It seems fitting that the last two college football coaches to elevate the Arkansas football program into the Associated Press Top 10 will be on opposite sidelines Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
That’s when Razorback head coach Sam Pittman will lead No. 10 Arkansas (2-0) against Missouri State (2-0) and former Razorback head coach Bobby Petrino.
Petrino coached at Arkansas from 2008-2011 with a record of 34-17 before being fired in 2012 after an infamous motorcycle accident with an alleged mistress and the following aftermath.
The Razorbacks went 10-3 and 11-2 in Petrino’s final two seasons at Arkansas with a loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and a win over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl in his last game at the helm.
Arkansas was in the AP Top 10 those last two seasons under Petrino, but not under ensuing head coaches Bret Bielema and Chad Morris.
“Excited to play Missouri State,” Pittman said. “Last time Arkansas was relevant, relevant was when Coach Petrino was here. We’re very grateful for his time here and what he did for the program. We’ve used that in recruiting. Without him and his staff, we wouldn’t have been able to do that. So, it’ll be exciting for him I’m sure to come back here, but they’ve got a good team.”
Petrino is in his third year at Missouri State and the Bears have opened this season with a pair of Thursday night wins at the University of Central Arkansas (27-14) and against visiting Tennessee-Martin (35-30).
Quarterback Jason Shelley (36-of-54 passing for 563 yards, 6 TDs) is a former Utah and Utah State signal caller while former Kansas State running back Jarcadia Wright (158 yards rushing) and wide receivers Tyron Scott (18 catches for 256 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Johan Booker (8 for 128) also head up the Missouri State offense.
Former Springdale Har-Ber standout Hunter Wood (2 catches, 16 yards) and former Arkansas player Jordan Jones (2 catches, 12 yards), who is playing in his seventh collegiate season, are also wideout for the Bears.
Missouri State moved up from tenth to fifth this week in the Football Bowl Championship poll.
“…They’re ranked seventh and have a good team and went to the playoffs last year,” Pittman said. “Almost beat Oklahoma State last year (23-16 loss) at the beginning of the year, and Oklahoma State beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, so we know we have to be ready for a fine team coming in here.”
Petrino has also been head coach of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons (2007), in two stints with Louisville (2003-2006 and 2014-2018) and at Western Kentucky (2013).
He is 134-65 overall and 5-6 in postseason bowls as a head coach, including 3-10 with the Falcons before leaving abruptly to take the Razorback post.
“Well, he’s a great coach,” Pittman said. “He was when he was here and with the Falcons and Louisville. They tried several different people before him, and he’s been able to go in there and get them back to the playoffs. He’s just a really good coach. Got a good staff. Went in the transfer portal and got a lot of players there, and I’m sure they went there because of his reputation as a coach. So, it’s been a great job that he’s done there and I’m sure will continue to do.”
Petrino has always been known as a creative offensive coach.
“Yeah, I think he’s fantastic,” Pittman said. “I mean, really good coach. Schematically, he knows what he wants to do. He’s got a quarterback that’s good. He’s got a running back. I like the running back a lot. He’s got two wideouts. More, but he’s got a wideout that’s a really good player. Uses them well, a lot of different sets, different formations, can run the quarterback, will throw it a bunch when he needs to.”
Pittman was asked if the return of Petrino would be something that got his team’s attention.
“Probably,” Pittman said. “I really haven’t thought of it that way. Probably. These weeks are about trying to get better and trying to see who can help us win ballgames. So, these kind of weeks, like last week, we took the approach that we have to get better ourselves.
“We certainly have things to work on that we have to get better before we worry about who we are playing. I’ve been proud of our team ever since we’ve been here with them putting the game before away and playing the next game, so I feel pretty confident we’ll get them focused. They’ll be focused and ready to play.”
Pittman is not about to apologize for sending out a tweet about his team being in the Top 10.
“Well, I think it’s a big deal,” Pittman said. “I do. Everybody always looks at the negative all the time. I Tweeted out that we were No. 10 and then I got some responses, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter.’ Well, I ain’t Tweeting it out to you guys or a 50-year-old man. I’m trying to use it as recruiting, you know. So I really don’t care what the guy says, you know what I mean? I’m trying to recruit. Not him or them. I recruit. So we’re proud of it. Sure we’re proud of it. That doesn’t mean that that’s where we want to stay.”
Taking a team that won only two games in both 2018 and 2019 and getting them to a Top 10 ranking is something to be acknowledged per Pittman.
“It’s hard to be in the top 10,” Pittman said. “We’ve been in the top 10 two years in a row. The kids have done it. The coaches, assistant coaches have done it. Yeah, I’m proud of it. I sure am. Whenever it came out I was smiling ear to ear. What that means right now is we’re No. 10 today and I Tweeted it out. I’m proud of it.”
Arkansas had 10 penalties for 122 yards in its 31-24 win over SEC foe South Carolina and that will be a major factor in this week’s preparation according to Pittman.
“The No. 1 thing is our penalties,” Pittman said. “We’ve got to figure out how to get those cleaned up. Most of those if not all of them on defense happened on third down, and they were all five for 15, you know 75 yards. It just can’t happen. We’ve got to really emphasize it. We’ve got good coaches. They’ll help with that, and we’ve got to get it fixed because it’s going to come back and bite us if we don’t.”
Pittman, whose team was No. 8 in the AP poll last season after beating Texas A&M and going 4-0, noted his team’s penalties have to be cut way down.
“If you’re looking at the game Saturday, we had 10 penalties,” Pittman said. “That number should be anywhere from two to six. They’re going to call a couple holdings. I get it. But now 10. That’s on me. I, evidently, let that go at practice. I didn’t think I had, but evidently I have.
“I promise you it’s an emphasis, but it was last week, too. Because I think we had seven (for 63 yards) in the first game. That’s disappointing. I’m disappointed in myself on that one. We’ve got to get it cleaned up.”
Three of the penalties against Arkansas in the South Carolina game were due to hands to the face and called on three different Arkansas defensive lineman.
“Obviously we’re not getting close enough to (the offensive linemen),” Pittman said. “They were all what I call long arms. They were all long arms. Basically you’ve got your arm in there and you can’t get two in there and it rides. Well, you can ride for a second. You can get up in there and take it off and you won’t get called. Just keep holding on.
“A lot of it is they were doing the same thing, not necessarily in the face. I’m not trying to get a fine for officiating. I’m good with that. But we’ve got to get our hands out of there once it happens. We went back and looked at tape because I go, ‘Go back and look. I cannot remember.’ We weren’t doing that. We’re certainly emphasizing that.”
On the injury front, Pittman expects to have defensive back Myles Slusher back this week after missing the South Carolina game, but said that cornerback LaDarrius Bishop would be unable to play because of injury.
He also updated the status of tight end Trey Knox, who was injured Saturday, tailback Dominique Johnson, who has yet to play this season and safety Latavious Brini.
“We’ve got to watch him,” Pittman said of Knox. “I think he’ll be fine this weekend. I think we really have to watch him. How we do it, if there’s potential for him to practice that day…we take them into indy (individual drills) and we let the coaches kind of see where they’re at physically. That is also encouraging them to practice. They’re already suited out there, they’re already suited out, they’re in indy. But it’s also a good way to find out where they really are injury-wise. So we’re going to do that with him today.
“I think Brini’s probably a little healthier than Trey.”