Arkansas has now lost 16 straight games to Alabama following the 49-26 loss on Saturday. It was a combination of Alabama just downright being better than Arkansas in every phase of the game, and Arkansas not playing good football.
The Hogs came to life towards the end of the first half, but in the end, the Crimson Tide just couldn’t be stopped. Alabama’s Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Bryce Young left the game with a shoulder injury with 10:54 left in the second quarter, and Arkansas was able to rattle his back-up Jalen Milroe.
After being outscored 28-0 in the first half Arkansas would score 23 unanswered points to make it a 28-23 ballgame. Alabama had the ball on their own 20-yard line facing a third down and long. Milroe would step back to throw, but then take it 77 yards to the Arkansas goal line where they’d score a touchdown two plays later.
That play was a backbreaker and momentum-killer that Arkansas couldn’t recover from.
The frustrating thing about Saturday isn’t really that the Hogs lost to Alabama, or even that they lost convincingly. The frustration from Saturday is that this should be your only loss on the season so far, and it’s not. Now, instead of just regrouping while being 4-1 (2-1), they’re backed into a tough corner with zero margin for error the rest of the season being 3-2 (1-2).
The Hogs are in this position now because they lost to a Texas A&M team who they outplayed and shouldn’t have lost to. There’s still a lot to play for, but even replicating the success from last season (9-4 with an Outback Bowl win) is going to be a tall task.
The culture that Sam Pittman has built at Arkansas is about to face its biggest test yet during this upcoming stretch of the season. There are no more guaranteed wins on the schedule. This team is going to have to dig down deep and find another gear if this season is going to have a happy ending.
What We Learned
• The Team Showed Some Resiliency
I don’t think there are many teams in the country that can take a 28-0 punch from Alabama right out of the gates and still be able to answer back and make a game of it. Trailing 28-0 three minutes before halftime, Arkansas could’ve just packed it in and called it a day.
That didn’t happen.
Both the offense and the defense looked very much engaged on the sideline. The offense looked poised and focused as they marched down the field to score before halftime. This sparked a 23-0 run that made it a one possession game going into the fourth quarter, which is a position I think any team would love to be in against Alabama.
Although the momentum quickly dissipated and the Crimson Tide put the game away shortly after, it’s still good to see that this Arkansas team will not simply fold under such adversity.
Teams folding under adversity and giving up were the trademarks of former coaches Bret Bielema and Chad Morris, so it’s yet another reminder that Sam Pittman has changed the culture here at Arkansas. That’s something to be thankful for and proud of.
• Defense Needs to Limit Big Plays, Especially on Third Down
The Arkansas defense has struggled all season when it comes to allowing big plays for opposing offenses. Saturday was no different. Alabama finished with 555 yards of total offense and averaged almost nine yards per play (8.7).
The Arkansas defense also played very poorly on third downs, not being able to get the Alabama offense off the field. The Crimson Tide were able to convert on third down nine times on Saturday.
“We just couldn’t get them off the field,” Sam Pittman said after the game. “They had two really long pass plays. And a lot of times it was on third and long. We just gave up way too many big plays. They are a good football team, and they made us look really bad at times.”
I mentioned earlier about Alabama’s Jalen Milroe going 77 yards on third and long, and Sam Pittman acknowledged how big of a turning point it was in the game in his press conference.
“It was huge,” Pittman said. “They were down I think inside the 20 in a 28-23 game. They went 77, and then they scored a couple plays later and got it back up to a 12-point game. We didn’t answer on offense. That was a big, big play.”
On the 77-yard run, Bumper Pool was the quarterback spy and looked to be in position to make a play at the line of scrimmage but took a terrible angle that led to the huge gain.
I don’t know if there’s a specific solution to this problem because it’s become such a theme with the defense. One positive is that Arkansas was still able to get some pressure on Young and Milroe, but the coverage just isn’t there.
Poor tackling and blown coverages continue to haunt this Arkansas defense, and until they can get these things fixed it’s going to be tough sledding through the rest of this brutal schedule.
• Special Teams Continuing Solid Season
Overall, the Arkansas special teams have been solid this season. The only blemish for that position group was when Cam Little missed a difficult 42-yard field goal against Texas A&M that would’ve given the Hogs a lead late in the game.
This week the special teams were very good, yet again.
Cam Little responded to his tough outing last week by going 2-for-2 on his attempts Saturday.
One of the biggest plays of the day came on a kickoff right after Arkansas scored on their opening drive to start the second half.
Kickoff specialist Jake Bates lined up to kick off to the Crimson Tide, but it was a designed onside kick that caught everyone in the stadium and at home off guard. Bates recovered his own onside kick at the Arkansas 46, and it helped get the momentum of the game firmly back on the Arkansas side.
It took a lot of guts for Sam Pittman and special teams coach Scott Fountain to make that call, but it was the perfect time to try it and the execution was perfect.
I love that Sam Pittman isn’t afraid to take these kinds of chances on special teams, and that he’s been very calculated and methodical about when to try some trickeration. Unlike Chad Morris, Pittman’s ability to utilize his special teams in big moments continues to impress me.
• Big Change at QB2
Late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game KJ Jefferson left with an undisclosed head injury. Malik Hornsby is listed as the No. 2 quarterback on the team’s official depth chart; however, it was redshirt senior transfer Cade Fortin who entered the game and played the remainder of the snaps.
Again, Hornsby has been listed as the No. 2 quarterback on the team’s official depth chart all season, so not seeing Hornsby in the game was shocking. Pittman later said after the game that it was a coach’s decision.
“That decision has been made for a while,” Pittman said. “He’s our No. 2 quarterback, so we put him in there.”
This is even more significant given Monday’s news about KJ Jeffferson’s status for this week. Pittman revealed that the staff is taking a “wait-and-see” approach with Jefferson’s head injury, and that this Wednesday would be when the final decision on his playing status would be made.
Without Jefferson, Fortin presents more of a prototypical, pocket passer option at quarterback, with somewhat decent running ability. Hornsby is still listed on the depth chart as the other option at quarterback, so it’ll be interesting to see how Pittman and his staff approach the game if Jefferson is absent.
One thing is for sure, the quarterback situation behind KJ Jefferson is as clear as mud.
Arkansas travels to Starkville to take on No. 23 Mississippi State. This will be the fourth Top 25 opponent Arkansas has faced this season. Kickoff is scheduled for 11:00 a.m. and coverage can be seen on SEC Network.