FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Dec. 12, 2015, is shaping up to be a defining date in the Bret Bielema era at Arkansas.
On that day, offensive line coach Sam Pittman left the Razorbacks for the same position at Georgia. Arkansas’ offensive line hasn’t been the same since.
Pittman arrived as part of Bielema’s original staff for the 2013 season. He was viewed as an offensive line expert with two decades of experience coaching at the major-college level. He immediately transformed Arkansas’ offensive line into one of the best in the country, much like he’d done at North Carolina (2007 to 2011) and Tennessee (2012).
When Pittman left Arkansas for another SEC school, Bielema, understandably, didn’t take it well. But Bielema was adamant that Pittman’s departure wouldn’t hurt the program.
“I think I’ve proven in my history, when I have a situation like this pop up, I’ve been able to replace [former coaches] with someone of equal caliber or higher,” Bielema said the day Pittman left.
Bielema hired Kurt Anderson away from the Buffalo Bills in January 2016 to replace Pittman. During the 2016 season, Bielema had the worst-performing offensive line in his 11 seasons as a head coach. The difference between 2016 and Pittman’s three seasons at Arkansas was night and day.
In 2016, Arkansas quarterbacks were sacked 35 times. The three seasons prior, with Pittman coaching the unit, Hogs quarterbacks were sacked a combined 36 times. This season is off to another rough start for the line, which has allowed 5 sacks through two games.
Here’s the breakdown of where they stand in pass protection (based on average sacks allowed per game) in the Bielema era:
- 2013: 8 sacks allowed, 0.67 per game (No. 3 nationally, No. 1 SEC)
- 2014: 14 sacks allowed, 1.08 per game (No. 13 nationally, No. 1 SEC)
- 2015: 14 sacks allowed, 1.08 per game (No. 9 nationally, No. 1 SEC)
Since Pittman left for Georgia
- 2016: 35 sacks allowed, 2.69 per game (No. 103 nationally, No. 13 SEC)
- 2017 (through Sept. 9): 5 sacks allowed, 2.5 per game (No. 91 nationally, No. 11 SEC)
Things also have dropped off in the run game. Here are the rushing yards per game during the Bielema era:
- 2013: 208 yards per game (No. 21 nationally, No. 3 SEC)
- 2014: 218 yards per game (No. 26 nationally, No. 5 SEC)
- 2015: 197 yards per game (No. 34 nationally, No. 4 SEC)
Since Pittman left for Georgia
- 2016: 164 yards per game (No. 77 nationally, No. 10 SEC)
- 2017 (through Sept. 9): 182.5 yards per game (No. 58 nationally, No. 8 SEC)
Those struggles become magnified with the Hogs’ struggles in short-yardage situations. Twice in the loss to TCU on Sept. 9, the Razorbacks marched inside the Horned Frogs’ 5-yard line before failing to score. They ran the ball three times in those situations. They were stuffed for no gain twice and the other run was a 1-yard gain.
Those issues date back to the last time Arkansas faced Texas A&M, their opponent this Saturday. In the matchup a year ago this week, the Hogs were stuffed on the goal line twice in a 45-24 loss to the Aggies. Like last Saturday against TCU, Arkansas gave itself little chance to win due to goal-line failures.
Arkansas’ offensive line is reeling. And it has been since the loss of Sam Pittman.