GAMEDAY: Favored Hogs vs. Rice

GAMEDAY: Favored Hogs vs. Rice

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FAYETTEVILLE - Though today begins Sam Pittman’s second Arkansas season, it marks another first test for the 59-year-old head coach.

After last year’s 3-7 all-SEC slate, a vast improvement over 0-8 and 0-8 SEC goose eggs under the preceding Chad Morris regime, this marks Pittman’s first Arkansas non-conference game. And his Hogs are favored by 19 points, another first. 

Arkansas opens its season at 1 p.m. today again Rice at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The game is not on conventional TV but on internet via SEC Network-Plus and  ESPN Network-Plus. The radio broadcast will air on the Razorbacks Radio Network.

The Rice Owls were Southwest Conference lodge brothers with Arkansas way back when. They’re in Conference USA with the SWC disbanded in 1996 after 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 down 7-0 and No. 15 Marshall, 20-0.

Morris era holdovers still in Fayetteville know well Marshall’s plight.

Though his two-year regime officially went SEC 0-16, Morris was foremost fired because of non-conference Fayetteville fiascos, 44-17, 21-14 and 45-19 losses vs. North Texas, San Jose State and Western Kentucky. 

Like Rice, North Texas and Western Kentucky hail from Conference USA.

Unlike those beleaguered UA 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 in other close losses to LSU and Missouri. They believe a full non-covid shortened summer in the weight room renders them immune from the ghosts of recent past.

“We honestly don’t look in the past at all,” said Arkansas sixth-year senior Grant Morgan, who blossomed into a 2020 All-American. “We might have the same players from then, but we’re a different brand of football now.” 

Pittman is more concerned with Rice present.

Like Arkansas, Rice returns a veteran team with a tried and true upset formula: play good defense with your offense dominating the possession clock and make your favored-become-frustrated opponent commit impatient mistakes.

“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 gains turnovers.

“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 quarterbacks.

“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, to a preseason injury.

“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 bragged on Arkansas’ receivers and defensive line depth in August. He hopes that depth can be bragged on today.

His most honored offensive player, preseason All-America receiver Treylon Burks (injured leg), and biggest defensive lineman, 6-6, 320 graduate transfer nose tackle John Ridgeway (appendectomy), are deemed doubtful today.

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