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' goal-line stand 'tells you something'
Arkansas defensive linemen Landon Jackson (40) and Trajan Jeffcoat (7) tackle Kent State running back Gavin Garcia (21) on fourth-and-goal, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, during the fourth quarter of the Razorbacks’ 28-6 win over the Golden Flashes at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Sam Pittman equated the Arkansas Razorbacks’ late goal-line stand last weekend to the force that is flowing through that side of the ball through two games under new coordinator Travis Williams.
Arkansas was ahead 28-6 at the time, when a 36-yard deep ball to Trell Harris set Kent State up at the Hogs’ 2.
On four successive plays, different members of the defense rose up to prevent the Golden Flashes from crossing the goal plane for what would’ve been their first touchdown of the young season.
“That tells you something about our team,” the fourth-year UA Coach Pittman said on his radio show Wednesday night. “We were gonna win whether they scored or whether they didn’t.”
The Razorbacks hope to parlay their early defensive success into a rousing showing at 6:30 p.m. Saturday when unbeaten BYU (2-0) comes to Reynolds Razorback Stadium for the Hogs’ first marquee matchup of the season.
Arkansas sports the nation’s 18th-best total defense and its fifth-best rush defense, highlighted by the late stand against the Golden Flashes. The Hogs remained tied for first nationally in turnover margin at plus-3 after forcing five interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns.
“We’ve talked a lot about whether we can run the ball, whether we can’t. It seems like right now we’re trying to find all the negatives and we’re not talking about how good our defense has been playing,” Pittman said on his radio show. “Because they’ve been playing outstanding.”
The Razorbacks are allowing 245.5 total yards and 45 rushing yards per game. They’re also 14th in scoring defense, giving up 9.5 points per game.
That would have changed if Kent State had managed to power in for a score halfway through the fourth quarter last Saturday.
Instead of allowing Kent State to pull within two touchdowns, the Hogs put up a wall, capped by end Landon Jackson’s lightning-fast penetration and stop of Gavin Garcia for a 4-yard loss on fourth down from the 1.
“I told the team afterwards that fourth-and-1 ended up fifth and 4,” Pittman said on the show, using his old school brand of humor. “That’s a big deal. Somebody made a play each and every down and it wasn’t the same person necessarily every time, even though Landon Jackson on third and fourth down showed some really good effort.”
On first down from the 2, tailback Jaylen Thomas tried a run at right guard, but the Razorbacks clogged up that hole and safety Hudson Clark and tackle Taurean Carter combined to stop him just short of the goal line.
On second down, the Golden Flashes created a seam at right tackle, but linebacker Chris Paul fired into the hole and smacked Thomas hard behind the line to stop the runner in his tracks.
“They were really trying to run the ball down our throat,” linebacker Antonio Grier said of the second down stop. “From my point of view, I was just setting the edge, coming off the edge and all I just hear is ‘Cloww!’ and that’s Pooh Paul coming down and hitting him and making a great play.
“I was more than excited for him because Coach T-Will, we practice that drill so much. We do it in indy and just to see that translate from practice to the game, it was great to watch it.”
ESPN announcer and former Vanderbilt Coach Derek Mason sounded almost giddy on the broadcast. “Football. I love it,” said Mason, who made his mark as a defensive guru. “Physical at the point of attack. Watch him shoot through the gap. Nice contact.”
On third down, quarterback Mike Alaimo had to jump to bring in a high snap, throwing the timing of the play off. Alaimo tried to dash up the middle but he was stopped by Grier and Paul, with tackle Cam Ball also making contact at the end of his dive.
On fourth down, Jackson released inside of 6-4, 265-pound left tackle Cameron Golden and hit Garcia at the 4 just after he took the handoff. Fellow end Trajan Jeffcoat had also whipped his blocker and was in position to clean up in case Jackson had missed.
“Landon Jackson with the vertical penetration off the edge,” Mason said. “Again, in critical situations, you’re big-time players have got to show up.”
The Razorbacks will face a different challenge in their rematch with the Cougars after beating them 52-35 last year in Provo, Utah. Transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis has 40 college games under his belt at USC, Pitt and BYU, with 72 touchdown passes and more than 10,000 passing yards.
“Just a great leader,” Paul said of Slovis. “You can tell the offense revolves around him and he’s really just a great overall guy. I can see everybody on the offense respects him and respects his game.
“He has good vision, a great arm by the way. He does a great job with selling out his fakes and things like that. So it’s a going to be a challenge for us this week and we’re ready for it.”
The Cougars lost ace receiver Puka Nacua, who had 14 touches for 161 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Hogs last season and snagged 10 catches for 119 yards in his NFL debut for the Rams last week. However, they expect to have Kody Epps back from shoulder surgery for his 2023 debut. Epps caught a game-high nine passes for 125 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas last year.
Additionally, tight end Isaac Rex and wideouts Keanu Hill and Chase Roberts are back for BYU.
The Cougars are 60th nationally with 246.5 passing yards per game while Arkansas is 59th in allowing 200.5 passing yards per game.
Pittman recruited BYU offensive tackle Kingsley Suamataia when he was at Georgia.
Much like Arkansas, the Cougars have struggled to get their running game going. They sit at 118th in the nation with 79 rushing yards per game. BYU Coach Kalani Sitake was asked if he’s considering personnel changes on offense because of that.
“I feel really good about what we’re doing,” Sitake said. “We’re 2-0, feeling really good about everything. We’re going to build on the momentum and foundation that we set, and we’ve seen our guys respond better.
“We’ve had games where we can run the ball better than we throw, and some games where it was really balanced. All I care about is putting points on the board, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
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