Sam Pittman's choice of Barry Odom has resulted in immediate payoff for Razorbacks' defense
Barry Odom provided the rest of the SEC with a cheat code Saturday.
After watching film on Mississippi State coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense all week, he knew how he wanted to attack. It was a strategy he was certain would work, if he could just get over how strange it was. He warned coach Sam Pittman not to let him bail on the plan if things started off slow.
“Barry said, ‘This is what I want to do, just keep reminding me to be patient,'” Pittman said after the Razorbacks’ 21-14 upset Saturday.
Arkansas dropped 8 players back to defend the pass and rushed only 3 for most of the game. It perplexed Bulldog quarterback KJ Costello, who threw 3 interceptions — including a pick-6. Linebacker Bumper Pool (20 tackles) and safety Joe Foucha (2 interceptions) earned co-SEC defensive player of the week honors after the victory.
And, most important, the Hogs won their first SEC contest since 2017.
Odom has been a godsend for an Arkansas defense that struggled mightily before his arrival. The Razorbacks ranked 110th in the FBS in total defense last season and 79th in 2018. Two games into Odom’s tenure as defensive coordinator, they rank 33rd this year.
Although it fell apart in the second half against Georgia, Arkansas also looked good in its opening contest. The Razorbacks held the Bulldogs without a touchdown in the first half and surprisingly took a 7-5 lead into halftime.
Pittman said he has so far been pleased with the preparation of his coaching staff, namely Odom. Heading into a matchup with No. 13 Auburn — for whom former ‘Hogs coach Chad Morris serves as offensive coordinator — they will take with them the same mindset that helped them beat the Bulldogs.
“I think our players believe in us and we certainly believe in them,” Pittman said. “That’s a big deal. The game prep – if you ask them – I think they’re really prepared to go play. I’m so happy with the staff we have because they’re good teachers. We’re a blue-collar state, university and team. We’re just gonna get our lunch pale, go to work and see what happens on Saturday.”
SEC fans should be familiar with Odom’s defensive prowess. He took over as the defensive coordinator for Missouri in 2015 and served as the head coach from 2016-19. The defense saw steady improvement each year with him in charge, rising from 118th overall in his first season to 14th in FBS last year.
Signs of similar progression are already evident at Arkansas.
The Auburn offense will be looking to rebound against the Razorbacks. The Tigers defeated Kentucky 29-13 in their opening game before scoring just 6 points in a loss against a stout Georgia defense this past week. As historically odd as it sounds, stopping the pass should again be Arkansas’ focus. Auburn does not have a player with more than 50 rushing yards yet and is averaging just 2.5 yards per carry in its first 2 games.
Tigers quarterback Bo Nix, on the other hand, has so far thrown for 410 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Pittman said that much like against Mississippi State, tackling in open space will be a key for his defense. Auburn wideouts Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz are dynamic. But he is confident after its performance last week.
“I think our tackling has been good,” he said. “Obviously, they’ve got players that can make you miss, too, but our physicality has been outstanding. Sometimes they’re gonna miss because they’re coming up and trying to knock somebody out.”
If there’s anything to take away from the defense in the first 2 games, it has been its resilience. As opposed to during the Morris era, the Hogs have shown a willingness to fight. The secondary contained MSU’s attack last game in the face of adversity after starting cornerback Montaric Brown suffered an injury.
The schedule is tough. Arkansas has already faced 2 ranked opponents with 6 more to go. So no one is getting too optimistic just yet.
It might not result in a ton of victories this season, but the Razorbacks’ fight should make their games a lot more interesting to watch. Including the one Saturday.