The Arkansas Razorbacks are in repair mode, physically and mentally, heading into their SEC opener at No. 12 LSU following Saturday’s 38-31 upset loss to BYU at home.
Coach Sam Pittman said the best course of action is to flush the loss, block out any distractions and dive in on a game plan to take on the Tigers, who have routed Grambling State (72-10) and Mississippi State (41-14) since falling 45-24 to Florida State in their opener.
“I just think this is as good a team as we’re going to play,” Pittman said at his weekly press conference on Monday. “I know A&M is good, I know Ole Miss is good. … Alabama is good. But I think this will define a little bit where we’re at, how we go Saturday night.
“We’ve just got to prepare really hard for it. We’ve got a good football team. They do too. But if we get prepared, it’ll be a hell of a game.”
Said LSU Coach Brian Kelly at his Monday presser, “We all know about this game. It’s a hard-fought, physical game each and every year.”
Quarterback KJ Jefferson was not 100% healthy against the Cougars, as evidenced by a couple of decisions he made on the run, Pittman said. And the status of ace tailback Raheim Sanders’ knee will probably not be known until later in the week.
Sanders, who has been sidelined by a left knee issue, was with the running backs during group drills on Monday, but he didn’t participate in live cutting or the drills during the media viewing portion of practice. Jefferson was doing all the drill work early in the practice in spider pads inside Walker Pavilion and he is apparently on the mend from whatever undisclosed problem he has.
“He actually is a lot better today than he was last week,” Pittman said.
Jefferson uncharacteristically ran out of bounds late in the first half when being chased by defensive end Isaiah Bagnah during a scramble to the BYU 9-yard line.
The Razorbacks opened the game with a called run for Jefferson that went for a 5-yard gain, but those tapered down as the game went on.
“He was a little banged up going into the game,” Pittman said.
When asked about Jefferson going out of bounds rather than taking on contact inside the 10, Pittman responded, “We wondered the same thing, but we knew the answer of why, you know. … A lot of times you’re telling guys, ‘run out of bounds’ or something and we have not told him that because … I didn’t think he would do it if we did. I’m sure [running out of bounds] had a little bit to do with how he was feeling.”
The health and performance of the Razorbacks’ offensive line has become a lingering issue, to the point Pittman suggested Arkansas would have to move the pocket around to keep defenders from homing in on Jefferson as BYU did, particularly in the second half.
BYU had four sacks and multiple other hits on the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Jefferson, who tore the Cougars up for five touchdowns in a 52-35 win in Provo, Utah, last year.
Three Arkansas offensive linemen, including center Beaux Limmer, are dealing with hand injuries, while projected starting left tackle Devon Manuel has had a concussion, an ankle problem and a stinger over the last six weeks.
On the Hogs’ last offensive possession, which started at the 1:55 mark at their own 33-yard line, tackles Patrick Kutas (back) and Andrew Chamblee (cramps) both came out, causing a shuffle on the front. The series was plagued by a series of holding calls and Jefferson was seemingly under duress throughout.
Guard Brady Latham recovered a strip-sack on the first play of the sequence. A 15-yard Jefferson scramble, which would have put Arkansas at the BYU 19 with 1:07 to play, was brought back by a holding penalty on Chamblee.
The Razorbacks eventually got back to the 16-yard line on a 21-yard catch by Luke Hasz and a 5-yard grab by Isaiah Sategna, but a holding call on Latham pushed the Hogs back again and time ran out as Jefferson was hit by Bagnah on the final snap of the game.
Pittman said he has to set the tone for how Arkansas will respond to the upset loss after many fans felt the Hogs would be 3-0 heading into a rugged four-game stretch.
“I think it’s a lot about how you approach today,” Pittman said. “I think that has a lot to do with it. You know the old saying, some teams can beat you two or three times if you let them. We just can’t do that. At some point today, we’ve got to let it go.
“I do know this: The busier you are preparing for the next game, the easier it is on you. In other words, to kind of block out all the noise that’s going on, because there’s going to be noise.
“There’s going to be noise around me forever as long as I’m fortunate enough to sit in the seat. It’s part of it. But I think the kids are the same way because there’s a lot of noise around, ‘We got beat by BYU’ and all that kind of stuff. You’ve got to cut that out of your life. Then you have to prepare.”
The Razorbacks opened as an 18-point underdog against the Tigers, who beat them 13-10 in Fayetteville last season.
Pittman said one key order of business is to cut down on penalties. The Razorbacks were flagged 14 times for 125 yards in penalties.
“It’s hard to win any game when you have 14 penalties,” Pittman said. “Obviously, I don’t know if I’m going to get fined, I obviously didn’t agree with all the calls and all that kind of stuff. Several of them.
“Hence the problem. We had too many missed assignments, and we had too many penalties to beat a good football team.”