Razorbacks aim for big home performance against FIU

Arkansas wide receiver Andrew Armstrong (2) is tackled by Auburn cornerback Keionte Scott (0) Saturday during the second quarter of the Razorbacks 48-10 loss to the Tigers at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The next eight days will reveal whether there's a countdown clock on the tenure of much-loved fourth-year University of Arkansas coach Sam Pittman.

Check that.

The struggling Razorbacks (3-7) really need to beat Florida International (4-6) tonight at 6:30 p.m. to assure Pittman's tenure has a chance to carry on.

Pittman, who answered many questions in the last seven days about the stability of his job after a clunker of a 48-10 home loss to Auburn, seems to understand the situation.

"We have to win Saturday and our team knows that," Pittman said without further context on his weekly radio show on Wednesday.

The season had been jam packed with a series of near-miss losses, mostly away from Reynolds Razorback Stadium, before the non-competitive loss to the Tigers, who had been just above Arkansas in the SEC West basement.

Pittman called the performance an embarrassment.

"Obviously it's not where we want to be," he said on his radio show. "But we can wallow in it or we can go beat FIU.

"The disappointing thing is we haven't played well at home. We've played better on the road than we have here at the house."

Florida International is squarely in rebuilding mode under second-year coach Mike MacIntyre, who was the national coach of the year in 2016 after leading Colorado to its first Pac-12 South title.

The Panthers have also been riding on the struggle bus this season, but a $1.5 million payday and the chance to jump on a wounded SEC team in front of a national TV audience stand as strong incentive.

"It's good exposure for us but what it really does is it helps our overall athletic program, not just football" MacIntyre said. "It gives football exposure, our kids like playing in it. You get a big upset in those, it makes everything different. So that's what we're hoping to do."

The Razorbacks sound motivated to take some heat off Pittman and the staff, which had snapped a six-game losing streak, five of them by one score, with a 39-36 overtime win at Florida. But the euphoria of a breakout offensive performance from quarterback KJ Jefferson and ace tailback Raheim Sanders did not make it through another weekend.

The debacle against Auburn included scattered boos following another short run by Sanders in the first quarter.

Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek made no public pronouncements this week regarding Pittman, but a quality showing at home as a huge favorite would seem a necessity.

"I feel like we're putting everything out there for our coaches because we really love these guys," linebacker Chris Paul said. "These guys are passionate about the game of ball and things like that. For us, the big thing about it is just blocking out the outside noise and playing our brand of football, going out and worry about FIU this week, taking advantage of the two opportunities that we have left to get this program going in the right direction."

Transfer guard Josh Braun addressed the issue of locker room logic for a struggling team.

"People call college football a brotherhood and this is where those relationships really come into play," Braun said. " I mean, when you're winning and everything is going right, it's easy to be friends, it's easy to love each other, but when things are going wrong, this is when you lean on each other, rely on each other. Ultimately, you're working towards a common goal which is to finish the season as strong as possible.

"We have two more games that we need to be focused on. We need to play for our fans in Razorback Stadium. We haven't put a good showing on this year, and that's all we are focused on right now: Showing up for the fans."

Defensive end Landon Jackson said the Razorbacks have to generate internal energy.

"The biggest thing in the locker room is the season is not over," he said. "We still have this game and Missouri left and we've got to prove a point. Just show them the team we are, continue to fight and keep working hard."

Jackson said the Razorbacks have had to become regulars at battling adversity.

"We've been doing it all year and we've got to keep fighting," he added. "You can't ever give up because that's when you let the media and the talk win is when you give up and let it take you over.

"So, my biggest thing I do is stay off social media. ... The more and more that you see negative things, you start to believe those negative things. So that's something I'm trying not listening to. And Coach Pitt's message to us is he still loves us, he's still giving us his all so, I mean, I'm still going to give him my all."

Transfer receiver Andrew Armstrong echoed that sentiment.

"Coach Pitt comes in there every day, no matter what's going on in the media, he comes in there and makes sure that we're good as players, on and off the field," Armstrong said. "Makes sure that whatever the media's saying about us, or saying about a certain player or saying about a certain coach to not let that affect us. Just knock all the noise out and come out here ready to play football."

Razorback fans showed up in strong numbers with 72,000-plus for the Auburn game, but that number could be much weaker today. The Hogs have gone 1-3 on campus with the lone win a 28-6 slog over Kent State in which the offense managed 308 total yards.

That turned into an omen for SEC play, where the Razorbacks are last in the league with 318.3 yards per game.

Interim offensive coordinator Kenny Guiton provided a spark with a faster-tempo performance in the win at Florida but the Hogs regressed back into a rut against Auburn.

Meanwhile, the defense under coordinator Travis Williams that had been holding the rope all season, turned in a sluggish, sloppy tackling effort against Auburn.

Pittman said the Razorbacks are focused on not letting the disappointing performance against Auburn beat them twice. Yet, they have not been dominating against non-Power Five teams the last three years under Pittman.

"I would be shocked if we don't come out ready to play," Pittman said. "We've got accountability for them, for us, for me. But the past has said that we haven't played real well against teams like this, so there's obviously a concern there and we have to coach our way out of that during the week."

Added Paul, "We're not really a big logo team. No matter how big or small the opponent is, we're going to go out there and play a tough, fast, physical brand of football and things like that. Going into this week, we prepare this week like we have every other week, and that's big on communication, big on getting to the football, big on being physical and flying around.

"It's just giving our fans what they deserve. We haven't put a good showing on the last couple weeks at home, so it's just big for us to go out and give the fans what they deserve."