Razorbacks straining to improve at midpoint of the season

Linebacker Grant Morgan / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

No doubt Sam Pittman’s No. 17 Arkansas Razorbacks would agree with Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” when she told her little dog Toto there is no place like home.

The Hogs (4-2, 1-2 SEC) will have played away from the friendly confines of Razorback Stadium for the better part of a month when they play host to the Auburn Tigers (4-2, 1-1 SEC) at 11 a.m. Saturday on CBS.

It’ll be the Hogs third 11 a.m. kickoff in a row, with a fourth to come Oct. 23 when the Razorbacks play Pine Bluff at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Oct. 23 before finally being able to sleep in on Oct. 30 for an open date.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Auburn
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 16
Where: Fayetteville, Arkansas

Remaining schedule

Oct. 23 — UAPB, in Little Rock
Nov. 6 — Mississippi State
Nov. 13 — at LSU
Nov. 20 — at Alabama
Nov. 26 — Missouri

“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of as many 11 a.m. games in a row at all, let alone on the road that many times,” Pittman said. “I’m grateful for 11 a.m. games. They’re a lot better when you win because you can go home, look at everybody else and say, ‘Why’d he make that call? Why’d he do that?’ And have a good time.

“But when you lose, it’s not any fun. You go home and you think over and over and over about how you can … A man who corrects himself looks at himself.”

Echoing his old boss Kirby Smart from the week Arkansas went to Georgia, Pittman made a plea for Hog fans to arrive for the Auburn game early and to be rambunctious.

No hand-sitting this Saturday.

“We need our fans,” Pittman said. “I think we’re about 500 tickets remaining for the game. “There’s been two games that had specific [effect], where I think the crowd mattered and helped the winning team. I’m not saying either team would have not won without the crowd, but when we went to Georgia, it was 110 decibels over there. It certainly affected the beginning of the game and throughout the game.

“Of course, when we played Texas here, our crowd was as good as any crowd that you could ever hope for. We need that crowd again. We need our students in here raising heck early before the game. I’m just telling you the football team needs the fans, and we need them to come in here and help us win on Saturday.”

Oddsmakers have made Arkansas 3.5 point favorites against Auburn, whom the Hogs have not beaten since 2015 in a 54-46 victory at Razorback Stadium. The game is the first time the Hogs have been a favorite in an SEC contest since Pittman has been coach.

“I mean, I don’t know,” Pittman said of being favored. “I don’t know if it has any outcome on the game or not, but I’d rather be favored than 22-point underdogs.

“I don’t know what it means to be honest with you, but we are favored against Auburn, so we’ve come a little ways, you know? We’ll find out.”

The Hogs won’t be back in Razorback Stadium until Nov. 6 to host Mississippi State before facing LSU at Baton Rogue on Nov. 13 and then No. 5 Alabama at Tuscaloosa on Nov. 20.

Then the season finale with Missouri will be at 2:30 p.m. on the day after Thanksgiving (Nov. 26), and poof, the regular season is over.

With any luck at all, the Razorbacks will go bowling this year. The destination could be Florida fine with a trip to the Citrus Bowl or possibly the Capital One Bowl, or it might be as mundane as Memphis for the Liberty Bowl or Houston for the Texas Bowl.

Isn’t it wild how success changes expectations.

A trip to any bowl would have sounded good this summer, but with the Razorbacks’ fast start and so-called upsets of Texas and Texas A&M in September, aspirations have changed despite the 37-0 thumping at Georgia two weeks ago as well as the 52-51 loss to Ole Miss at Oxford last Saturday.

The Hogs were set to play TCU in the Texas Bowl last December, but Covid-19 robbed them of the opportunity.

The next seven weeks will tell the tale of where the Razorbacks deserve to end their season.
Wow, has the season hit the midpoint fast?

It seems just like yesterday the Razorbacks were in the midst of preseason practice, and now the season is half gone.

Traditionally this is around the time when coaches let up a bit on teams as they nurse bumps and bruises, but Pittman said Monday this isn’t the time for him to take his foot off the pedal with his Hogs.

“We’re going to have full-time practices,” Pittman said. “We’re not going to cut time even though we’re in Week 7. We just can’t afford to.”

Pittman was up front about his belief that adjustments need to be made on defense. Georgia and Ole Miss battered the Hogs with strong running games. Ole Miss with splendid quarterback Matt Corral took advantage of Arkansas’ secondary in ways other opponents couldn’t.

“We have to get better on both sides of the ball, but the glaring deal obviously everyone knows was on the defensive side of the ball,” Pittman said. “Those are areas we’re really going to have to concern ourself with this week, along with what we’re doing schematically and different things and moving people and things of that nature.”

A big question is what the Hogs will do with their defensive front. Arkansas fared well early with a three-man front, but Georgia rushed for 273 yards and Ole Miss 324 the last two weeks. That has to have Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo licking their chops.

“I’m not going to sit here and say what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do,”Pittman said of adjustments that he and defensive coordinator Barry Odom are planning. “But to answer your question we do have enough D-linemen we feel like, that we could rotate in a four-man line.”

Pittman is not content to stand pat.

“There will be some corrections and changes and what our schematics could be,” Pittman said. “There were a lot of problems we have to get fixed. One of them was tackling. We couldn’t get Corral on the ground, and our secondary support was poor. Therefore, that’s why you saw a lot of B-gap runs go to the house. We couldn’t set the edge. We let the edge go a lot on defense, and we blew several coverages.”

Auburn quarterback Bo Nix has had an up-and-down career, but his athletic ability has never been questioned. He made some remarkable back-yard type plays last week in a 34-10 loss to Georgia on his sheer athletic ability. That type of improvisation could be vexing to the Razorbacks.

Harsin, though, expressed his admiration for the way the Razorbacks have been playing.

“As you look at Arkansas: Tough, physical. Those two things stand out,” Harsin said. “The coaches do a very good job. They’re two points away from being 5-1, and they’re playing aggressive. Those things all stand out. There’s a lot of really good players on their team.”

Despite the fact that Arkansas rolled to 676 yards of offense against Ole Miss, the most the Razorbacks have ever produced against an SEC opponent and the fourth most in the history of the program, Pittman continues to adjust personnel on the offensive front.

Trusty super senior Ty Clary played right tackle against the Rebels with Dalton Wagoner out with a dislocated finger. Clary will remain at the spot for the foreseeable future.

“Ty is a veteran,” Pittman said. “He’s started a lot of games. Going into the game, I wasn’t one bit concerned about right tackle, because Clary has been practicing it during the week for several weeks. The good-on-good reps, Ty was getting.”

The Razorbacks got improved play from third-year sophomore guards Brady Latham and Beaux Limmer, who felt some pressure last week concerning their starting spots.

Pittman and offensive line coach Cody Kennedy challenged them by moving sophomores Ty’Kieast Crawford (6-5, 350) and Jalen St. John (6-5, 330) inside to play some at guard after working at offensive tackle all season.

Latham and Limmer retained their starting spots for the Ole Miss game and played better.

“I thought they played well,” Pittman said. “I think a lot of times when you think you’re going to lose your job, you go back to playing how you earned that job. I think they did. I thought they had a good game.”

St. John and Crawford will remain at guard, and Pittman said reserve guard Luke Jones (6-5, 310) may have found a home at back-up left tackle.

“I think he can be another tackle for us,” Pittman said. “I think Luke Jones looked really good last week at tackle.”