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.
Razorback rewind: Pittman upset for fans
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman jogs onto the field, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, following the Razorbacks’ 48-10 loss to the Auburn Tigers at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — In the afterglow of a wild road win at Florida on Nov. 4, University of Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said his team owed the home fans a big performance as they started a three-game home stretch.
Instead the Hogs delivered a dud in Saturday’s 48-10 loss to SEC West opponent Auburn, dropping Arkansas to 3-7 overall, 1-6 in the SEC and out of standard bowl eligibility.
“I think one of our main goals this week was to perform for them because they have been sticking with us and been out there like they did,” Pittman said. “So I’m really very happy that they came out and supported us again and very disappointed that we couldn’t do a much better job than we did.”
Dejected defensive captain Trajan Jeffcoat was asked about the series of lackluster showings at home, where the Hogs are 2-3 with three consecutive on-campus losses to BYU, Mississippi State and Auburn.
“It’s definitely hard to lose in front of the home crowd,” Jeffcoat said. “But I mean, we’re going to keep pushing. I believe in my teammates. We’re just going to keep pushing and take everything one game at a time and go up from here.”
Pittman could not put his finger on the Razorbacks’ lack of energy and inability to stay in the game after Auburn raced to a 21-0 lead.
“The week was identical to last week practice-wise,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you, motivation-wise it was a really good week. It really was. I don’t know why, unless Auburn was just that much better than us today, but I don’t think that’s the case.
“I think for whatever reason, we didn’t play with a lot of energy, it looked to me like. Maybe they sucked it out of us fast, but that’s not what a good or well-coached team does.”
Because of Auburn’s domination, a huge swath of the announced crowd of 72,033 had left Reynolds Razorback Stadium by midway through the third quarter.
Swamp to dump
One week after beating Florida in its famed “Swamp” for the first time in school history, Arkansas fell back into the offensive struggles that had marked much of the conference season.
Arkansas did not run block well, with a 60-yard burst by Jacolby Criswell accounting for nearly half of its 135 rushing yards, and struggled to protect quarterback KJ Jefferson, who was sacked five times and was under constant pressure.
Auburn Coach Hugh Freeze was asked about cooling off a Razorbacks team that was coming off the win at Florida.
“I mean, if you look at their season, they’ve lost, what, to Alabama [by] 3 points, LSU was close, Ole Miss was close,” Freeze said. “I mean, the margin of error for us and Arkansas, if you don’t have the best roster compared to everybody else, that margin of error for victory is so small.
“Then they find a way to go on the road and play in a difficult place in The Swamp. I thought offensively they seemed more comfortable in tempo and played really well, and they’ve played pretty good defense all year long. I think they’re only giving up slightly over 300 a game. And so for us to come in here and do what we did I think speaks volumes to the work our kids have put in.”
Arkansas junior quarterback Jacolby Criswell took his first snaps since the season opener and played his most substantial reps, subbing in for KJ Jefferson with the score out of hand midway through the third quarter.
The Morrillton High School graduate and North Carolina transfer completed 2 of 4 passes for 19 yards and a touchdown and rushed 6 times for a team-high 64 yards.
“We’re down 41-3 and KJ is getting the heck beat out of him back there,” Pittman said. “Obviously I wanted to look at Jacolby and I talked to KJ. I thought he went in there and played really well. I thought he played like what I thought he would, like how he’s been practicing and things of that nature. KJ was bloodied up a bit and I wanted to see what Jacolby could do.”
Pittman, asked if Criswell might have earned more practice reps with the starters, said the 6-1, 230-pounder has gotten some first-team reps in recent practices in the two-minute drill and added, “There isn’t a quarterback controversy in my opinion.”
Criswell threw an 11-yard touchdown strike to Isaac TeSlaa on the snap after his 60-yard burst on the first play of the fourth quarter.
“We’re just happy for the kid,” TeSlaa said. “Obviously he’s been the No. 2 guy all year, so it’s cool to see when he gets his opportunity to go out there and execute and do a really nice job, obviously running and throwing the ball.”
Arkansas cornerback Dwight “Nudie” McGlothern notched his third interception and the eighth of his career late in the first quarter.
Auburn quarterback Payton Thorne zeroed in on Koy Moore’s curl route over the right side and McGlothern read the play, undercut the route, intercepted the pass and returned it 42 yards to the Auburn 22 before being tackled by offensive tackle Dillon Wade.
Trailing 21-0 at the time, Arkansas had a chance to seize some momentum but netted only two yards on three snaps and had to settle for Cam Little’s 39-yard field goal.
“At some point you need somebody to make a play, and then Nudie made the play,” Pittman said. “And we go out there and three downs and make two yards and kick a field goal. They just physically whipped us in all phases of the game.”
Freshman cornerback Jaylon Braxton, who had a second-consecutive game with a takeaway, came out in the second half after suffering a shoulder injury. Braxton had an ice pack on his shoulder while exiting the field, and Pittman said he would undergo testing and more examination.
“He wasn’t well enough to come back in the game, but we’ll have to see on that,” Pittman said.
Braxton had a strip and fumble return for a 33-yard touchdown at Florida last week, then added his first career interception in the fourth quarter on Saturday.
Linebacker Antonio Grier and defensive end Nico Davillier also came out of the game with injuries, while defensive lineman Keivie Rose needed help coming out in the first half, but re-entered later.
Arkansas kicker Cam Little improved to 17 of 19 on field goals, including 9 of 9 from 39 yards or closer, with his 39-yard kick in the first quarter.
Little has converted a school-record 122 consecutive extra points to start his career, the second-longest among active FBS kickers.
Little’s only two missed field goals this season have been from 49 yards against BYU and 50 yards at Florida.
The Moore, Okla., product is 50 of 59 in his three seasons for an 84.7% conversion rate and he’s at 89.5% for the year. Both of those rates would stand as school records currently held by Connor Limpert’s 78.6% career mark and Kendall Trainor’s 88.9% single-season record on 24 of 27 field goal kicking in 1988.
Pittman described the play of Auburn quarterback Payton Thorne as outstanding.
“Very good athlete, can throw it,” Pittman said. “They have kind of changed a little bit lately, over the last two or three weeks, they’re going back to a little more fast-paced, hurry-up type offense, RPO [run-pass option], using him a lot versus a slowed-down version that they were doing earlier.”
Thorne completed 12 of 20 passes for 163 yards and 3 touchdowns and rushed 12 times for 88 yards and a touchdown before giving way to backup Robby Ashford for the final couple of drives.
Freeze said Thorne’s ball handling and decision making were strong in the first and third quarters, particularly on the Tigers’ game-opening drive, when he had three keepers for 28 yards, including a 12-yard score, and completed 1 of 2 passes for 45 yards.
“No question, that first drive he kind of set the tone for us,” Freeze said.
“He’s very valuable to them, very good,” Pittman said. “Their offensive line, they played lights out. They were exceptional, and that’s including the tight ends and all that, but he ran the offense very well. He threw the ball well and managed the team well.”
The ESPN documentary “True Character,” which documents the 1998 Arkansas football team and centers on former Razorbacks Brandon Burlsworth and Clint Stoerner, will have a private screening tonight in Harrison.
The ESPN documentary, directed by David Beilinson, will debut at 8 p.m. on Tuesday on the SEC Network as part of its SEC Storied series. The Nov. 14 public screening will come on the 25th anniversary of the No. 10 Hogs’ 28-24 loss at No. 1 Tennessee. The setback included the “Stoernover” play, a fumble by Stoerner recovered by the Volunteers to start their game-winning drive after Stoerner tripped over Burlsworth’s right leg.
Offensive Player of the Week: WR Isaac TeSlaa
The Hillsdale College transfer and senior from Hudsonville, Mich., caught a team-high 3 passes for 32 yards with a long of 12 yards. His 11-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter was his second of the season.
Defensive Player of the Week: S Alfahiym Walcott
The Baylor transfer and senior from Wilmington, N.C. posted a team-high tying 8 tackles along with Chris Paul, including 6 solo stops and a half-tackle for loss along with Landon Jackson.
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