FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas had never won in Columbia prior to Friday and after a 29-27 loss where they were physically dominated that losing streak is still intact.
It was incorrectly reported in this space last week Arkansas last won in Columbia in 1944 to open the season. The Razorbacks did win that game 7-6, but it was in St. Louis not Columbia. Regardless of that, Friday’s game saw the Hogs simply get physically dominated by the Tigers. Former Razorback Alfred Davis has done an outstanding job with the Missouri defensive line that was part of a unit that got seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss and drew praise from Sam Pittman.
“He’s done a great job, and I think they’ve improved ever since,” Pittman said. “Those are questions for Eli (Drinkwitz), too, but I think he’s improved ever since I think he took over last year maybe some point at the end of the season and you can see improvement with their defensive line ever since he’s been coaching them. He’s done an outstanding job.”
Entering the game, Arkansas running back Rocket Sanders needed 98 yards to pass Ole Miss’ Quinshon Judkins for the SEC rushing title. Sanders only got 10 carries and finished with 47 yards rushing, well short of the 96 needed. He did catch three passes for 22 yards including an 8-yard touchdown. Why only 10 carries for Sanders?
“I just, I think that we were getting smashed in the run game and we were trying to find our way,” Pittman said. “And sometimes those are run-pass options. It might be called a run or pass, but we were physically getting handled in the run game. We felt like we needed to throw it a little bit. There were spurts in there where we hit Matt (Landers) and some things and the run-pass combination was working. I thought we played a pretty good first half. No, we scored points in the first half to come back and make it 21-20, but we just never were really consistent at all today.”
Trailing by two points, many felt once Missouri’s Harrison Mevis missed a 55-yard field goal with 4:15 remaining in the game the Hogs would go on a late drive to possibly escape with the win. Arkansas got the ball at its own 37 after the missed field goal.
However, once again the offense struggled. KJ Jefferson hit Ketron Jackson for three yards on first down. On second down, a pass was incomplete. On third down Jefferson lost a yard leaving a fourth-and-eight play at its own 40. Pittman opted to punt at that point with 2:56 remaining in the game and the Hogs still owning all three timeouts. Any thought of going for it there?
“That was a hard one, too,” Pittman said. “They’re all hard, you know. I mean, that was a hard one, too, but again, it was fourth and 8. Basically, you decide, okay, this is the game. And, again, you just had three plays you got 2 yards. I mean, and, so, the only question right there is, do you think you can stop them in three downs? You have three timeouts and you — it’s a field goal game. It’s not ‘let’s pin them down there.’
“Which, we punted down there pretty good, and then they got the first down. And then we stopped them the second time around, and then we only had 20 seconds or whatever at the end of that. But, yes, I just kept feeling like if we could stop them in three downs, we’d get the ball with a minute-and-a-half or so back. All we needed was a field goal, maybe have an opportunity there. I guess what you’re saying is, do you think we can call three timeouts, get the ball back and have a better opportunity to win the game rather than going for it on fourth and 8, and then continuing the drive at that point. I felt like the best thing for us to do is to try and pin them down there, have them run the ball three times, get the ball back and see if we can’t kick a field goal.”
After Missouri got the one first down and ran seven plays before punting there was only 14 seconds remaining in the game when Arkansas got the football back at its own 20. Considering the struggles of the offense, particularly in the second half, Pittman made the right call to punt.
However, the Hogs might not have been in a position make a decision there if they had scored a touchdown with 12:40 remaining in the game instead of having to settle for a field goal. Arkansas had a first-and-goal at the Missouri 2-yard line. On first down, Jefferson got no yards. Arkansas oddly then tried a trick play with tight end Trey Knox taking the snap under center and trying to sneak it in. That play was stuffed. On third down a pass fell to the ground incomplete. Why the sneak with Knox?
“It wasn’t there,” Pittman admitted after the game. “There was a pair of G’s in there or a pair of shades, however you want to look at it. That one there we should have went to something else. It just wasn’t there. It was as surprise thing we felt like we could sneak it in, but it just wasn’t there.”
How disappointing was it to have to settle for three points there after having a first down at the 2?
“Very disappointing,” Pittman said. “I don’t know if we scored there if we would have won the game or not, but I do know that we would have been ahead. I’m talking about a touchdown. Yeah, it’s disappointing. You think your next decision is if you’re going for two or not, which we were, but yes, very disappointed. They played good defense down there. Certainly, another physicality-type deal and things and we got whipped.”
It was a rough day for all the units basically on the team, maybe outside of linebacker, to the naked eye, but the offensive line seemed to be a unit that struggled more than usual.
“I think it was a combination,” Pittman said. “I think Missouri’s good. To me that’s the difference in what they’ve done this year. They were ahead of Georgia out here. I mean, they’ve got a better team. I know their record is only 6-6 like ours but they’ve got a better team this year. But the sacks, they came from obviously edge. We couldn’t handle the edge. And when we did handle the edge we got way too much pressure, push in the middle. And there was no place for KJ. There wasn’t any room. There wasn’t any areas for him to escape.”
Arkansas now sits at 6-6 in a season that more was expected despite heavy losses from last season. And it’s a season that maybe could have been. The Hogs lost four games by three points or less. In addition to Missouri, the Hogs fell to Texas A&M 23-21, Liberty 21-19 and LSU 13-10. In each of those games they were obviously one or two plays away from winning. Missouri suffered through a similar season having a legitimate chance of beating No. 1 Georgia and others.
“Yeah, I hate it,” Pittman said. “Nobody likes to come in here and talk to y’all after you get beat. Nobody. I mean … so those close ones, they hurt. They actually hurt the worst because you’re sitting there and you’re thinking well maybe we could have done this, could have done this on one play to change the outcome of the game.
I think Missouri has been in the same kind of boat this year to be perfectly honest with you. Their game at Auburn, their game with Georgia. Usually in a season they kind of even out but this season they haven’t. We lost every one of them that were a field goal or less.
“I don’t know. I’ll say this. I’m not disappointed in the effort these our guys gave or anything like that. We just physically got whipped tonight.”
Arkansas will now wait to find out if its next game will be in Las Vegas, Memphis, Nashville or Houston. Prior to that Pittman will be interviews with players to learn their status. One, nickel back Myles Slusher, made the decision last Sunday to leave the team.
“He came in, we visited on Sunday, and Sunday evening he quit the team,” Pittman said.
Pittman was asked if that surprised him and he said it did. That followed decisions by wide receiver Warren Thompson and freshman running back James Jointer to leave the team as well. More will be coming.
“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday we have exit meetings with the kids,” Pittman said. “Without a doubt, there’ll be some portal action and all that kind of stuff — us and everybody else in the country. And then you just have to figure it out. It’s there for a reason and you just have to figure out, obviously, who wants to stay with the program and who wants to transfer out. They have their own reasons and things of that nature. We’ll visit with them and try to keep the ones that we need to keep and things of that nature.”
With three already leaving, including one starter and another who played several snaps, is there concern other key contributors could opt to leave?
“Oh, I’m sure there is,” Pittman said. “I mean… Heck, I don’t know. I mean… A lot goes on in the transfer portal, guys. It’s more than just playing time or not playing time. There’s a lot (that) goes on with it. You know, somebody gets ahold of them. A lot goes on about the transfer portal.”
Needless to say, the next week will be an interesting one for the Razorbacks and other schools around the nation.