Tom Murphy is a sports reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. He was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Bowl game on the mind as Hogs, Auburn begin season's 4th quarter
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman observes warmups, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, before a game against Mississippi State at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — The final quarter of a topsy-turvy, largely chaotic season for the Arkansas football team begins today against Auburn, the start of a three-game home stretch that has the potential of ending with bowl eligibility.
Arkansas (3-6, 1-5 SEC) endured a gut-wrenching stretch of six consecutive losses — five by a touchdown or less — and now hopes to capitalize on an upset win last week at Florida, the first in program history, to achieve a backdoor postseason bid.
The Razorbacks kick it off at 3 p.m. against Auburn (5-4, 2-4 SEC) with a chance to beat its first SEC West opponent of the season after falling to LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Alabama and Mississippi State in succession by a combined 29 points.
Arkansas has struggled in league play, but it can win its last game of the divisional format as the SEC goes to a 16-game conference next season with no divisions after the additions of Oklahoma and Texas.
“Being back at home with our fans and just giving our fans what they’re looking for, I feel that would truly be big for us,” linebacker Jaheim Thomas said. “Being able to go out and play every game like it’s our last, putting our best foot forward.”
Fourth-year Coach Sam Pittman said his team faced two options heading into the Florida game as underdogs: Quitting or fighting.
The Razorbacks clearly chose to keep battling with its 39-36 win in overtime.
The key thrust for Pittman and company this week is to reverse their form and fortunes at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Arkansas is 1-2 on campus and its last effort there produced a paltry 200 yards in a 7-3 loss to Mississippi State.
“I want to see us play really well in front of our fans,” Pittman said from the victorious podium under Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium last week. “Our fans, they haven’t left us. They’ll be back out there.”
Pittman kept up that theme this week.
“We’ll talk about it as the week continues, but we owe our fans a good performance in the stadium,” Pittman said on his radio show Wednesday night. “We do. We haven’t really played well this year at home for whatever reason and we owe our fans a great performance. Our kids will know that and I think we will.”
The Razorbacks hope to bottle the spirit that infused last week’s performance into the three-game homestand.
“Rolling off the momentum, that was a huge win for us,” linebacker Chris Paul said. “Bringing that momentum to the fans at home, that should be a great thing for us to go out and roll off our momentum as well as the fans, and let’s have a great game.”
Auburn, under first-year Coach Hugh Freeze, has bowl eligibility in its immediate sights just as Florida did last week. The Tigers went 3-0 in nonconference games against UMass, California and Samford to open the season then stacked SEC wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt behind a four-game losing skid to Texas A&M, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss.
Freeze directed his Liberty team to a 21-19 win at Arkansas last season, so he has the rare opportunity to win in back-to-back seasons at Fayetteville. He echoed the thoughts of the coaches of multiple Arkansas opponents in a row this week.
“Man, you’ve got to give Sam Pittman a lot of credit,” Freeze said. “His kids have lost, I think, five games by one score or less, and boy, they continue to play hard for them. That jumps off the tape. I think they’re playing really good defense right now.”
The Tigers have won four of the past five games at Arkansas, including a 38-23 decision here two years ago behind a strong performance from quarterback Bo Nix.
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson has a chance to add two school records today to his collection, which already includes touchdown responsibility (83) and total yards (9,327).
Jefferson’s 64 touchdown passes are tied with Brandon Allen for the UA career record, and his 7,606 passing yards are 159 short of Tyler Wilson’s mark of 7,765.
The fifth-year senior looked revitalized last week, as did lead tailback Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, after a major shakeup on the offense.
The Razorbacks were in dire straits after falling to Mississippi State at home on Oct. 21. But Pittman seemingly reversed the team’s offensive karma by firing Dan Enos the next day and promoting 32-year-old quarterbacks coach Kenny Guiton to interim offensive coordinator.
The Razorbacks rallied behind Guiton to put together a season-high 481-yard effort in the win at Florida.
“They’re coming off a big win on the road in Gainesville,” Freeze said. “I think they’ve got a lot of motivation, and it’s a very scary team.”
Jefferson said the scouting report on Auburn makes today’s game look like a tough matchup.
“We expect a very competitive game,” Jefferson said. “They’re an SEC team, we’re an SEC team, so it’s going to be a battle out there. They’re a very disciplined team that plays really hard on the defensive side of the ball.
“It’s about how we prepared this week and how we approach the game on Saturday, being able to come out there and start fast and execute the plan at a high level. It’ll all come down to us and how we approach the game and how we attack preparation this week, and Saturday will take care of itself.”
Freeze said he wants his opening resume at Auburn to include a postseason berth.
“I want a group with young men around us that every day we prepare to win this week,” Freeze said. “I have been pretty open about the fact that going to a bowl game in Year One is desired, needed and wanted.
“I want the extra practices. I want the seniors to be honored. I want our program and fans to still have the same energy moving into Year Two. All of that is a part of us getting to a bowl. We’ve been able to do that at each stop that we’ve taken over.”
Arkansas defensive coordinator Travis Williams and co-coordinator Marcus Woodson will be coaching with extra incentive. Williams played linebacker at Auburn in the early 2000s and was the Tigers’ leading tackler for an undefeated season in 2004. He spent 15 years as part of the Auburn program, including 10 as a graduate assistant or on-field coach.
Woodson was the Tigers’ defensive backs coach in 2018 and ’19, on the same staff with Williams.
Pittman created a finishing theme for his 9-4 team in 2021 that featured “B” references” — bowl eligibility, the Boot trophy, Bama and the Battle Line trophy.
He did not come up with a similar motivational theme this year when the Razorbacks needed to win their final four games to reach bowl eligibility.
“I haven’t talked about that, to be perfectly honest with you, because I know they know,” Pittman said. “I don’t want, if a hiccup came up on us, I don’t want them to feel like the only goal that we have left is the bowl.
“We’re talking about winning Saturday, winning Saturday. If we’re lucky enough to get to Missouri with a chance to win that game to go to a bowl, we’ll certainly talk about it then. But the motivation right now is to play our best football, don’t worry about the opponent and see if we can’t go out and play our best football.
“If we do, then we’ll have an opportunity to win any of our games.”
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