Although the jury is decidedly still out on this year’s BYU football team and its ability to get to a bowl game in its first season as a member of the Big 12, there’s an SEC coach out there who believes the 2023 Cougars are better than the 2022 version that went 8-5 and downed SMU in the New Mexico Bowl.
“Last year BYU was an urgent game for us. It was a must-win for us, and all those type things. So it is now. … Both of us haven’t (lost) so someone is going to have to (lose). But I think our kids understand the urgency of this game.” — Arkansas coach Sam Pittman
That would be Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, who spoke to reporters in Fayetteville for a half-hour Monday and had plenty of good things to say ahead of Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. MDT showdown at Razorbacks Stadium.
“I think they are a better football team than they were last year,” Pittman said. “Big, physical team.”
Of course, last year the Razorbacks ran roughshod over the Cougars to the tune of a 52-35 beatdown in front of a sellout crowd of 63,470 at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Reminded by a local reporter that the Razorbacks could have scored a touchdown late and could have “won by 24” in a “blowout on the road,” Pittman said it will likely be a much different type of game in what they refer to as the Natural State on Saturday night.
Both teams enter with 2-0 records against inferior competition, BYU having downed Sam Houston and Southern Utah in not-so-impressive fashion and Arkansas having downed Western Carolina and Kent State.
“Anybody that is undefeated, including us, they are hard to beat,” Pittman said. “They haven’t learned how to lose yet, in this season. That group of guys that have played together hasn’t been beat, so they don’t know how to lose.”
“Their tape (shows) they play extremely hard. They do,” Pittman said of the Cougars. “They did last year.”
Pittman said the first big-time matchup of the year for both teams increases the urgency in preparation for both.
“Last year BYU was an urgent game for us,” he said, as the Hogs were looking to snap a three-game losing skid.
“It was a must-win for us, and all those type things. So it is now. … Both of us haven’t (lost) so someone is going to have to (lose), but I think our kids understand the urgency of this game.”
A win would give Arkansas its third-straight 3-0 start, something the program hasn’t done since 1977-79 when Lou Holtz was the coach.
Pittman said the Hogs will be without star running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, who has a knee injury. Sanders ran for 175 yards and two touchdowns last year against the Cougars.
Regarding BYU’s defense, which was pulverized by QB KJ Jefferson and company last October, Pittman said the changes instilled by new defensive coordinator Jay Hill are recognizable, and appear to be working.
“They’ve got more than that, but those are standout guys on defense.”
Pittman said because Arkansas has struggled a bit to run the ball, he expects BYU to employ “a tremendous amount of multiple looks.”
“So they are going to cause us some problems because they move so much. They blitz quite a bit,” Pittman said.
The coach also noted that BYU punter Ryan Rehkow is one of the best in the country.
“They got a punter that punts it about 55 yards every single time,” Pittman said. “I know he’s good, but I know the air (elevation) difference and that stuff on a punted ball (factors in). He’s really good.”
Pittman attributed some of BYU’s struggles on offense in the opener to Sam Houston’s stellar defense. The Bearkats lost 13-3 to Air Force last Saturday.
“The quarterback (Kedon Slovis) threw the ball much better in Game 2 than he did Game 1 and they made some nice plays off of it,” Pittman said. “They got good receivers now, too.”
He mentioned that BYU receiver Kody Epps hasn’t played but could be back (BYU coach Kalani Sitake expects Epps to be available) this week, and that Epps “is a really good player at wideout.”
The coach said he tried to recruit BYU starting left tackle Kingsley Suamataia to Georgia when he was at that school, but the Orem High product chose Oregon and is now in his second season at BYU.
“They’re really big, really good at tackle,” Pittman said, referencing right tackle Caleb Etienne’s transfer from Oklahoma State. “Huge guys.”