FAYETTEVILLE — No. 20 Arkansas will play host to No. 2 Alabama on Saturday afternoon in Razorback Stadium with the Hogs entering as the big underdogs.
Sam Pittman has always said he likes the underdog role. Well he gets it in full on Saturday as the undefeated Tide are heavily favored.
“We’re excited to play Alabama and get back home,” Pittman said. “They have a great team. Watching tape on them, they’re very explosive. Very good on defense. Obviously, they have probably the best player in college football on defense and the best player in college football on offense. Bryce Young, if it’s possible to be better than last year, he is on tape. Big, physical offensive and defensive line, but we’re going to be very excited to get in our stadium and play them on a national CBS game.”
Arkansas fell to Texas A&M 23-21 last Saturday night in Arlington’s AT&T Stadium. Prior to that the Hogs had reeled off victories over Cincinnati, South Carolina and Missouri State. How does Pittman feel the team will react after its first loss?
“I think we’re fine,” Pittman said. “After the game on the bus I was on going to the airport, I went back and talked to each and every one of them. The sad thing is we lost. The great thing is we’re not used to it. That was only two losses in the last 10 games, but it hurt. We had guys that were crying. But every Saturday you put yourself in that situation, and you just try to do the best you can as a coach and as a player. We’re going to flush it out of here in the first half of our meeting, then the second half is going to be on to Alabama. We have to learn from some things we did that we have to not do. Once we get that handled, we’ll move on. We don’t have time. We have the University of Alabama coming in here. I’m sure we’ll rebound and be excited to play.”
In each game, Arkansas has had a few plays that almost cost them the game. It finally caught up with them against Texas A&M. Pittman talked about just a play here or there making a difference.
“It’s like every play, but those are the ones that stick out,” Pittman said. “Guy can miss a tackle, or one time we had a drive going and threw a pass out to (Jadon) Haselwood and lost five yards, but we overcame that and scored. We overcame that. Sometimes a guy misses a tackle wide open, and a guy runs for a touchdown. It shows more. Obviously, on our fumble, we’ve talked about it. We’ve had that situation before, and it goes back for a touchdown. A field goal. Might not be that big a deal if you miss it early in the first quarter. Each play really matters. We’re going to not make a mountain out of a molehill. We should have played better. We should have not made those mistakes, but we have to move on and learn from it. If we can do that, we will be fine.”
For what it’s worth, Nick Saban isn’t expecting game on Saturday.
“This will be a really tough game for us,” Saban said. “They are a really good team. Tough team. Play with really good culture, physical. Run the ball really, really well. They have great balance on offense. The quarterback is [averaging] over 300 yards in total offense between throwing it and rushing.
“They’ve got 20 sacks on defense and play really, really sound, solid. They’re a well-coached defense. So this is going to be a different kind of challenge for us. A really tough game. We’re going to have to answer with how we play.”
Last season, Arkansas fell to the Tide 42-35 in Tuscaloosa. Pittman feels the Hogs will need to score a lot of points to win this game. That may be easier said than done. Alabama ranks No. 3 in the nation in scoring defense giving up only 7.3 points per game.
“Well, I think we’re gonna have to,” Pittman said. “I mean, we’re gonna have to score. We’re gonna score some points, you know, to stay in the game. And we were able to respond last year. The problem is, for the most part of that game, it was we were down two, at one point three, scores. And we get a we battled back into it. We need to strike as fast as we possibly can. Last year, I felt like it was playing catch up the whole time. I think we got within six at one point. But we need to strike fast, and hopefully we’re able to do that. But it showed that we were resilient, and we scored 35. That was a big deal for the offense. We just we couldn’t hold them under 42 last year. They’re as good offensively and defensively – probably better on defense than they were a year ago – and certainly as good or better on offense.”
Alabama has a lot of stars, but the two biggest ones are playing well. Quarterback Bryce Young, who won the Heisman Trophy last season, has completed 83 of 121 passes for 1,029 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. He also has ran the football 16 times for 150 yards and two more touchdowns. Linebacker Will Anderson has 20 tackles, 10 solo, 4.5 sacks and an interception he returned 25 yards for a touchdown. Both have not played the complete games in three contests due to blowouts. Only Texas gave the Tide a good game. Alabama prevailed 20-19 in that game.
Running back Jase McClellan leads the Tide with 29 carries for 245 yards and two touchdowns. Traeshon Holden leads the receivers with 15 receptions for 214 yards and four touchdowns. But it has been Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs who has been a big threat for Alabama. He has 25 carries for 172 yards. In addition he has 17 catches for 187 yards and three touchdowns.
“Gibbs we knew was a great player out of high school,” Pittman said. “That’s one of the first places I went with Jimmy Smith. He was committed to Georgia Tech, and we obviously went in there to talk to him. He didn’t really want to talk to us very long. I respected that. He is a wonderful back out of the backfield. He can run an option route or angle route as good as anybody in the country. Catches the ball extremely well. He’s gonna hurt you with the ball in his hands. They certainly use him at running back handing the ball to him a lot. Just an outstanding player and has been for a long time. Scott (Fountain) pulled up some things for the team when he was returning kickoffs for Georgia Tech as well just to show what kind of athlete he’s been for a while.”
Saban is pleased the Tide was able to land Gibbs out of the transfer portal.’
“Jahmyr has done a great job for us,” Saban said. “He’s got great quickness, he’s a really good receiver. Really good runner with the ball in his hands in space. He’s added an extra dimension and certainly been a weapon for us.”
Saban also is impressed with KJ Jefferson, Arkansas’ quarterback who gave him fits in the game last season. Saban was asked if Jefferson reminds him of anyone?
“Not really,” Saban said. “This guy’s pretty unique. He does a really good job of executing what they want to do on offense. Whether it’s quarterback runs, whether it’s passing the ball, whether it’s scrambling, extending plays in passing plays, being able to make plays with his feet, but also extend plays and make plays down the field. He’s a pretty unique guy. Big. Physical. Hard to tackle. Hard to sack. I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for the way he plays.”
As far as the weapons Jefferson has Saban feels they are better than last year in that regard despite no Treylon Burks.
“Yeah, I think Burks was obviously a fantastic player and made tremendous plays,” Saban said. “I think they’ve got three or four guys now who are all capable of making plays, and they get the ball spread around pretty good to those guys. The tight end is a threat as well. So, I would agree with you that they have more explosive players playing receiver this year all the way around.”
Jefferson has completed 67 of 97 passes for 941 yards and eight touchdowns with one interception. He has rushed 64 times for 274 yards and four touchdowns which is second on the team to Rocket Sanders. The sophomore running back has carried 83 times for 508 yards and three touchdowns. He has caught eight passes for 117 yards and one touchdown. ‘
At receiver, Haselwood has 18 catches for 214 yards and two touchdowns. Matt Landers has 15 receptions for 230 yards. Warren Thompson has grabbed eight passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns. Ketron Jackson has three catches for 103 yards and one touchdown. Tight end Trey Knox has 11 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Razorback Stadium. The game will be televised on CBS.