FAYETTEVILLE – Back in December Saturday’s Arkansas vs. Georgia Southern game loomed tough for Arkansas.
It doesn’t seem to loom so tough now. And that could make it prove all the tougher for 2-0 Arkansas hosting the Sun Belt Conference’s 1-1 Eagles in Saturday’s 3 p.m. SEC Network televised game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Saturday’s game loomed tough last winter because on Dec. 23 Coach Chad Lunsford’s Eagles, returning in 2021 their entire starting offensive line, routed always respected Louisiana Tech, 38-3 in the New Orleans Bowl.
The victory lived up to the Georgia Southern tradition of the late Erk Russell coaching the Eagles to three 1-AA national championships and Coach Jeff Monken’s 2013 Eagles stunning Florida, 26-20 at the Gators’ Swamp.
This year’s Eagles started slowly winning, only 30-25 over underdog Gardner-Webb. After leading 6-0 then fumbling in the red zone, they fell 38-6 last Saturday to a Florida Atlantic team that last year’s Eagles defeated.
“They had an opportunity to go up, 13-0 hen it kind of went south on them after that,” Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said.
Meanwhile Arkansas after a slow start against Rice trailing, 17-7 at 10:28 of the third quarter, won its season-opener, 38-17. Last Saturday before a standing room only crowd at Reynolds Razorback Stadium shocked No. 15 Texas, 40-21, dominating the Longhorns both sides of the fall start to finish including a 16-0 first half.
The Razorbacks, now ranked 20th and 24th in the AP and Coaches poll, have heard a week of national praise with pats on the back from fans euphoric over beating Texas. It’s all compounded by the natural temptation looking ahead to the Sept. 25 SEC opener against nationally No. 5 Texas A&M to be televised nationally by CBS at 2:30 p.m. at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium.
Pittman warns his Razorbacks had better not look ahead. Especially since Justin Tomlin, the GSU quarterback who beat Florida Atlantic last year, actively returns after compelled to miss the season’s first two games while fulfilling academic issues.
Tomlin quarterbacks GSU’s triple option offense, football’s offensive rage in the 1960s and 1970s now a difficult counter plan because defenses so rarely play against it, like nobody else on the Eagles roster.
“Big-time athlete,” Pittman said. “In their first two games I think they pitched the ball on the option four times. He’s going to pitch it if he needs to pitch it and he’s going to keep it if he needs and he’s going to hand it out. So he’s got experience at it. And he throws the ball as well. A good thrower. I think coach is doing exactly what he needs to do with his talent running that option. In my opinion he’s truly going to take that offense to a different level.”
The assignment football of a defense meticulously simultaneously prepped to cover the dive play to the fullback, pitch to the tailback or the quarterback keeping on the run or pulling up and passing is such that even preseason preparing for Rice and Texas, Pittman devoted some August practice time against Georgia Southern.
“We had different individual periods and probably spent three to four different days working on their option,” Pittman said. “Because we didn’t feel like we could get it all just like we wanted in a week’s time.”
Instead of just the scout team this week, Pittman even had his second offensive unit quarterbacked by cat-quick backup Malik Hornsby emulating Tomlin, practicing Georgia Southern offense against the first defense.
That Pittman thinks so much of the GSU option game specifically to work on it in August struck home.
“”I think that’s one of the most important things that we did was getting to see them and preview it,” Arkansas senior linebacker Bumper Pool said. “At the time we thought it was so far away, but the season comes up so quickly. So, getting to see it just so it’s familiar is huge. I feel like we know what they’re doing, and just to have a step up on them this week we’re excited about it.”
Asked about GSU’s defense, Pittman replied, “They fly to the football.”
And while as a defensive team undersized, they will compensate in toughness Pittman said he knows from having coached the University of Georgia’s offensive line from 2016-2019 and recruiting in Georgia for a variety of schools including Arkansas as the Razorbacks’ 2013-2015 offensive line coach.
“I told our team, when you go to Georgia t if you want to go find one that’s guaranteed tough, go to South Georgia,” Pittman said. “He (Lunsford) has got a lot of kinds from down there. So we know they’re going to be an extremely tough, physical, hard-playing team.”
The Razorbacks ran tough both sides of the ball against Texas.
Paced by an offensive line blowing out the Texas D-line, quarterback KJ Jefferson and four running backs, Trelon Smith, Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, AJ Green and Dominique Johnson, led the Razorbacks to 333 rushing yards. They tallied four rushing touchdowns, one from each back.
The defense, with Arkansas needing just three down line down linemen to occupy Texas’ offensive line, held Texas Heisman Trophy candidate running back Bijan Robinson to 69 yards on 19 carries. Some of Robinson’s best runs were just beyond the line of scrimmage avoiding losses from Arkansas’ tackling swarms led by linebackers Hayden Henry, 15 tackles, Grant Morgan, 13 tackles, and Pool, 10 tackles in the second half after sitting the first half fulfilling a second-half targeting penalty vs. Rice.
All great stuff. But all starting from scratch against a Georgia Southern offense trying different things the Razorbacks didn’t see from Rice and Texas.
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3 Sports Action