Second-ranked Alabama comes to Fayetteville tomorrow to take on No. 19 Hogs

Razorback junior running back Dominique Johnson (#20) from Crowley, TX runs for a first down against Texas A&M Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX.

by Otis Kirk

FAYETTEVILLE — No. 19 Arkansas faces its biggest challenge of the season when they take on No. 2 Alabama on Saturday afternoon in Razorback Stadium.

Not only are the Hogs facing the best they have played this season, it’s also the first game since they lost to Texas A&M. Arkansas (3-1, 1-1) had reeled off wins over Cincinnati, South Carolina and Missouri State to start the season before a few errors led them to lose to the Aggies. Alabama (4-0, 1-0) has beaten Utah State, Texas (20-19), Louisiana-Monroe and Vanderbilt. Sam Pittman is looking forward to the game.

“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.”

Young won the Heisman Trophy following the 2021 season. How is he better this season?

“A lot of confidence in everything he does, whether he’s throwing or whether he’s scrambling, he’ll stay in the pocket until the last second,” Pittman said. “When he gets outside the pocket he just looks comfortable, like I could run it for a touchdown, I can throw it for a touchdown. I’m just going to do whichever one I decide to do. He’s been so hard to tackle for the teams he’s been playing. Texas is only team really that put much pressure on him at all and they did pressure him well. But I just think he’s playing with an extreme amount of confidence and he’s obviously been a good player probably since he was in sixth grade or whatever. But very, very confident and he’s got a lot of players around him. They’ve got some really good backs.”

Young has completed 83 of 121 passes for 1,029 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. He has 16 carries for 150 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Alabama coach Nick Saban is also very complimentary of the Razorbacks. Saban knows any team can lose to Texas A&M, his Tide fell to them just last season.

“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.”

The Hogs have returned to the practice fields this week and Pittman doesn’t feel there’s a hangover from the Aggies 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.”

Arkansas hasn’t beaten Alabama since the 2006 season. Many of those losses have been one-sided ones, but last year in Tuscaloosa the Hogs played them within 42-35. Does that give this team confidence since many of the players on that team are back this season?

“Well, Alabama can beat you before you ever run out on the field,” Pittman said. “Programs like that, Georgia — I don’t know in other conferences, maybe USC is that way, I don’t know, maybe Oklahoma is that way in the Big 12. Whomever it may be. But I think what happens when you play somebody close, you start having some belief that, you know, we’ve got a pretty good team. We can go out, not make mistakes, play well, play hard, get some turnovers, things of that nature and you have a chance to win the game. Certainly that’s where we’re at now with our football team.”

Alabama linebacker Will Anderson is to the defense what Young is offensively. He has 20 tackles, 10 solo, 4.5 sacks and an interception he returned 25 yards for a touchdown. Pittman is very aware of Anderson.

“Well, he had such a good year last year,” Pittman said. “He’s right where he was last year. You have to have a plan for him. You have to look out there and go, ‘OK, who can change the game on both sides of the ball’ and you have to try to eliminate them as much as you can with your schematics or double teaming him. Whatever it may be. Turning the protection or whatever you’re going to do. I mean he’s taken over a couple of their games defensively. Just puts them in second and 16, second and 15, whether it’s run or pass. Just they’ve got a bunch of good players on defense. Their D-line too. But he sticks out still.”

While Arkansas hasn’t forced a turnover in its last two games, the Tide only have forced three all season. Pittman was asked if that is something that may help the Hogs since turnovers have hurt Pittman’s team in recent games including the A&M loss?

“Well, I don’t know if it makes a difference or not as far as blowout wins and things of that nature, but they’ve really only had one game that was close at all,” Pittman said. “They’ve gotten a lot of second and third-team guys reps and things of that nature. So, they may have an adequate number of turnovers if you just count the ones, the first-team guys that are out there playing. No, I really haven’t thought about it a lot. We’re worried more about us and how we can get them and how we can hold onto the ball.”

Pittman feels his program is to the point they can enter any game with a chance to win. However he knows the margin of error to defeat Alabama is a small one.

“You have to play a really clean game,” Pittman said. “You can’t turn the ball over. You have to convert situational football. You have to score touchdowns in the red zone. You have to convert 3rd and 1s. If you go for it on fourth, you have to (make it). They’re just a really good team that you can’t make mistakes against, because if you do they’re like piranhas. They “beast” on that.

“Played them several, several times. They’re always well coached and disciplined. They don’t beat themselves. They obviously have great athletes. I think a big key is going into the game believing you can win. I think there’s not a whole lot of teams in the country that go into a game thinking they can beat Alabama. I may be wrong, but there’s some. There’s not a bunch. You have to have that belief and you’ve got a chance. If you have a whole team full of guys that believe they can win, you have a chance.”

Another factor for the Hogs in this game will be to score points. They put 35 on the scoreboard last season and likely need that many or more to have a chance in this game. Can the Hogs answer Alabama’s scores again?

“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 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.”

The kickoff is set for 2:30 on Saturday and the game will be televised on CBS. 

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