Playing at home should be an advantage, and Arkansas coach Sam Pittman is doing all he can to stoke the fires of the Razorback faithful for a key SEC West showdown against the Auburn Tigers at 11 a.m. Saturday in Razorback Stadium.
Pittman can get as philosophical as you want on the subject, calling time just a construct during a press conference when the topic of another 11 a.m. kickoff for the Hogs — their third in a row — was broached, or he can be real when he mentioned that there have been times in his life when he’s been rowdy and ready at 11 a.m. so he knows that Razorback students and fans can be too, if they are committed to the cause.
Pittman knows that Hog fans understand how to show up and show out with the most recent example being the Hogs’ 40-21 blowout of Texas on Sept. 11 at Razorback Stadium. He’s looking for the same type of intensity from Razorbackers Saturday when his No. 17 Hogs (4-2, 1-2 SEC) square off with Auburn (4-2, 1-1 SEC) as the early half of a CBS double-header.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. Auburn
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 16
Where: Fayetteville, Arkansas
Oct. 23 — UAPB, in Little Rock
Nov. 6 — Mississippi State
Nov. 13 — at LSU
Nov. 20 — at Alabama
Nov. 26 — Missouri
Pittman said he’d stop by the student section 55 minutes before kickoff to salute those who make it to the game early.
“It’s hard to win on the road in the SEC,” Pittman said Wednesday night on his radio show broadcast from the Catfish Hole. “The crowd, in my opinion, makes such a difference in the games. It can make a difference in the start, and it can make a difference at the end because of the volume and how they get our kids pumped up at home.”
Pittman and his Hogs are still having nightmares from the ground-shaking crowd that filled Sanford Stadium when the Hogs visited Georgia and suffered a 37-0 loss to the now top-ranked Bulldogs two weeks ago.
“I’ll tell you, Georgia’s fans made a difference, and I’ll guaran-damn-tee you we will, too, on Saturday,” Pittman predicted of the Hogs’ partisan crowd for Arkansas only game at Razorback Stadium for the month of October.
Super senior offensive tackle Ty Clary said the Hogs felt the support from their fans in the Texas game, and he hopes fans will create a similar atmosphere for the Tigers.
“The Texas game was probably the loudest that stadium has been since I’ve been here,” the Fayetteville native said. “It definitely affected the game. They were loud enough to impact their (Texas) offense a little bit. We definitely got energy off it. We were loving playing out in that crowd.”
Razorback nickel back Greg Brooks echoed Clary’s sentiments.
“I feel like the crowd’s a big factor. It’s definitely going to get us pumped up since we have an 11 a.m. game.”
Auburn tumbled out of the Top 25 this week after a 37-10 home loss to Georgia last Saturday. The Hogs, of course, fell from No. 13 to No. 17 after a 52-51 loss to Ole Miss in a game that turned on the Hogs’ missed two-point conversion attempt with no time on the clock.
After a great 4-0 start to the season, the Hogs want to avoid going 0-3 in October. Similarly the Tigers are seeking to stay in contention for a possible Western Division title.
“Being 4-2 I think is certainly not where we want to be,” Pittman said, “but we can’t sit here and go, ‘Well that’s been a terrible season to this point,’ Certainly wish we would’ve been able to convert the 2-point play or stop [Ole Miss] or make a field goal or not get a turnover, whatever it may be, and be 5-1.
“But I’m proud of our kids, the way they play. I’m proud of our coaching staff. We have to get better. I have to do a better job. Once I do that it’ll trickle down. But I’m proud of where we’re sitting at this point. And I’d probably be lying to you if I told you anything else.”
The Razorbacks are 3.5-point favorites going into the game, but this is another pick-em contest in my eyes.
The Hogs garnered all their respect this season by upsetting longtime rivals Texas and Texas A&M when both were overrated. Conversely Auburn’s losses were at the hands of No. 1 Georgia and No. 7 Penn State.
Whichever team comes away with the victory Saturday will still have hopes of finishing the season strong and earning a bowl bid that will allow them to spend New Years’s Eve in Florida. The loser will be left wondering what happened at midseason.
Some Hog fans may be overlooking the athleticism that Auburn always brings to the field, but Pittman isn’t.
“I really like Auburn’s team, they’re physical,” Pittman said. “They’re an SEC team. When they walk on the field, they’ll look like an SEC team. I think they’re a more physical team than they were a year ago.”
Pittman said the Tigers boast a typically strong defensive front that will be a challenge for his Hogs.
“Their D-linemen are playing like Auburn,” Pittman said. “Their D-linemen are playing very well. Their linebackers run to the ball. (Safety) Smoke Monday is a special player.”
Offensively Bo Nix is a competitor and leader at quarterback for Bryan Harsin’s Tigers.
“Nix is a really good quarterback, but he’s better outside the pocket, scrambling and making things happen,” Pittman said. “We don’t want him to scramble — we want to keep him in the pocket — but if he does, that’s where he’s dangerous. I’d say two out of four reps, we’re working on him scrambling and matching up with receivers, and then somebody’s got to run him down….Once he gets on the move, it can be scary.”
Super senior Razorback linebacker Grant Morgan also has great respect for the Auburn signal caller.
“Bo extends plays with his legs very well,” Morgan said. “And when he does it, he doesn’t just put his eyes down. He looks up always. He always finds that next receiver that’s open when he goes into scramble.”
Arkansas’ defense has worn down in recent weeks with a number of nagging injuries to key performers like safety Jalen Catalon (broken hand) and defensive end Tre Williams (arm). Catalon will be playing with a protective cast on his hand. Williams left the Ole Miss game early and didn’t return. His status for the game is unknown.
“If you look at where we were against Texas and Texas A&M, our defense was great, and then the last two weeks hasn’t quite been as good,” Pittman said. “But we can fix that because we’ve got the same kids. We can fix that, and we will. We’ve done a nice job of getting off the field on third down. The problem with Ole Miss is they were converting fourth downs.”
The past two weeks Georgia and Ole Miss punished Arkansas’ defense with determined rushing attacks that racked up big yardage. No doubt Auburn will attempt to do the same with Tank Bigsby, one of the most talented runners in the SEC, leading the way.
Bigsby rolled up 146 yards last year on the Hogs. He’s likely determined to do so again.
“Tank Bigsby is as good as any running back in the nation,” Pittman said Wednesday. “We have to tackle him. It’s going to be very crucial. When you watch the tape, there’s a lot of people who had trouble with him, too. I can just remember from re-watching the game from last year, we just couldn’t get him on the ground. He has those big, strong, powerful legs. We’re going to have to get a lot of guys around him, gang tackle him, help each other get him on the ground because he is that special of a player.”
The Tigers are also excellent at stopping the run, allowing just 104.7 yards per game on the ground, which is 22nd in the nation. The Hogs average 244.8 yards rushing per game, so something will have to give.
“I think it’s important to put two and two together — front end and back end — and being able to play ball,” Harsin said of his defense. “We’ve put great defense together in spurts. If we’re able to do that for a full four quarters, I think we’ll have no issue going out and executing our plays.”
The Hogs’ X factor is sophomore quarterback K.J. Jefferson who is developing into one of the nation’s most dynamic young signal callers.
“Offensively, the quarterback can run it, throw it — do it all,” Harsin said. “They play physical up front. They can run it and that’s an identity of that team. The quarterback pulls it down to run. That’s just one of many things the defense has to prepare for with this offense and the players they have.”
Jefferson is a powerful runner with his solid 6-3, 245-pound frame. He’s proven adept at running around, through, and over opponents this season. He’s also developing as a dangerous passer in offensive coordinator Kendall Briles’ RPO-system.
“They tried to take the running game away and we were able to throw the ball,” Pittman said of Jefferson’s 326 passing yards against the Rebels. “It’s so great to have a quarterback who can do both. In my opinion, it was (offensive coordinator) Kendal Briles’ offense at its best. That was why I wanted to hire him because I knew he would utilize a running quarterback if we had one, and certainly we have one.”