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.
Underdog Hogs pushing for 'hell of a game' at LSU
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman looks on from the sideline, Saturday, Sept, 2, 2023, during the fourth quarter of the Razorbacks’ 56-13 win over Western Carolina at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for the photo gallery.
BATON ROUGE — Denied the repeat of a 44-year-old historic feat in a loss to BYU last week, the Arkansas Razorbacks will now aim for a program first tonight at LSU’s Tiger Stadium.
Arkansas (2-1, 0-0 SEC) has never won back-to-back games at Tiger Stadium in its 130 years of football.
The Razorbacks could achieve that first in today’s 6 p.m. Battle for the Golden Boot against the No. 12 Tigers (2-1, 1-0 SEC) following a 16-13 win in overtime here in 2021.
But the Hogs are a nearly three-touchdown underdog against an LSU team under second-year Coach Brian Kelly that has raged back from a season-opening rout at the hands of Florida State and is angling to defend its SEC West co-title.
“I think this will define a little bit where we’re at, how we go Saturday night,” Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said early in the week. “We’ve just got to prepare really hard for it. We’ve got a good football team. They do too. But if we get prepared, it’ll be a hell of a game.”
The Razorbacks were taken aback by last week’s 38-31 upset loss to BYU, which came despite the fact they out-gained the Cougars by 140-plus yards. A staggering 14 penalties for 125 yards, the Hogs’ first two turnovers of the season and a trio of big BYU scoring plays cost Arkansas a 3-0 start, which would have been its first in three consecutive years since 1977-79 under Coach Lou Holtz.
Kelly, the winningest active coach in college football, is trying to keep his team on track after back-to-back blowouts of Grambling State and Mississippi State.
“We’re excited about playing at home at Tiger Stadium, but we have to play with the same kind of competitive edge we played with against Mississippi State,” Kelly said.
He has warned his team on Monday that Arkansas will be eager to atone for a home loss as it starts league play.
“We’re going to get Arkansas’ best,” he said. “Certainly, I just say put yourself in Arkansas’ shoes, if we didn’t play well against Mississippi State you can imagine the paint would be peeling off the walls in this building. … We would be coming out ready to play. And that’s going to be the case with Arkansas.
“So we’re going to get their very best, and we’re going to have to match and exceed that. And certainly … this is college football and keeping young men at that competitive edge week in and week out is the biggest challenge that we face now. There are so many distractions, so many things that can get you away from where you need to be focused, and that will be the challenge for this football team.”
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LSU opened a can on Mississippi State in a 41-14 road win last week, holding the Bulldogs to 201 total yards and scoring on seven of its first eight possessions behind ace quarterback Jayden Daniels.
The status of key players looms a little over the matchup. Arkansas tailback Raheim “Rocket” Sanders is likely to be out for a third consecutive game with a left knee issue. LSU defensive back Greg Brooks Jr., a three-year Razorback who transferred back to his home state last year, is out indefinitely following emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor last Friday.
There’s a bit of urgency on the Arkansas side of things as the Hogs embark on a four-game stretch away from home against SEC West opponents who have been ranked this season. A neutral site game against Texas A&M is on tap next week, followed by true road games at No. 15 Ole Miss and No. 13 Alabama.
The Razorbacks held all three of their rivalry game trophies for the first time after a 9-4 run in 2021, but they gave them all back in painful fashion to LSU, Texas A&M and Missouri last year by a combined seven points.
Pittman said rivalry matchups tend to produce tight games and better focus.
“You wish you could bottle all that, he said on his Wednesday radio show. “Wish you could bottle what makes kids tick all the time. What makes them play up each and every week.
“I do think trophy games, rivalry games, have something to do with it. A lot of times, now not all the time, but a lot of times you throw out maybe what’s happened in previous weeks and you go off of just that game. I think any rivalry game probably is that way. We certainly will be ready to play. I know they will be.”
LSU has a 20-game edge (43-23-2) in the all-time series and an 18-9 record since former Arkansas linebacker David Bazzel created the Golden Boot Trophy for the 1996 game.
“We all know about this game,” Kelly said. “It’s a hard-fought physical game each and every year. … I know our guys understand who they’re playing and the tough games that we’ve had with them, including last year.”
Each of the rivals has won on the other’s turf by three points in the last three meetings, with LSU taking a 27-24 decision in Fayetteville in the covid year of 2020 and a 13-10 win last year.
Behind sophomore quarterback KJ Jefferson, the Razorbacks won a night game at Death Valley on Nov. 13, 2021, despite being out-gained 308-283 in a defensive slugfest.
Freshman Cam Little kicked three field goals, including the game-winning 37-yarder in overtime. Jefferson wriggled out of a would-be sack to find Dominique Johnson alone behind the defense for the game’s biggest play, a 43-yard touchdown pass midway through the third quarter.
Jefferson, sacked four times last week, is a big focus for the Tigers.
“KJ is a pretty big quarterback,” LSU defensive end Sai’vion Jones said. “We can’t just go in and tackle high and expect us to bring him down, especially with him being like 6-4, 240. So, the emphasis on him is to make sure we hit him nice and low and that the backside pursuit always runs to the ball. Don’t assume he’s down.
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“As long as we stay disciplined in our gaps and we tackle with the right fundamentals that we have, I think we shouldn’t have problems.”
Jefferson was the preseason All-SEC second-team pick by media and coaches behind Daniels, who is fourth in the FBS with 325 passing yards per game and 10th with a 185.66 passer rating. Jefferson, 26th with a 163.16 passer rating, committed his first two turnovers of the year last week and gave up the ball twice on strip sacks under big pressure.
Pittman discussed the high-profile quarterback battle on his radio show on Wednesday.
“Daniels, he’s the gas, the tires, the wheels, he’s it for their offense,” Pittman said. And he’s really, really good. He’s playing better than he ever has in my opinion. But we’ve got one who’s pretty good too.
“So opening of SEC play for us I expect us to be high, ready to go and those things. But we go really a lot of times as KJ goes and I think he’ll play a good football game.”
Arkansas has won just four times in Baton Rouge — in 1993, 2007, 2015 and 2021 — and Pittman has been part of two of them. He was offensive line coach, and current offensive coordinator Dan Enos was serving in the same position when the 2015 team prevailed 31-14 at Tiger Stadium.
A huge chunk of fans were ready to boot Coach Les Miles during and after that setback by the No. 9 Tigers in 2015, but Miles seemingly saved his job with a win over Texas A&M the following week.
The Razorbacks have been practicing with a soundtrack of massive crowd noise piped in to prepare for their first road game.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere,” freshman tight end Luke Hasz said. “There’s going to be a lot of people, and it being a night game is going to be really special as well. I’m definitely excited this is my first one.”
Arkansas is also seeking solutions for what has been a sluggish offense, with several offensive linemen dealing with hand injuries, which has played a part in a slow build to the run game and lots of pressure on Jefferson last week. Kelly thinks it’s only a matter of time before the Arkansas offense jells.
“Dan is a really good football coach,” he said. “He’ll have that offense prepared to look like Sam Pittman’s football team. They’re going to be physical, they’re going to take shots down the field, they’re going to play smart football, they’re going to compliment their defense.
“When you really talk about it from my perspective, they’re going to be a complete football team when they get to the point where everybody knows what they’re doing on every single snap. That’s a scary team to play as they continue to develop.”
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