FAYETTEVILLE — CBS analyst Gary Danielson couldn’t believe what happened in the second half of Arkansas’ 34-31 overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
Sure, quarterback Tyler Wilson was out with a head injury. But the Razorbacks had a 21-point lead. So Arkansas’ inability to lean on its offensive line and running backs to secure the win against a Sun Belt Conference opponent was stunning.
Danielson, who will be part of the CBS broadcast team for Saturday’s Arkansas-Alabama game, doesn’t think it would’ve happened under Bobby Petrino.
“I think somewhere in that third or the fourth quarter he would have pulled that offense to the sideline, got in their face, and said ‘I’m not calling one more trick play in this game. If you can’t block them and we can’t run for a first down, we’re going to lose’ and challenged that offensive line to block them,” Danielson said. “I was disappointed that they could not run the ball and I think that’s a challenge.
“They’ve got to find some help for Tyler Wilson if he plays or whoever the quarterback is because they’ll kill the next quarterback if they can’t help him.”
Arkansas’ run game, which was expected to enjoy much more success with running back Knile Davis on the field this fall, has been a disappointment so far as Saturday’s SEC opener against top-ranked Alabama looms. The Razorbacks are ranked 87th in the nation in rushing yards (130 yards a game) after two weeks, but the bulk of the frustration came down the stretch in the ULM loss.
That’s where the Razorbacks managed 23 yards on 11 carries in the second half and in overtime. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino didn’t force the issue, calling six run plays after Arkansas led 28-7. And when the Hogs did run the ball, the front struggled to open holes and running back Knile Davis struggled to grind out yards.
So the shortcomings have cast plenty of critical eyes on the Arkansas offense as it prepares to play Alabama. Arkansas coach John L. Smith said it’s warranted.
“It was disappointing we’re not able to pound it like we would have liked,” Smith said during Monday’s press conference. “It’s like we said all along from day one, there comes a point in the game where you have to be able to run it to win.”
So what happened? How did Arkansas fail to make an impact on the ground?
Petrino addressed the run-game struggles after Tuesday’s practice and said they were limited to the fourth quarter. There, he said missed assignments on a handful of plays and other down-and-distance situations had an impact. He also looked back to the 2010 gameplan against ULM, when Arkansas struggled to score early.
“They were packing so many guys up against the line, mentally in your mind you don’t look at that and say you’re going to run the ball very often,” Petrino said.
“A couple of years ago, we forced the run against them over and over and over and going into the fourth quarter we had seven points. We had 21 points at halftime (Saturday). We had 28 points after the first drive of the third quarter. That game when, they decided to stop running it and just throwing it is when they started scoring all their points. That’s kind of what I used, based a lot of it on my game plan.”
It didn’t help Arkansas win Saturday. The Razorbacks ran 15 plays (five on the ground) in the fourth quarter. Arkansas had the ball for 5:36.
“We should’ve made a couple more plays,” tight end Chris Gragg said. “The times we did run the ball, it was a block here or maybe not making this step all the way and finishing your block there. It was just small things. That’s what we’ve got to do this week. Get back to the fundamentals and get back to what we know how to do.”
Improvement won’t come easy against Alabama.
The Razorbacks haven’t had any success running the ball against Nick Saban’s the past three years, averaging 48 yards and 2.2 yards a carry in losses. It included a 17-yard effort last season, which made Arkansas one-dimensional and allowed the Crimson Tide to tee off on Wilson throughout the 38-14 win.
Wilson didn’t participate in Tuesday’s practice because of a head injury and his availability for Saturday’s game remains unknown. But center Travis Swanson said the Razorbacks must find ways to gain yards on the ground with or without Wilson.
“That defense is built for it,” Swanson said about stopping the run. “Everyone is a lot bigger. So you’ve got to go about it a different way.”
There’s little doubt Davis and backfield teammate Dennis Johnson will have a big role in whatever Arkansas plans. The veteran duo was expected to be an impressive one-two punch, but neither has been able to make a big impact so far.
Davis, especially, has struggled to break big plays and is averaging 3.9 yards a carry in his return from last year’s ankle injury. It does include a 19-yard run late in regulation, but the first down was followed by an interception the next play.
Johnson, who led the team in rushing last year, is averaging 7.3 yards on 12 attempts this season. He had 12- and 11-yard runs in the first half against ULM, but only received two carries in the second half and overtime.
Either way, Arkansas didn’t have much success on the ground last week and it played a role in the loss. Davis said it has to change against Alabama.
“It’s as important as it always is,” Davis said of the run game. “You have to be able to run in every game no matter if it’s Bama or ULM.”