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.
Pittman, Hogs know the threat Golden Flashes pose
Kent State coach Kenni Burns and Arkansas coach Sam Pittman are shown during their teams' Week 1 games. (Photos by AP's Phelan M. Ebenhack and NWADG's Hank Layton)
FAYETTEVILLE — The picture hangs proudly in Sam Pittman’s rec room.
Pittman and then-Northern Illinois offensive coordinator Matt Canada posed for the shot underneath the scoreboard at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium on Sept. 21, 2003, after they helped engineer one of the greatest moments in NIU football history against the No. 21 Crimson Tide.
The scoreboard read: Northern Illinois 19, Alabama 16.
Pittman, then the Huskies’ offensive line coach and now the fourth-year head coach at Arkansas, recalled details about that game this week which made it feel like the massive upset happened just yesterday.
So Pittman is very well aware of the threat Kent State (0-1) — a compadre of Northern Illinois in the Mid-American Conference — poses to his unranked Razorbacks (1-0) in today’s 3 p.m. campus opener at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. And what it would mean for the Golden Flashes to knock off an SEC team.
“I was watching ‘College GameDay’ there for a minute and they were talking about, ‘It’s going to happen. A MAC school’s going to beat a Power 5,’ ” Pittman said on Monday. “Hopefully that’s already happened.”
In fact it has, as Northern Illinois outlasted Boston College 27-24 in overtime last Saturday.
The Razorbacks will have star quarterback KJ Jefferson and an up-and-coming receiving corps at their disposal today but they will not have tailback Raheim Sanders, a preseason second-team All-American, who is out with what is considered a minor knee injury.
Arkansas officials have deemed this Family Weekend, with a UA Hall of Honor induction banquet Friday night, and they have arranged on-field tributes to Razorback legends Alex Collins and Ryan Mallett who both passed away this summer in the prime of their lives.
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Arkansas has recent history that says a MAC team would have a chance on the Razorbacks’ ground. Toledo came to War Memorial Stadium against a good Arkansas team in 2015 and knocked them off 16-12 as the Razorbacks were hounded by holding penalties and red zone failures. The Rockets received a $1 million payday and a win that day.
Pittman was the offensive line coach on that Bret Bielema-coached team.
Can Kent State pull off a similar shocker today on what sets up as an emotional weekend for Razorback fans?
The Golden Flashes don’t appear to be at the level of upset artists just yet under first-year Coach Kenni Burns.
Kent State replaced all 11 starters on offense and lost 92% of its rushing and receiving yards from 2022. The defense, with three starters back, allowed 56 points at Central Florida in its season opener nine days ago. The Flashes’ total of 45 combined starts returning was the second fewest in the nation behind Colorado.
They are ranked 119th in total offense (239 yards), 132nd in total defense (723) and rushing defense (389), 126th in scoring (6) and tied for 127th in scoring defense (56) among the 133 FBS teams.
Kent State is a bigger underdog to the Hogs than FCS Western Carolina was a week ago.
Burns sees Arkansas as a program to model his own after.
“Looking at Arkansas, really impressive football team,” Burns said. “They won last week obviously big [56-13] against Western Carolina. They’ve got a really disciplined football team. They play really hard and play together. They’ve done a great job of building this thing up.”
Burns was a high school running back prospect in Springfield, Ill., the year before Pittman and company were scheming up a way for Michael “The Burner” Turner to flame Alabama for 156 rushing yards in that game 20 years ago. Burns wound up at Indiana rather than Northern Illinois but he’s seen Pittman’s work the last couple of decades.
“His reputation is well known,” Burns said. “He’s been known to build some of the best offensive lines in the country and he’s done a great job so far at Arkansas. I’ve got a ton of respect for him.
“But I’ve got a ton of respect for how his football teams play. We’re attempting to play how they play, with a tremendous amount of effort and energy. And they love what they do and do it well. Got a ton of respect for Coach Pittman and look forward to meet with him before the game.”
Pittman’s cherished picture from that day in Tuscaloosa, Ala., shows he understands the motivations fueling Kent State.
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“Here’s what I know about them: They’ll be tough,” he said. “They’ll play hard. They played hard against UCF. … They’ll play hard and they’ll come in here believing they can win. That’s how it was when I was at Western Michigan and how it was when I was at Northern Illinois. It’s just a wonderful opportunity for them.”
Meanwhile, Pittman has expressed the need for the lines on both sides of the ball to be more productive win Week 2.
While the offensive line protected Jefferson well, allowing no sacks, they struggled to develop seams for the running game, which was limited to 105 yards against Western Carolina. That front will be bolstered by the return of senior guard Brady Latham, who missed the opener with what was likely a concussion.
On the other side of the ball, the Hogs’ senior-laden front four notched two sacks — by Taurean Carter and Keivie Rose — but didn’t flash the way Pittman wanted last week.
“We’ve got to get off blocks better,” Pittman said on his weekly radio show Wednesday.
Pittman dropped a warning on his players after Tuesday’s practice, which he didn’t think was a good workout.
“I talked to them about … are we going to be a team that needs to be surprised?” Pittman said on a video conference Wednesday. “If you just look at college football the first week and what happened, are we going to have to learn a lesson from us not playing our best ball, or are we just going to play our best ball and play against ourselves and not worry about the opponent?
“Obviously I know you’re going to get amped up more against whoever-the-name-may-be school, somebody in the SEC, than possibly you would against Western Carolina. I mean, I understand that. But at the same time, if you don’t get ready to play and don’t prepare, you’re going to get beat and we’re going to be one of those teams everybody in the country is talking about.
“I just kept asking them, ‘Do we need to be surprised? Do we need to be taught a lesson? Or are we just going to go practice hard?’ I wasn’t particularly happy with the way the complete practice went.”
If the Golden Flashes are taking happy snaps under the Razorback Stadium scoreboard at about 6:30 p.m., Pittman will know the surprise was delivered.
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