FAYETTEVILLE — Though Saturday begins Sam Pittman’s second Arkansas season it for him marks another first test.
A first test beyond the season-opening obvious of the 1 p.m. game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium against the Rice Owls.
A media note: Saturday’s game is not on conventional television but internet video available on SEC Network-Plus and ESPN Network-Plus and as always on the Razorbacks Radio Network.
After last year’s 3-7 all SEC slate, a vast improvement over the 2018 and 2019, 0-8 and 0-8 SEC goose eggs under the preceding Chad Morris regime, this marks Pittman’s first Arkansas nonconference game. Also it’s first favored. Las Vegas favors Arkansas by 19.
The Owls were Southwest Conference lodge brothers with Arkansas way back when. They’re in Conference USA with the SWC disbanded in 1996 following Arkansas’ 1992 departure to the SEC.
Academically elite but tiny (2,700 student-body) Rice University faces uphill athletic challenges but has sprung upsets.
Coach Mike Bloomgren’s 2-3 Owls of 2020 sprang one last December. In Huntington, West Virginia, they took on the hosting 7-0 nationally No. 15 Marshall Thundering Herd and won, 20-0.
Morris era holdovers that Pittman coaches know well Marshall’s plight.
Though his two-year regime officially went SEC 0-16, Morris was foremost fired with two SEC games because of nonconference Fayetteville fiascos, 44-17, 21-14 and 45-19 losses versus supposed rent-a-win North Texas, San Jose State and Western Kentucky.
Like Rice, North Texas and Western Kentucky hail from Conference USA.
Unlike those beleaguered Razorbacks teams, these Razorbacks say they enter believing off last year’s SEC 3-7. Minus a horrifically blown officiating call at Auburn they should have been 4-6 and contested two other close but no cigars. They believe a full non-COVID shortened summer in the weightroom renders them immune from the ghosts of Morris era past.
“We honestly don’t look in the past at all,” Arkansas sixth-year senior Grant Morgan, blossomed into a 2020 All-American, said. “We might have the same players from that but we’re a different brand of football now.”
Pittman isn’t nearly so concerned with Arkansas’ Morris era past as Rice present.
Like Arkansas, Rice returns a veteran team. The Owls do so with a tried and true upset formula.
Play good defense helped by your offense dominating the possession clock and making your favored become frustrated opponent mistake prone impatient.
“We plan to take advantage of every second of that game clock,” Bloomgren said.
Rice could get forced out of that if Arkansas’ Kendal Briles coordinated uptempo offense catches the Owls out of position for quick scores, and Arkansas’ defense regularly three-and-out the Owls and garner turnovers.
But what if the Hogs can’t? Must they then adjust their offensive pace?
“Obviously, it’s up to our defense to get them off the field,” Pittman said. “However, we don’t want to panic with that. We don’t want to do something that we aren’t. We want to go run our offense, but the offense knows we need to have success and success early. Obviously, we’d like to get the lead and take them out of that pace a little more.”
Pittman said he would expect the Owls, with either of their either-or quarterbacks, returnee Wiley Green, and runs-like-a-tailback Nebraska transfer Luke McCaffrey, while nationally touted Jake Bailey leads their receivers, to adjust if their early “bully ball” game plan is disrupted.
“I think they can adjust the tempo if they want to,” Pittman said. “But I anticipate them taking as much time off the clock as they can.”
Rice lost its best defensive player, tackle De’Braylon Carroll, preseason injured for the season.
“The loss of De’ Braylon is a big deal,” Bloomgren said. “He created a new line of scrimmage. But luckily we feel like our depth is so much better everywhere.”
Pittman preseason bragged on Arkansas’ receivers and defensive line depth. He hopes that depth still can be bragged on Saturday.
His most honored offensive player, Preseason All-American receiver Treylon Burks (injured leg), and biggest defensive lineman, 6-foot-6, 320-pound graduate transfer nose tackle John Ridgeway (appendectomy), are deemed doubtful.