At halftime Saturday night with Arkansas looking flat in falling behind Tennessee 13-0, my thought was the adjustments made at halftime will be the most interesting aspect of the game.
Those were done and now national talking heads are starting to REALLY notice. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit is paying attention:
Sam Pittman deserves SERIOUS consideration for SEC coach of the year-Let’s see how @RazorbackFB finish the year-But this team was 4-20 last 2 years & currently are 3-3 (very easily could be 4-2 Aub).
More importantly they’re just COMPETING, playing PHYSICAL & playing as a UNIT!
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) November 8, 2020
People are starting to notice that what Sam Pittman has pulled off in Arkansas about 60% of the way through the schedule and they are impressed.
And it’s not just Pittman, by the way. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles have basically taken the reins of their areas and been laser-focused on, well, coaching.
There’s no interaction with coordinators or assistant coaches. It’s Pittman and the players that speak to the media.
For those that don’t particularly care for that, sorry. It’s what teams playing for championships tend to do. The guess here is it has nothing to do with worrying about a slip of the tongue from some assistant, but is about keeping people focused.
If there were doubters about Pittman’s coaching, it was on full display in the 24-13 win over Tennessee on Saturday night.
Down 13-0 at halftime, some fans were starting to grumble. The defense was getting run over almost at will by the Vols while the offense couldn’t seem to get everything moving in the same direction at the same time.
“It’s not like we were down 50,” Pittman said later.
He likes to say he doesn’t know what went on the last couple of years but he’s well aware that was the situation where this team would basically fold up the tent and head to the house.
“Our locker room felt a little down whenever, so I just said, ‘Hey — look, man. We’re going to get the ball. We’re going to score. Your defense is going to hold them. We’re going to be up before you know it. Just keep the faith,'” he said.
Odom and Briles don’t just stick with the game plan when things aren’t working.
“Our defense had kind of figured ’em out a little bit late in the second quarter,” Pittman said. “Our offense just shot themselves in the foot. Tennessee had done a nice job on defense.”
Most of the adjustments Pittman focused on were mental.
“Our locker room felt a little down whenever, so I just said, ‘We’re going to get the ball. We’re going to score. Your defense is going to hold them. We’re going to be up before you know it. Just keep the faith.’
“We missed a field goal, but I told them, ‘The mind’s so powerful and your mind needs to tell you that we’re going to win the game and here’s how we’re going to do it.’ And I didn’t want to see any negative — I didn’t want to see heads handing or anything like that ’cause it was only a 13-point game.”
After a half where the Hogs couldn’t even manage a 21-yard field goal (A.J. Reed pushed it right), the halftime adjustments and mental coaching of Pittman produced a third quarter as dominant as anything in recent memory.
Arkansas took the second-half kickoff and drove 75 yards in 17 plays to make it 13-7. The defense stopped the Vols on a three-and-out, then things picked up in a hurry.
On first down Rakeem Boyd had a 5-yard run and Tennessee cornerback Kenneth George, Jr., started yapping at Hogs wide receiver Mike Woods, who kept his cool.
“We were going back and forth a little bit,” Woods said later. “I just told him you better hope they don’t throw it to me on this next play. Then they threw it to me and I ran deep.”
At first it was ruled a touchdown after Woods dominated George (who was called for pass interference), pushing him off when he tried to make a tackle, but he did manage to get Woods out of bounds at the 6.
“I had no clue I stepped out,” Woods said. “I’m pretty sure I was looking back at him trying to keep him off me, but I had no clue I stepped out until they reviewed it when I saw I stepped out.”
Woods had already burned George once, scoring on a slant in the end zone for the Hogs’ first touchdown. He ended up with three catches for a touchdown, 64 yards and the one touchdown.
It’s part of the difference this year. Woods suffered through all the pains of 4-20 over the previous two seasons without getting a single win over an SEC team.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Woods said. “I’ve been here three years and we hadn’t won an SEC game in two of those years so it’s been a long time coming.
“When you win everything just feels better. You’re not as sore, problems on the team aren’t problems any more because you won. When you win games everything is better.”
Which, of course, is why this team and Pittman are getting noticed.
And Herbstreit may be right. It’s hard to find a coach that’s done a better job at this point of the season than Pittman has done.
But Sam won’t say it. He’s only thinking about Florida.