FAYETTEVILLE — No. 13 Arkansas and No. 17 Ole Miss have been in some battles in recent years and Saturday likely won’t be any different.
Both Sam Pittman and Lane Kiffin have complete respect for the other team. Both teams are coming off one-sided losses to the nation’s two best teams. Since Arkansas fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter last week Pittman was asked if getting off to a fast start is important?
“Well I think a fast start’s important all the time, especially with the way we play football,” Pittman said. “The way we play football with a swarming defense and everybody knows we like to run the football and play-action off it. Obviously on the road if you can start fast, you may have an opportunity to take the crowd out of the game. But I think it’s always important. This week I think it would be very important, as well. Again, we’re on the road (and) did not have a good game last week, so I think that would be something that would be very important for us – not that we couldn’t win a game, or Ole Miss, if either one of us started faster than the other. Somebody’s going to start faster than the other, but I think it would be very beneficial for whomever that team might be.”
Kiffin remembers Barry Odom’s defense created seven turnovers against his team last season in a 33-21 win for the Hogs in Fayetteville.
“Very big challenge for us,” Kiffin said. “First off, getting rid of the last game, regrouping from that. A game we did not play well in, we all know. Preparing for an ultra physical football team that runs the ball extremely well and plays very, very physical and is second in the country in pass defense. So, I’ve said any time I’ve talked about them they’re well coached. Sam has done an unbelievable job. Barry should be the Broyles Award winner for what he’s done from where they were defensively a few years ago.”
Kiffin was so impressed with Odom’s defense he now is using some of it in Oxford. Could that cause additional issues for the Razorbacks?
“Well, I think two-fold – I think they probably, I don’t know, I’m not speaking for Coach Kiffin, but they probably did a little bit more good-on-good, practicing against each other,” Pittman said. “It’s very convenient. Obviously each defense has their own twist and things that they do differently than the other one, but a lot of similarities. We’ve actually gone more good vs. good this week than we have since fall camp simply to get the speed of it and if the defense is going to be similar, you’d like to get practice against better and more physical players, so that’s what we’ve done. I don’t know if there’s an advantage for us or them, to be honest with you. It’s just you’re able to get better speed and better athletes participating against each other during the week, at least that’s what we’ve done.”
Kiffin doesn’t see any advantages for either side in that regard.
“I don’t think it is,” Kiffin said. “With similarities in offensive structure and defensive structure, I think it really neutralizes out.”
So what challenges does Odom’s defense present for your team?
“They don’t give up almost any explosive plays,” Kiffin said. “I know there’s a lot of talk about how I follow analytics, but I kind of think, whether they know this or do it on purpose, they basically play defense the way analytics would tell you. If you don’t give up big plays and you make people pass the ball on offense, often they make a mistake, turn the ball over, get a penalty. That’s why for years explosive stats have been so involved. If you get one explosive play, two explosive plays in a series how much more your touchdown percentage is.”
Pittman added a worry for Arkansas’ defense is Kiffin’s willingness to go for it on fourth down.
“We have an analytics guru,” Pittman said. “I do it more on feel than I do analytics. I think Coach Kiffin’s gone for it a little over five times a game on 4th down and only punted nine times, so obviously he’s – I don’t want to speak for him, but I’m assuming he looks at that maybe a little more than I do. A lot of my decisions go on feel of the game and things of that nature, and what’s the score and how’s our defense playing, all those types of things. And I’m sure that goes into Coach’s mind too. He’s probably a little bit smarter with his analytics than I am.”
Pittman is just glad his team can get back on the field this week even if it’s on the road.
“We’re just really excited to go to Ole Miss,” Pittman said. “You know they have one of the greatest offensive minds in football down there with Lane Kiffin and have a great quarterback in Matt Corral. And really, really fine running backs and a good O-line. Defensively they’re playing lights out, flying around to the football. We’re looking forward to an early game down there.”
Kiffin also is impressed with Arkansas’ quarterback KJ Jefferson.
“The size is crazy how big he is,” Kiffin said. “I don’t know, maybe Cam [Newton] was that big at one point, I don’t know. So that’s an issue, because it’s like a giant running back back there when he runs the ball. He’s improved on some throws. So he’s very danger. They make a lot of big plays off the run game.”
Arkansas and Ole Miss will kickoff at 11 a.m. on Saturday in Oxford. The game will be televised on ESPN.