Sam Pittman really couldn’t lose against Mississippi State, but when he got the defensive plan from Barry Odom last Monday he might have thought they could win it.
Nobody else did.
After blowing up the stats against LSU in Baton Rouge last week, Mike Leach really couldn’t win even if he hung half a hundred on Arkansas.
Everybody thought that was going to happen anyway.
The resulting 21-14 win by the Razorbacks in Starkville was the biggest upset in the league Saturday, but Pittman kept dropping hints all last week he was probably more confident than the fans or the media.
He knew what Odom’s plan was and it wasn’t developed by looking at the Bulldogs’ win over the Tigers last week. Leach’s offense really hasn’t changed much in over 20 years.
“We had watched a couple of games from last year and teams that had success on them,” he said of going back and looking at Washington State film, where Leach had coached the last eight seasons. “It’s easy to find.”
The Cougars were 6-7 last year so they didn’t have to look far, but the key has always been to rush two or three and drop everybody else into a zone.
That goes against the aggressive nature of most defensive coaches, including Odom.
“Barry said, ‘this is what I want to do,'” Pittman said. “Just keep reminding me to be patient.”
That was just part of the puzzle. Odom had to sell it to the players because the defense was going to have to be disciplined in coverage.
“All week the kids believed we could rally around the ball and make tackles and for the most part tonight that’s exactly what we did,” Pittman said.
But patience was the key word defensively for this game. Odom wanted to cut out big chunk plays and make the Bulldogs slowly dink-and-dunk their way downfield. That usually tests the patience of an offense like Leach’s.
It also meant he was going to have to get an almost fanatical effort from his defense. He ended up getting every bit of that and it paid off on the opening drive of the game.
State quarterback K.J. Costello, who had 623 yards against LSU last week, had worked downfield to the Arkansas 31 where he tried to force a pass and he threw it right to Hogs defensive back Greg Brooks, Jr., who grabbed and set sail for 69 yards down the left sideline and the opening score of the game.
“We talked about it all day,” Pittman said. “We said, hey he’s going to get impatient and hopefully he’ll throw us some.”
Brooks had his touchdown return and Joe Foucha made a big return, picking off two passes.
But it was the interception and return that may have convinced Odom he had the right plan and it also got a chuckle from Pittman later.
“Brooks probably helped him not get out of it,” he said. “(Odom) said just keep reminding me. It was a great game plan.
“It looked good on Monday. We thought we could execute it and all that, then put a little twist in it here and there. Barry’s really got those guys playing hard.”
All of that finally paid off Saturday night as the Hogs won the turnover battle, 4-2, had three interceptions and some eye-popping defensive stats.
Linebackers Bumper Pool (20) and Grant Morgan (15) had the most tackles with defensive back Jalen Catalon right behind them (13).
The linebackers were supposed to be a big question mark going into the season, but Pool and Morgan are playing with an almost fanatical urgency.
It was a key part of stopping State twice on fourth down plays. That was huge and was a direct result of the Hogs’ defense swarming to the ball like Odom wanted.
The offense did enough to win. Quarterback Feleipe Franks’ experience and arm strength showed through. He found De’Vion Warren and Hudson Henry so open no defender was in the same zip code and he delivered strikes that got there before anybody could react.
But maybe the key part was the Hogs overcame in-game adversity and figured out how to win.
When the offense loses the top running back and wide receiver early in the game, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles had to adjust and he did.
The defense also lost cornerback Montaric Brown early but redshirt freshman Hudson Clark came in and seemed to make the loss not that noticeable.
“We had a meeting this morning and Barry and Sam Carter (the cornerbacks coach) were going to play him regardless if somebody got hurt or not,” Pittman said. “They said he’d earned playing time and was playing really good and I agree with them.”
There were some negatives and they will be discussed over the next week, but for now fans don’t want to hear that.
Arkansas’ first SEC win since 2017 doesn’t call for a lot of nit-picking the fine points of what needs to be improved.
For now, the Hogs finally have a win in the SEC. They avoided any losing streak records and a different outcome Saturday night would have tied them for the most futility in the SEC West.
Mississippi State will get to the keep that record a little while longer.