Column: Pittman restoring respect for Arkansas football
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Hiring a career offensive line coach as its new head coach certainly raised some eyebrows nationally, but Arkansas seems to have shifted the narrative in just three games.
Despite inheriting one of the worst Power Five programs in the country - one with as many losses to Group of Five schools as total victories the previous two years - Sam Pittman is well on his way to restoring respect for the Razorbacks.
Arkansas was a controversial call away from pulling off its second straight road upset of a top-25 team before falling 30-28 at No. 13 Auburn on Saturday.
The loss kept the Razorbacks from improving to 2-1 - something they’d done just once in SEC play in the previous 13 seasons - but their first-year coach mentioned how things were changing in his postgame remarks to the team.
“(I told them) that I was proud of them, that they fought their butt off, that we've got a good football team, and that times of us going some place and embarrassing our fans and our football team are over,” Pittman said. “I was proud of them, that's what I told them.”
Don’t be confused, though. This is not a moral victory for Arkansas.
After snapping their 19-game SEC losing streak at Mississippi State last week, the Razorbacks had their sights set on back-to-back conference wins for the first time since November 2015. Not getting it done was a disappointment.
“Last week we were jovial and cheerful,” Pittman said about the locker room after the game. “This week they were down and they were hurting, and they should. They put a lot of sweat into their preparation for Auburn. They did a nice job of doing it. At the end, they had one more play that was a little bit better than ours.”
As cliche as it sounds, fans should take solace in how Arkansas fought against the Tigers. That hasn’t always been the case.
Early in the second quarter, the Razorbacks found themselves in a 17-0 hole as the offense sputtered, defense struggled and special teams imploded.
In the last two seasons, that likely would have marked the beginning of a massive blowout. Half of Arkansas’ 20 losses from 2018-19 were by at least 26 points, after all - including embarrassments against North Texas and Western Kentucky.
The vibe on the sideline Saturday, however, was completely different.
“I just didn't see panic,” safety Jalen Catalon said. “We're down 17-0, it was easy for us to get down and blame and start pointing fingers, but that's not what we did. We just looked at each other and said, 'I got you, you got me.' It showed.”
Sure enough, the Razorbacks started digging themselves out of the largely self-inflicted deficit.
It helped that they appear to have found a quarterback in Feleipe Franks. After five straight punts to start the game, Arkansas got things going thanks to the graduate transfer from Florida.
Franks ended up completing 22 of 30 passes (73.3 percent) for 318 yards and four touchdowns. It was the most passing touchdowns by an Arkansas quarterback since Brandon Allen had seven in a losing effort against Mississippi State in 2015.
“Feleipe, man, he's a hell of a quarterback,” running back Trelon Smith said. “I’ve never seen Feleipe in panic mode. He's always the type of guy to come over on the sideline and motivate everybody to keep going, keep pushing, next play.”
That is something else the Razorbacks haven’t had in several years. The previous staff had quarterback battles well into the season and ended up using eight different starters in 24 games.
The lack of consistency was alarming, but Franks has provided some stability at the position and it’s bled over to the other side of the ball.
“You saw that look in his eye that he was ready to go no matter what,” Catalon said. “You saw him string together some drives, which gave us - the defense - confidence to say, 'We've got a quarterback that's going to do his thing. Let's do our thing.' Before you know it, we're back in the game.”
Arkansas took a 28-27 lead on Franks’ fourth touchdown pass of the game - a 30-yard reception by De’Vion Warren with 5:29 remaining - but ultimately couldn’t hang on.
A field goal in the closing seconds lifted Auburn to a 30-28 victory.
“I feel like we let one get away from us today,” Smith said. “I feel like we could've beat those guys, but I feel like we did good overall as a team. We never gave up.”
Smith added later that he felt the comeback, despite it coming up short, proved the Razorbacks can compete with anybody on their 10-game, conference-only schedule.
That sentiment is new for Arkansas, which struggled to a 1-23 mark in conference play the past three years - the last two of which it was the SEC’s laughingstock.
“We don't come to Auburn or anywhere else to lose,” Pittman said when asked about his team’s confidence during his postgame radio interview. “I think we feel we belonged on the field with Auburn and we certainly did.”
Even in a loss, the Razorbacks showed they wouldn’t just roll over and die when they get hit in the mouth early on. In just three games, Pittman has instilled a resiliency in his team that the program hasn’t had in years.
“That just showed we have the ability to come back no matter what happens,” Catalon said. “And no matter what gets hit at us, we're going to bounce back from it.”