I’ve heard all of the cliches through the years about college football. One of my favorite phrases is that football is the ultimate team game with a wonderful collection of moving parts.
To break it down is great fun. You can make it as complex as you want. But sometimes, it’s so simple that all see it.
This past week with the way Arkansas struggled to score points in a 16-12 loss to Toledo is one of those times that the simplicity becomes obvious.
No matter where I’ve gone this week, the masses saw what ails the Arkansas football team. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure it out. And, it doesn't take much of a genuis to understand that red zone play has to improve this week in what has become a critical game in the Bret Bielema era as Arkansas coach. Losing to Toledo makes this a big week.
Texas Tech is picked eighth in the Big 12. This is a game that most figured Arkansas would win. The Hogs are favored by 10. Kickoff is 6 p.m. Saturday night at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The Razorbacks could not run the football near the goal line. And, it wasn’t much better at any other point on the football field, either.
Arkansas has three red zone touchdowns in 10 attempts this season. They were zero for five against Toledo, coming up empty on Tds when they had first and goal at the 3 and then the 4 on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter.
For the game, there were 515 yards of total offense, but 412 came via the pass. The problem is simple. It’s tougher to pass once you get inside the 20-yard line, the point the football stat guys label the red zone. The field gets shorter. There can be no vertical stretch to find room. Defenses get a little tighter in their gaps at the line of scrimmage and play closer to the line in the secondary.
You remember the old John L. Smith adage about special team play, “It’s one play battles for giant chunks of land.” Well, in the red zone, it’s just the opposite. It’s man-to-man combat for inches.
I love to sit with veteran offensive line coaches. They cut to the chase and generally don’t dodge the questions. Sam Pittman, the UA assistant, can be brutally honest when talking about his offensive line and what needs to happen.
“The bottom line is that if you can run the ball in the red zone, you are going to score a lot of points and if you can’t, you’re not. So we have to run the football, we should be able to run the ball and we didn’t.
“That’s as simple as it is.”
Some think it’s as simple as finding a physicality that seems to be missing after an offseason of polishing the passing game with some new stuff from offensive coordinator Dan Enos. Maybe there is something to do with that, along with some new blocking schemes up front for more pulling plays for quick linemen like Frank Ragnow. There’s been an emphasis on screen passes, some of them simply tosses horizontally to the wide receivers.
And, the thing about all of that, some of it is nifty and works. There were around 10 plays that were called runs against Toledo that were quick checks to successful passes. That’s part of the reason the calls were out of balance with 53 passes and 31 runs.
But it’s not what this Arkansas team was supposed to be and it won’t work in the SEC. Yes, the Hogs have to pass it better. But one dimensional doesn’t work.
Arkansas football fans, for the most part, understand the game and what Bret Bielema is building at Arkansas. There was a reason the offensive line was on the cover of the media guide. But it can’t just be a marketing plan. There has to be substance.
So what went wrong? It’s not as simple as just calling more runs. They have to work. Alex Collins can’t average 2.7 yards per carry, as he did against Toledo. There can’t be lost yardage plays. And, the only big play, his 21-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter, can’t just be on a misdirection play.
I remember when Danny Ford came to Arkansas as an offensive consultant when Joe Kines was made interim head coach in the wake of the Citadel loss. Ford, an old o-line coach, was clear on one of his missions, simplify the offense to the point that the blockers could “get a hat on a hat.”
Again, this could be over simplification, but it’s at the root of the problem. Arkansas is not covering all the defenders through two games. That’s why there is penetration and Collins has to begin to dance as soon as he gets the handoff.
What’s happening, both UTEP and Toledo brought the safety into the box in their run fits. That has allowed linemen to stunt, move sideways at the snap. It’s caused penetration and led to the rash of holding penalties. Blockers are reaching with their hands instead of moving their feet, or turning that man loose to his teammate.
I asked Mitch Smothers about those issues immediately following the Toledo loss. He explained it in basic terms. He said the way to attack the defensive line movement is with vertical steps, not sideways steps. Pittman explained it deeper when asked if these slants or stunts are coming on every play.
“No, I wouldn’t say every play,” Pittman said. “There is a lot of slanting going on, but there is certainly a lot of safety blitzes and a lot of corner blitzes that has been coming from teams, but at the same time if we catch those blitzes and we catch them vertically, then there are creases,
“What has been happening is that we have been going with it, just riding them across. We have got to get vertical and when we do, we will cut holes in that thing. We are certainly working as hard as we can.”
It makes it look like the Hogs are not physical at the point of attack. They probably would look physical if the defensive line would hold still. But that’s not going to happen. Team after team has realized that movement is the way to beat these big, power linemen. Still, when Pittman was asked if the Hogs are as physical as he wants, it’s an easy answer.
“Certainly not,” Pittman said. “But I think part of it is who you are playing. Everybody we are playing is going sideways and we are basically trying to catch them right now.
“We have got to find ways, we are going sideways with them and so what we have got to do is get up the field to break a crease in all this movement.
“And if you will notice there is a lot of strong safety movement and blitzes and that is bringing more guys in the box and that is why we are throwing the ball so well.
“We are a running football team, that’s what we do, that’s who we are and that is what are going to get back to.”
Pittman said it’s clear in football that you get what you emphasize. If that’s true, the Hogs will get an improved running game this week because the run has been emphasized.
So it’s not a surprise that I’ll start my keys to victory in what looms as a pivotal game in the Bielema era with the running game and a lean to physicality. Can the Hogs look like a team that should put the offensive line on the cover of the media guide?
Keys to Victory
1, Physicality – It’s clear that the Hogs need to run the ball. A fourth grader asked me this week if they were now a passing team and the wide receivers will be on the media guide next year. I think the offensive linemen will be the heroes this week, along with Alex Collins, the running back carrying the big load after Jonathan Williams was lost in preseason. I also think Rawleigh Williams will get some early looks as Collins’ stable mate.
2, Play Action Pass – The passing game the last two weeks has been a lot of five-step dropbacks for Brandon Allen. I look for more naked bootlegs with the tight end in the flats and maybe some vertical routes out of play action. The Hogs averaged just 7.8 yards per attempt last week with all of those five step drops. Maybe with some play action, there are some big plays from the passing game and the red zone doesn’t become such a factor.
3, Red Zone – Yeah, I just said the Hogs can make the red zone less of a factor with big plays, but the reality is that the red zone is always a critical area. In fact, Bielema calls it the critical zone. The way to win in the red zone is to run the football. Sam Pittman preached that this in his interviews this week. The killer last week was a holding call and a lost yardage play on a sweep. It will help if the Hogs get solid play at fullback. Will Kenderick Jackson make an impact after two weeks at the position? It may be a stretch to be ready this soon, but he might be better than Jeremy Sprinkle or Hunter Henry at fullback in the red zone.
4, Slot Coverage – Texas Tech runs four wideouts on most plays and that puts two receivers in the slot most of the time. Henre’ Toliver will play Tech’s explosive Jakeem Grant. Some thought the Hogs were too far off the line of scrimmage with their corners last week, but secondary coach Clay Jennings said it was a mix of packages. Sometimes in press, they turned loose the Toledo receiver down the middle. That has to improve this week. Cornerback D. J. Dean said Wednesday, “We got a game plan. First, we got to bring an edge to our game. We were very, very disappointed with our play last week.” Jennings said the Hogs must play some press against Tech. "We've got to do a better job of getting our hands on the receivers, something we didn't do as well last week," Jennings said. "We've got to re-route their guys some and give them a variety of looks. You can't leave the middle open like we did last week. That's something we worked on in practice the last three days."
5, Wide Receivers – This is the strength of the Tech offense with talent two deep at four positions. Can the injury-riddled Arkansas receivers hold their own against a good group of Red Raiders? Arkansas lost Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister to foot surgery this week. Both will miss five to six games. Drew Morgan and Jared Cornelius will get the bulk of the work, but this might be the week Jojo Robinson gets his chance. He’s a playmaker, but has had off-the-field troubles. The same goes for Dominique Reed, the juco transfer suspended for last week’s game after not showing for a Friday meeting. This may not be a glaring issue if the Hogs get the run game going. Receivers coach Michael Smith wants those guys to step up. He said fans have put Robinson on a pedestal and now it's time for the redshirt freshman to live up to the expectations.
6, Tight Ends – Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle have proven to be reliable. They’ll carry even more of the load with the injuries at wide receiver. It may be that C.J. O’Grady gets some snaps this week after making the travel squad last week to Little Rock. Henry was open for some shots in the end zone, but Brandon Allen missed him. This could be the week that tight end play becomes a big part of the red zone package, if the running game can make play action more effective.
7, Quarterback Play – There isn’t a time when quarterbacks aren’t a big deal. Brandon Allen is better in the passing game, but he still needs to make that finishing play. He did last year on a busted screen play at Texas Tech when he scrambled in for a touchdown. Can Allen step up again against the Red Raiders? Tech’s Patrick Mahomes is a thrower first, but he’s every bit as dangerous in scramble situations. The Hogs must keep him contained. After scoring just 10 points last week, it's hard to imagine the Hogs winning a shootout with the Red Raiders. But if they do, it'll be on Allen to provide the big plays in the red zone. Both quarterbacks have been good at limiting turnovers,
8, Pass Rush – Both teams will try to slow down the pass rush with a running game. So even when you talk about the passing game, the run is a key. The team that can make the other one dimensional has the edge in creating a pass rush. Jeremiah Ledbetter, Tevin Beanum, Deatrich Wise and JaMichael Winston have to get some pressure on the edge. The interior will have to maintain lanes to contain Mahomes.
9, Penalties – Hold up for just a second. This might should have been number one. The Hogs were called for four critical holding penalties last week against Toledo. They took away a punt return for a touchdown and erased a run to the six-inch line in the fourth quarter. Bielema’s teams are usually not heavily penalized. The yellow flags have to disappear this week if the Hogs are going to roll.
10, Hunger – This might be too low on the list too. Who is the hungry team? Arkansas humiliated Tech, 49-28, last year in Lubbock, basically running the draw play 30 times in the last two quarters. The Red Raiders could not answer. Time of possession was off the charts. Arkansas ran for 438 yards with Williams and Collins combining for six touchdowns. The Hogs held the ball for 40:39 with 31 first downs. Tech fired its defensive coordinator shortly after and is now coached by David Gibbs, highly respected by Bielema. Gibbs doesn’t prefer a slanting defense with movement, but I bet the Hogs get another shot at trying to bury some demons. Bet on Tech showing early movement up front. The Hogs are hungry to prove they can handle it.