FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas and Texas A&M have had plenty of battles in their meetings, but the results are not what one expect.
Texas A&M has won the past nine games against Arkansas, but despite that the Hogs still hold a comfortable 41-33-3 advantage in the series. The Hogs haven’t beaten the Aggies since they joined the SEC with the last head coach record a win against them being Bobby Petrino. Sam Pittman knows that has to change.
“I think we’ll talk about the rivalry hasn’t been a rivalry for the last nine years,” Pittman said. “You have to win for it to become a rivalry a little bit more. I know in the past, obviously, we have won more than we lost in the rivalry, but recent years we haven’t done so well. I was on a few of those teams. One we played here where Johnny Manziel was the quarterback. We started Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland at guard that week. I remember that because they had been practicing at tackle. I told them they were going to start and they said they couldn’t start over whoever the tackles were. I said ‘I’m not starting you at tackle. We’re moving you to guard.’ I believe the next two years we lost in overtime down there. It’s a great rivalry. Great for the fans. It wouldn’t be a rivalry if it wasn’t for the fans.”
Jimbo Fisher is Texas A&M’s head coach is someone who Pittman has respect.
“We’re excited to start Southeastern Conference play,” Pittman said. “I have a lot of respect for Texas A&M, and I have for a long time. They have some friends of mine down there on the coaching staff and recruiting staff. I have great respect for Coach Fisher and what they’ve done since he’s been there. Of course, they’ve won nine games straight. Just a smothering defense. Very, very, very good defense at the front end, middle and the back end. Their offense is loaded with skill players. Certainly, everybody knows about Spiller. They have a lot of talent, and we’re excited to go down to Dallas to play this game. Hopefully we can get healthy and be able to go down there and put a good showing on.”
Starting quarterback Haynes King was injured early in the 10-7 win over Colorado. He has been replaced by Zach Calzada. He struggled against Colorado, but was much better against New Mexico. Calzada has completed 37 of 72 passes for 454 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
“He’s playing with more confidence,” Pittman said. “He’s more accurate with the ball. They’re protecting him better. Seems like the routes are crisper. I think he’s got belief. The wide receivers and tight end have belief in him. You can kind of see it. However, I really like New Mexico on defense. They flew around to the ball and played extremely hard, as well as Colorado. I think it’s just that second game he had a little more confidence. Looked like he was throwing the ball in rhythm better, and I think he’s a fine quarterback. He wouldn’t be at A&M if he wasn’t.”
Fisher has built the Texas A&M defensive line and overall talent since arriving in College Station. Pittman recruits against Fisher some as he did when he was an assistant at Georgia and Fisher was head coach at Florida State.
“They’re continuing to do that, too,” Pittman said. “Jimbo is an elite recruiter, elite coach. Very talented. They’re a little bit like us in the fact they can play a lot of people. We’ll want to stay out of third-and-long. They have a nice third-down package on defense. They have some pass rushers they can get home, which they’ve proven this year. So, we’re going to have to do a good job on first down trying to stay out of third-and-long, and we’re going to have to have a really good package on third-and-long if we’re in it. You can’t just say you’re not going to get in it and next thing you know it’s third-and-10. We have to prepare to stay out of it, and once we get into third-and-long, we have to be able to convert. It’s hard to do because they have a nice third-down package.”
This game is different than in recent seasons with both teams ranked. In the past the Aggies were ranked, but seldom was Arkansas. The Hogs are No. 16 and A&M No. 7.
“You know guys, to be honest with you, there’s a lot of – you can – you know I’m just the guy, the head coach and all that and everybody else does all the work,” Pittman said. “But the season’s so fast that you really don’t have much time to, I mean, I’ve thought about us being ranked 16th. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t. And we’re proud of that. But there’s not a lot of time to really think about it because we still have 1, 2, 6, 13 and 22 on the schedule and there’s not a lot of time to think about it. The other thing is I think it’d be wasted time if I did. We’ve got a really good A&M team to play. But I’m really proud of the team. To be honest with you, the biggest thing I’m proud of is the state of Arkansas is proud of the football team again. That means a lot to me and it means a lot to our kids and our other coaches.”
Texas A&M’s talented tight end Jalen Wydermyer caused Arkansas a lot of issues last year in College Station. He has caught 12 passes for 141 yards. Pittman is very aware of him.
“Certainly last week was a different deal with play-action and things of that nature, but Coach Fisher’s been so good with that type of play action and hiding the ball and ‘where is it’ and all those things, then hitting a wide open guy,” Pittman said. “Last week, guys got behind us. That was one of our things that we need to clean up. I understand it was off the option, but it still has the same principles as play action. So we’re going to know where he is. He’s a wonderful player. He hurt us big time last year. Much respect for him. He’s one of the better tight ends in the country.”
There’s one thing about Saturday’s game that hasn’t left Pittman happy. Due to COVID, the Aggies hosted Arkansas in their stadium last season since they were the designated home team. Pittman feels this year the game should have been in Razorback Stadium.
“I don’t feel great about it, to be honest with you,” Pittman said. “I get the situation. I understand last year, but going over there then going neutral, to me, going over there, but we’re in a contract. I understand that. If you were to look at our situation over the next five games, we have three home games and we play in this stadium once, you know, in the next five games. I believe that if we’re in this stadium that we’re hard to beat because of our fans. Listen, everybody will think, ‘Oh, Coach is throwing out excuses.’ No, I’m not. We haven’t even played the game yet. I feel very confident we can go in and play well at the Dallas Cowboys stadium, I do. But would I rather have them in here? yes.”
Pittman was the offensive line coach in 2014 when the Hogs were on verge of going up by 21 points in the fourth quarter. Arkansas held a 14-point lead and Jonathan Williams broke a run to the Aggies one. But the officials called a tripping penalty on Dan Skipper, a very rare call, and Texas A&M charged back and won in overtime.
“I’m not positive, but I think if we don’t get the penalty it’s a three-score game at that point,” Pittman said. “And it’s late… not late but later. I’m not positive it’s in the third maybe or early fourth. I think at that point if we would have scored from the one, I think J-Dub ran it down to the one, it would have made it very difficult. Then they came back. They beat us. There’s nothing to be said about it other than they beat us. But yeah, that was a tough one to swallow that day. We played pretty good up front if I recall. But, that’s one of the nine in a row, you know, that they’ve kept that trophy on the Razorbacks. It’s going to be hard to go get the trophy, now I’m telling you. They’re ranked sixth or seventh, depending on which poll, for a reason. But we’ll do our best to get prepared and go down there and see what happens.”
Arkansas and Texas A&M are both 3-0. The kickoff is set for 2:30 and televised on CBS.