Clay Henry's Top 10 Keys: Arkansas vs. Ole Miss

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, October 15, 2020
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman is shown during a game against Auburn on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Auburn, Ala.
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman is shown during a game against Auburn on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Auburn, Ala.

How many times have you heard it? One call by an official does not determine a football game.

Literally, there can be hundreds of events during a 60-minute game involving 22 players at a time that can set in motion the deciding split second that determines the winner.

Yes, it’s true. And, yes, Arkansas might have won by two touchdowns at Auburn except for a series of mistakes earlier in the game.

Several mistakes in specials teams — most notably a blocked punt that resulted in an Auburn touchdown — come to mind.

But, until the end of time, Auburn’s 30-28 victory over Arkansas will be remembered as the day that the SEC office — where three men help the press box replay official “get it right” — saw referee Jason Autrey blow a call and then find an NCAA rule that gave the Tigers the chance at the game-winning field goal.

Not only that, but the same on-field crew failed to allow Arkansas coach Sam Pittman his right to waive the 10-second clock run-off that came with the wrong call, intentional grounding.

What is that reasoning? Two wrongs make a right call? Figure that one out, because I can’t.

In the half hour after the game when it was clear what had happened, I came up with the “hall of shame” for officials messing up (insert your own word here, but keep it clean) an Arkansas game. I left off one of the worst, as reminded by Arkansas alum and former assistant coach Pat Jones.

Yes, Preston Watts, Horton Nstra and Marc Curles are in the referee hall of shame. So is Tommy Bell, the referee who “gave” Ole Miss a 1960 victory over Arkansas in War Memorial Stadium. Bell will go down in history as the only referee chased from the field by Arkansas coach Frank Broyles.

Bell called timeout (with his whistle) just before a made field goal by Ole Miss kicker Alan Green. Bell, the lead SEC referee, had ruled there was too much crowd noise. He had a point: none of the players heard his whistle and ran the play.

Then, when Green tried again, Bell signaled “good” as soon as it left his foot. Never mind that the kick sailed wide by a wide margin as the clock stopped at :03. It gave the Rebels a 10-7 victory.

Bell, early in his career, would go on to be one of the giants in his specialty. He would referee two Super Bowls and two Final Fours and almost every bowl game. Bell worked the Super Bowl won by Joe Namath and the New York Jets.

He got his start as an SEC referee at the recommendation of his football coach at Kentucky, Bear Bryant. Ultimately, he served on the UK board of trustees.

There is a hint at how Bell called games. A lawyer, he said in a Sports Illustrated interview near the end of his officiating career, “There’s a lot of similarity in rule books and law books, a lot of common sense involved in both, and if you get too technical you can ruin the game.”

What Bell did to the Razorbacks made no sense, because he flat out ruined the game, same as the SEC replay ruling did at Auburn. Clearly, the field goal in 1960 missed the mark by dozens of yards.

“It wasn’t close,” said Billy Joe Moody, an Arkansas linebacker on the field trying for the block on the miss that Bell called good.

“I was coming wide from the left side. I dove and was laying on the field. I turned to see it go way to the left, not close. Then, I looked back to see the referee running away. Coach Broyles was chasing him.”

Over 60 years later, Moody doesn’t change his feeling that it was a horrible call.

“But I don’t think it was any worse than what happened to us last weekend at Auburn,” said Moody, a two-way player for the Hogs, famous as Lance Alworth’s blocking back.

“We got screwed in the Ole Miss game, but not any worse than what we got at Auburn. A fumble is a fumble. We all know that it was a backward pass.”

Harold Horton was also a member of the Arkansas team that lost to Ole Miss in 1960. As a player, coach and administrator for the Razorbacks, he’s seen most of the other serious officiating errors through the years.

“This one at Auburn is right there with the all-time worst,” Horton said. “It was a game-over call. Auburn didn’t deserve that break. It may be one of the dumbest official mistakes I’ve seen.

“I give Sam Pittman credit for handling it in a class manner. He hasn’t said hardly a thing about it. But anyone could see that the Auburn quarterback passed backward and it’s a stupid mistake. It’s a fumble. It’s always been a fumble. You know the rules, you know it’s a fumble.”

Jones was in the stands as a young fan.

“I sure was,” he said. “If you are my age, you know who Tommy Bell was and that he made that call to give Ole Miss the field goal they missed. I tossed my seat cushion on the field (in anger).”

Jones is one of the first to tell me the coaching logic on officiating mistakes. As a young reporter covering Oklahoma State when Jones was head coach, I questioned the lack of a holding call on a key play that cost his team a chance at victory.

“Did you see a flag?” Jones answered my question. “No, then it wasn’t holding. It’s not a penalty unless they throw the flag.”

That was an attempt by a coach to keep from answering a question that would probably draw a fine by the league office.

Broyles didn’t get fined in 1960 for chasing Bell, but he did draw a public reprimand from the Southwest Conference for chasing the referee.

That’s not the last time an Arkansas coach chased a referee off the field, but the last time by a head coach. In the 1971 Liberty Bowl, Tennessee was gifted a 14-13 victory by SEC referee Preston Watts. He called a phantom holding penalty to erase a made field goal by Bill McClard, then minutes later awarded Tennessee the ball on a fumble recovered by Arkansas captain Tom Reed.

When the final whistle blew, Arkansas offensive line coach Joe Gibbs chased Watts through the tunnel at the Liberty Bowl. Watts apparently won the race to the locker room.

“I recruited Memphis and so I knew who Preston Watts was,” Horton said. “For him to make both those calls was just bad. The holding call that took away McClard’s field goal just doesn’t happen. In all my years in football there wasn’t another instance of holding on a field goal before or after that game. It’s just a penalty that is never called. It’s still wrong.

“Tom Reed got that fumble. He handed the referee the ball and then he signaled Tennessee ball. That was the game.”

What do you do? Horton, 80, said you don’t forget, but you have to move on.

“I’ve seen a lot and I’ve not seen Arkansas get many breaks like what Auburn got last week,” he said. “My son Tim was playing (for Arkansas) at Texas A&M at 1989 when we got the call on the pass interference.

“Ronnie Underwood made the call from across the field. They were all over Billy Winston’s back. There were three officials from the state of Texas closer and didn’t make the call. Ronnie had the guts to make it. That’s a break.

“Maybe the only other one came in 1973 when we beat Iowa State (21-19). We scored a touchdown with 12 men on the field. We had two tight ends and a wingback and a full-house wishbone backfield. That’s about the only real break I can recall.”

That sets the stage for the keys to victory. Officiating has to be in our first stop.


Focus

A must for our lead thought has to be forgetting about the way the Auburn game ended. As many coaches have said, do not let Auburn (or the SEC refs) beat you twice.

Pittman has been wonderful at leaving that game in the past and moving on to Ole Miss. The 24-hour rule to stop a victory celebration works the same for a loss. It’s best to move on.

Fans don’t have to do that, nor do sports writers. Obviously, I’ve written about the officials all week. Tommy Bell lives on in infamy, as does Jason Autrey.

Pittman said Monday that he was at “peace” with the outcome of the game. In summary, he said he told SEC supervisor of officials John McDaid what he thought of the calls and moved on.

On Wednesday, Pittman told his statewide radio audience, “A mistake was made and unfortunately it was at a time in the game where it was a win or lose situation. It’s just unfortunate. We never mentioned it to the team, by the way, not after the game, not this week.”

The Ole Miss Offense

The Ole Miss offense is terrific. Quarterback Matt Corral is outstanding with Lane Kiffin’s fast-paced offense. The run-pass options are difficult to defend with Corral just as effective on keepers as in the passing game.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the game that Corral’s decision on quarterback draws to run or pass confused his linebackers and safeties throughout the game. The rules allow linemen to block down field and Kiffin exploits that to the maximum, almost to the point of being illegal.

“I want to see the film to see how far down field they blocked on pass plays,” Saban said on his post-game show.

Could an official’s decision play into this game? Yes, it’s a difficult judgment call on the RPO as far as the blocking.

The Rebels average 573 yards per game, first in the SEC and second nationally.

Corral has lots of playmakers around him. Running backs Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner each have run for four touchdowns. Receivers Elijah Moore and Kenny Yeboah have 31 and 15 catches, respectively.

Third Down

Who can get off the field? That’s the biggest key. Last week neither Alabama or Ole Miss stopped the other in a game the Tide won, 63-48.

Ole Miss converts on third down 55.8%, but is worse than that on defense. Opponents convert third downs 64.3%. The Rebels don’t punt much, or force many punts. They have punted 10 times, while forcing only five. That’s less than two forced punts per game.

Conversely, the Hogs have played in games with far more points. Offensively, the Hogs convert on 32.6 percent. Defensively, they allow just 34.6 percent. The Hogs have punted 23 times, forcing 17.

What has happened of late for the Hogs is much better play calling. Coordinator Kendal Briles has given the Hogs a burst of offense with smooth calls, especially against Auburn when he found matchups for running back Trelon Smith against the linebackers.

Briles tried to find matchups in the first two games when Rakeem Boyd was healthy, but Georgia’s linebackers and safeties were too speedy. Briles might like the matchups he gets against the Ole Miss defense.

The Punt

Opponents have blocked two Arkansas punts in the first two games and both have led to touchdowns. It may be the most important key to victory this week. As Pittman mentioned last week, that’s like blood in the water when the scouting report lists blocked punts from a previous game.

“That means everyone is going to be trying to block our punts,” he said.

No doubt, that’s in the game plan this week for the Rebels. They haven’t forced many punts, but if and when they do this week, Arkansas will have to solidify protections.

And, the Hogs must align properly. They have been flagged for not having seven linemen in punt formations four times this season.

“We’ve told them to make sure they are on the line,” Pittman said.

Big Play Man

De’Vion Warren has been mainly a weapon on kick returns through his first four seasons at Arkansas. That’s changed this year as quarterback Feleipe Franks has found him for three touchdowns.

Warren leads the UA wide receivers with 10 catches, second on the team behind running back Trelon Smith’s 14 catches. Warren has averaged 22.3 yards per catch.

The Ole Miss cornerbacks have given up the deep pass frequently this season. The Ole Miss pass defense ranks last in the SEC in efficiency.

Tackling Machine

Most have praised Arkansas linebackers Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool for their tackling through the first three games, but strong safety Jalen Catalon is the team leader with 26 solo stops.

Figuring in assists, Pool and Catalon share the team and SEC lead with 36. Morgan has 33.

Catalon’s role this week intensifies because of the nature of the Ole Miss RPO offense and Corral’s running. The goal of that offense is to put the ball into space and that means Catalon is the target.

The Hogs rotate Simeon Blair and Joe Foucha at free safety, with nickel back Greg Brooks playing a role similar to a safety. They’ll have to play well in space this week and will be asked to make lots of open field tackles.

It’s an entirely different offense than any the Hogs have played. Ole Miss will try to hit seams in the defense more than underneath soft spots, as was the Mississippi State plan.

The Odom Plan

How will Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom defend the Kiffin attack?

Saban’s plan didn’t work and it was multiple. The Alabama defensive guru tried a two-man line in the first half, then switched to a three-man line and a nickel look in the second half.

“They ran it on us when we played with two down linemen,” Saban said. “And, when we went with a three-man rush and a nickel (with man coverage) in the second half, they ran pick plays. That worked a little bit better.”

So what will Odom try? Perhaps he’s got a few players back from the injury list. Cornerback Montaric Brown and defensive end Dorian Gerald could return this week. They are two of the best players on the team. They could figure heavily in the game plan.

Expect the Hogs to rush three in a plan close to what Alabama used in the second half that at least forced field goals instead of allowing all touchdowns.

Feleipe Franks

Without question, the Arkansas quarterback has improved every week. He has passed for 730 yards, including 212 at Starkville and 318 at Auburn. He might have to beat those numbers this week if the Hogs are going to keep up with the Rebels.

The best thing Franks has done the last two weeks is help the Hogs avoid turnovers. He didn’t throw an interception at Auburn while playing in wet conditions.

Pittman has praised Franks a couple of times this week. On his radio show, the coach said, “What he’s done is he’s allowed us to come in here in our first year and start changing the view of Arkansas football. He’s an excellent quarterback, an excellent leader. He’s what we are, he’s tough. You’ve seen him tuck the ball and get extra yards. He’s making really good decisions and he’s helped us put Arkansas back to where we belong and it’ll help us in recruiting.”

Compete

Toughness is the most important key in football. It’s a mean, nasty sport. Nothing is easy. What Pittman has done is remarkable without spring practice and limited scrimmage time in a fall marked by quarantines because of covid-19.

But what is becoming increasingly apparent: the Hogs are tough. They’ve competed in grand fashion for three straight weeks. It’s what they have to do against an explosive Ole Miss team that doesn’t mind a scoring duel.

Special Teams

Arkansas figured to be better in special teams when Pittman hired Scott Fountain as assistant head coach and put him in charge of special teams, without another assignment.

However, that’s not been a strong point through three games. There have been leaks in many areas.

It was something I thought long about over the last week after the passing of former Razorback kicker Bob White.

A good friend and sometimes golf partner, White often sent emails to reporters to praise their stories that featured special teams. He said he learned under Broyles that the Hogs could win or lose games based on special teams, if defense was solid.

“Arkansas football through the years rose and fell according to the level of play of its defense and special teams,” White said.

I’d suspect that White would have sent an email this week suggesting that I focus more of my writing on special teams and not so much on officiating. That’s what smart men do and no one was brighter than White, a criminal defense attorney.

If you wanted to discuss football, he was usually the smartest man at the table. It would be a wonderful time and low key, but full of sharp summaries when someone else might be stumbling to find the mark.

White could hit the mark on the field. He was 12 of 20 as a straight-on placekicker for the 1966-68 Razorbacks. He hit three field goals and one extra point to score more points than SEC champ Georgia in the 1969 Sugar Bowl, a 16-2 UA victory.

There was a great discussion this week with Jim White, Bob’s younger brother. Jim coached football (and golf) at Rogers. Their dad was Steed White, a former Arkansas assistant under both Jack Mitchell and Broyles.

What the two of us settled on is that Bob White would be excited about the progress Pittman has made with the Razorbacks. But he’d be pointing out special teams needs to improve, so that officials will be out of the picture as the final ticks leave the clock.

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