Only Major Head Scratcher from Auburn Loss Evokes Memory of Questionable Houston Nutt Call

Sam Pittman

As if we didn’t get our fill of Monday morning quarterbacking, here’s some of the Wednesday morning variant for you.

If fans want to blame the coaches — and apparently they do no matter what calmer heads may urge — then note a few signs of inexperience of Hogs head coach Sam Pittman might have shown up on Saturday during Arkansas’ loss to Auburn.

Pittman said in his post-game press conference that he felt like the Hogs still had the momentum on their side in the third quarter when Arkansas started possession at its 11 after a punt-fielding botch, but to be fair he also sounded shell-shocked from the third straight loss. Yes, Arkansas had scored on its first possession of the third quarter to pull ahead 17-14, and yes, they had forced a pair of three-and-outs on Auburn.

Still, by that point in the third quarter, Arkansas had lost its momentum. The previous drive had stalled quickly after one first down before it reached midfield, and Auburn’s defensive coordinator, former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason, had obviously urged his athletic unit to take the fight back to the Hogs. When Auburn had the Hogs pinned at the 11, the momentum swing was plain to see to everyone except apparently the Hogs’ sideline.

Not sure what the answer would have been for play-calling outside of three running plays and a punt out of there, but it’s obvious the Hogs’ offensive line in pass protection, in the one place it couldn’t fail, wasn’t up to the task of blocking four onrushing Tigers. Three plays and a couple Auburn sacks later, the Tigers were up again after recovering a KJ Jefferson fumble in the end zone.

Sam Pittman’s Most Questionable Call

Against Auburn, Arkansas had three fourth-down failures that seemed to fall on execution. Calling those plays is Pittman’s prerogative – he expected success – but he had to believe that field goals ultimately weren’t going to beat Auburn. Still, he was willing to have Cam Little try a 53-yarder in the second quarter (snapped on the Auburn 36) that was well wide right and short.

The only major head scratcher for us was Sam Pittman’s going for 2 points after cutting Auburn’s lead to 5, 28-23, as the third quarter concluded. Pittman later referred to the coaches’ analytics “book,” that he says indicated you go for 2 in that situation to cut the deficit to 3 points. Maybe.

It should depend on how confidently you believe your 2-point play is, and whether you think your defense finish the game by shutting out Auburn completely. The missed 2-pointer and Auburn’s eventual field goal made it an 8-point game, and Arkansas was left chasing that point with 10 minutes to play. Missed 2-point tries can squelch momentum, too. At least that’s been my view over 50-something years.

Just the week before, Pittman had gone for 2 when it did make sense — at the end of a wild back-and-forth shootout with Ole Miss. He said before that game that he tends to trust his own instincts when it comes to applying the data versus his own instincts when it comes to in-game decisions.

“We have an analytics guru,” Pittman said in a weekly SEC coaches’ call. “I do it more on feel than I do on analytics [as it pertains to fourth-down and other in-game management situations].”

I like that Pittman trusts his own instincts. I have always thought that, rather than go by “the book” or analytics, a coach needs to go on feel. But sometimes the feel might be off. If Pittman really felt the best shot they had was to tie the game and perhaps send it into overtime, making a late field goal, then so be it. Yet I feel like the whole decision seemed to send the wrong message.

Houston Nutt’s Call in 1998

On the other hand, then-Arkansas coach Houston Nutt in 1998 at Mississippi State went up 20-19 and had his team kick the PAT with 5 minutes left in the third quarter. His reasoning was “we thought we’d keep scoring.” Maybe so, and maybe some fans agreed as well, but in that case you ALWAYS get the differential off a 2-point margin to 3, if you can.

The reasoning is simple: if those points don’t come as you expect, a field goal can only tie you, not beat you.

Through one of the most fraught fourth quarters in Hog history, with the Arkansas defense desperately keeping the Bulldogs out of scoring range, the home team finally got it close enough to kick the winning field goal at the horn, 22-21. And what should have been a one-loss team heading two weeks later to Atlanta and a revenge matchup against Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game fell into the Citrus Bowl and ended the year 9-3.

Analytics are overused in every sport these days, especially baseball, to the point of nonsense.

Coaches, throw away the book!


More about the Arkansas football, including a lot about the referees’ terrible calls, here:

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