its last six games including a big Outback Bowl win over Penn State.
Now, the Hogs are again in dire need of a rebound as they try to recover from a fluky loss to Texas A&M and back-to-back drubbings by Alabama and Mississippi State. That latest defeat, to the tune of 17-40 in Starkville, stung for a while. Indeed, the hurt lingered through the weekend, right tackle Dalton Wagner said.
At Mississippi State, “guys were a little down on themselves and feeling a little sorry for themselves,” Wagner, a team captain, said Wednesday on “The Zone” on The Buzz 103.7 FM. Pittman, however, turned that attitude “really quickly” on Monday as soon as the team met. “Coach Pitt pretty much called us out on it, and we went out and had a very physical Monday practice and we got after it.”
Wagner added: “The only way we know how to get back to winning is just kind of going like hell, as Coach Pittman says, and getting back to work.”
The Monday and Tuesday practices essentially “rejuvenated the whole team. You could feel it. The whole team was back to what we were – back to confidence… I’m telling you, it was one of the most physical Tuesdays we’ve had and since camp probably.”
Arkansas Football in Red Zone
Getting back to the foundation of what makes the Razorbacks roll will entail cashing in on more opportunities in the red zone behind what what is supposed to be one of the nation’s top offensive lines. In 2021, Arkansas ranked No. 33 nationally in red zone scoring percentage but that has plummeted to No. 107 through six games in 2022.
While the Hogs converted six of six red zone touchdown opportunities against South Carolina in Week 2, since then they have scored touchdowns on only 7 of 16 (43.8%) red-zone opportunities. Ineffectiveness of fourth down, on which Arkansas has rushed 9 times for 23 yards, has been a recent problem. So have turnovers and miscues in the area. As Arkansas football reporter Scottie Bordelon notes, “[Raheim] Sanders and quarterback KJ Jefferson fumbled inside the 5 against Missouri State and Texas A&M, respectively, and an errant snap by center Ricky Stromberg complicated matters toward the end of a potential go-ahead drive against the Aggies.”
Wagner also told Justin Acri and Wess More he saw miscues inside the opponent’s 20 yard line during the Mississippi Game game:
“There’s one play where someone, I can’t remember who it was, stepped on each other. And so then you couldn’t get to those linebackers, but if you got the linebacker it’s a walk-in. Just little details like that which kind of amalgamate into issues that cause us to have a low red zone percentage. And those are details we got to clean up… because that’s not who we are as an offensive line, that’s not who we are as an offense. We’re an offense that’s going to punch that in.”
During Monday’s press conference, Pittman added: “We had a missed assignment on the goal line… We’ve got to cover up the front side edge somehow. That would be either bringing in one of our wide outs or have 12 personnel with another tight end. Because we had no chance on fourth-and-1.”
No doubt, KJ Jefferson’s return to quarterback should help with red zone efficiency, especially now that he won’t be trying to Superman it into the end zone from 5 yards away again any time soon. “We need to move the pocket a little more and give KJ a run-pass option” Pittman said. “We need to score more touchdowns.”
Arkansas vs BYU in Run Game
The combination of Jefferson’s return plus a fully-loaded Razorback running attack has made Arkansas the slight favorite in some analysts’ minds (the line is Arkansas -1.5) in Saturday afternoon’s game in Provo, Utah. The BYU defense has shown vulnerability to strong run games, allowing 174.5 yards per game on the ground. The Cougars gave up 212 rushing yards in a blowout loss to Oregon and in the last two weeks have given up 204 ground yards to Utah State and 234 against Notre Dame.
As far as how Arkansas will attack BYU, “it’s going to depend on what front they’re going to come out in,” Dalton Wagner said. “They can either come out in an odd front or a razor front, which is like three down defensive linemen and you have an opportunity to have three linebackers and then you have extras from there.”
“Or you could have four linebackers and three down linemen and maybe an even front – four down linemen and two or maybe three linebackers. So obviously if you’re running into that four/three box there with seven guys, you’ve only got five blockers, so it’s a little bit more difficult there. It let’s us look for some plays that’ll be able to gash them or figure out how we can get to that backside spot and create a run lane for Rocket [Sanders]. But I’m very confident in the plan.”
Listen to more about Arkansas vs BYU here:
Some Hilarious Insight into Wagner’s Past
In a recent feature the Democrat-Gazette’s Scottie Bordelon spoke to Dalton’s father, Brad, and came away with some fun stories. The yarns start with Brad, a vice president for an Illinois paving company, explaining why he married Dalton’s mom: “My wife and I always (joked) the main reason we got married was for quote-unquote breeding stock. She’s 6-2 by trade and I’m 6-5. We always wanted to develop football players. No, but what we did was just kind of slip our pen on when he was born. It was funny.”
They produced two big ‘uns, that’s for sure. And Dalton was always trying to keep up with his older brother, Bryce, who late in his college career stood 6-8 and weighed 346 pounds, which is bigger than every NBA rookie of the year since Karl Anthony-Towns. To the point where his parents signed Dalton up for a youth football league at the age of five, which was technically too young.
“We actually lied on our application for him to play. He was literally playing football when he was five years old. It was pretty cool,” Dalton’s dad said with a laugh, “until we saw him get hit really good. Then we didn’t think it was such a good idea. But he saw it through.”
In a foreshadowing of the WWE partnership Dalton Wagner would ink as a Razorback, he could also get into it into pretty good with Bryce. “They got into it one time in the bathroom, so you have two big elephants wrestling in the bathroom and Dalton pushed Bryce into the wall, and he hit it so hard that his butt broke the drywall perfectly,” Brad Wagner recalled. “We never really fixed it to always remind them. Just the joys of being a bigger family.”
Make sure to read Bordelon’s full feature story here.