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After beating Texas A&M, Arkansas shows its potential for SEC contention under Sam Pittman

The Razorbacks’ future looks brighter every week in Pittman’s second season at the helm.

ARLINGTON — While Jimbo Fisher remains steadfast in his pursuit of Alabama’s Nick Saban at the top of college football’s salary scale, it appears he has other SEC coaches in his way, at least for the 2020 season, when it comes to catching Saban on the field of play.

And one of them is named Sam Pittman.

Arkansas’ second-year head coach ended a long streak of suffering at AT&T Stadium when the Razorbacks stormed out to an early 17-point lead and then held on to upset the Aggies 20-10 Saturday afternoon. It ended the Aggies’ eight-game win streak over Arkansas here — they also beat the Razorbacks in College Station last year. A&M’s 11-game win streak overall going back to last season also disappeared. The Aggies’ top 10 ranking (7th in AP, 5th in the coaches poll) will vanish next.

“I don’t know what it means to the program,” Pittman said. “I know that we’re 4-0 and we beat 15 [Texas] and we beat 7 or 5. I believe both Texas and A&M are pretty good. But I believe the Razorbacks have a really good football team.”

It has been a minute since anyone thought that, let alone said it out loud. I don’t know if you would say Pittman is making people remember Ken Hatfield or forget him, but, either way, Pittman is the first Arkansas coach to beat the Longhorns and the Aggies in the same season since Hatfield did it in 1988. Arkansas finished that SWC title season with a Cotton Bowl loss to UCLA, so, yeah, when you’re talking about Troy Aikman’s final college season, you’re diving into some ancient history.

A&M struggled to generate offense throughout the game. In the search for Kellen Mond’s replacement, if anyone believed losing quarterback Haynes King in the Colorado game two weeks ago would not be a big deal, they appear to be mistaken. Zach Calzada had a rough afternoon in completing 20 of 36 passes for just 151 yards. His fourth quarter interception produced the game’s only turnover, and it was large. The Aggies had scored 10 straight points after falling behind 17-0 early in the game, but Arkansas drove for a 24-yard field goal — the final points of the game — to capitalize on the batted ball turned interception.

In some sort of symbolic fairness, Arkansas was forced to play most of the second half with its backup quarterback. Sophomore KJ Jefferson suffered a bruised knee when he was knocked out of bounds on the first play of the second half, and that left most of the game management chores to redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby. He isn’t the passer that Jefferson is, so the Hogs became a much more one-dimensional team, but Hornsby did lead them on the short field goal drive that put the game away before Jefferson returned late to run out the clock.

“They had to put something on [Jefferson’s] knee to numb it, and that takes a second to work,” Pittman said. “He finally came in there at the end of the fourth quarter. He knew we needed another first down. He’s tough. He didn’t want to let the team down.”

Against what had been the No. 1-ranked pass defense — following a simple diet of Kent State, Colorado and New Mexico — Jefferson and his big junior target, Treylon Burks, had a huge first half. Burks caught an 85-yard touchdown and had five grabs for 160 yards at halftime before getting little work in the second half when Arkansas was more limited and the Aggies turned up the pressure.

Jefferson and Burks will need to maintain the high-quality work. The Aggies were simply the start of a four-game stretch against ranked SEC teams. Up next for Arkansas are No. 2 Georgia, No. 13 Ole Miss and No. 23 Auburn.

“I’m hoping the whole state and everybody who follows Arkansas football is ecstatic about us winning,” Pittman said. “It’s the University of Arkansas. We should win.”

For too long, the football team did not. Zero conference wins in the 2018 and 2019 seasons got Pittman the job. Last year, in the odd scheduling created by the pandemic, Arkansas went 3-7, all against SEC opponents.

In the powerful SEC West, it’s hard to say where the Hogs are headed other than higher than almost anyone thought possible. And they just beat the team picked to finish second to Alabama on a neutral site that had been entirely inhospitable to Arkansas for the last decade.

“You don’t win a game in the first quarter, but you can put yourself behind the eight-ball,” Fisher said. “That’s what we did. We were very poor in tackling in my opinion.”

That’s how the Aggies went from allowing 17 points in their first three games to allowing 17 points in the first 16 minutes, five seconds Saturday. Arkansas’ nightmarish losses to the Aggies here are a thing of the past. And the Razorbacks’ future is more interesting than it has been for a long, long time.

Find more college sports coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

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