Arkansas Offense Taking Shape With Pass

LITTLE ROCK -- Easy to overlook in the big picture of Arkansas vs. Texas is the portend of the new-look Razorback offense, a scheme of attack that is not necessarily run first.

Previewing the Texas game, it was said that no longer would it be safe to bet the Razorbacks would open with a running play. At 7:58 p.m. Saturday, on first down from the Arkansas 20, Matt Jones threw incomplete, trying for Payne Hall across the middle.

That same preview said that if Arkansas threw 28 times, it might indicate that coach Houston Nutt thought his offensive line would have trouble blocking Texas consistently or that the best chance for a big play was with Jones and his wide receivers. The Razorbacks attempted 29 passes against the Longhorns and almost every one of the 14 completions was a double-digit gainer.

Maybe the passing game was dictated by Texas' defense. Whatever the reason, the Razorbacks appear more apt to come out throwing against quality opponents than in recent years. For perspective, don't lose sight of the fact that the Razorbacks have led the Southeastern Conference in rushing each of the past two years. In 2003, Arkansas ran the ball 626 times for 3,145 yards -- 545 yards more than second-best LSU, which played one more game.

The last time Arkansas threw more than 29 times was at Ole Miss last year. Unable to run with their tailbacks ailing and trailing from the second quarter on, the Razorbacks attempted 32 passes, 22 of them in the second half. That night, Arkansas ran for 82 yards, 48 less than the Rebels. A week earlier, in constant catch-up mode, the Razorbacks threw 45 times in a 33-28 loss to Florida. That day in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks trailed 13-7 at the half and 26-7 with 15 minutes to play. During that final period, Arkansas attempted 15 passes.

Against Texas, the passing was a smooth knit part of the plan and it produced 283 of the Razorbacks' 458 yards. That does not include the yardage gained when Jones showed pass and took off running. He ran for 93 yards while the four running backs made 97 on 32 attempts. Dedrick Poole was the only one of those with a gain of more than 9 yards and he made exactly 10 early in the third quarter.

As the Razorbacks get into the Southeastern Conference, they will need more from Poole or DeCori Birmingham or Peyton Hillis or De'Arrius Howard. Otherwise, they will be in much the same situation as they were against Texas with the outcome resting entirely on Jones' shoulders.

In the first half, when the Razorbacks made 273 yards, six pass plays netted 191 with gains ranging from 18 to 50 yards, including three plays of 34 or more. The completions were a nice mixture -- deep to Chris Baker, sideline to Carlos Ousley, throwback from Ousley to DeCori Birmingham, screen to Poole -- and five players did the catching. On top of that, only two of the six completions were on third down. Against Alabama and others, such diversity can paid big dividends.

In the second half, three of the four completions worth 14 yards or more occurred on first down, underlining Nutt's enthusiasm for the pass.

When Arkansas opened the season by throwing for 327 against New Mexico State, it was just a pitch and catch practice session -- an easy way to put away an inferior opponent and make a point for Texas and SEC opponents. Two games is not a season, but at the moment, the Razorbacks are averaging a league-leading 305 yards per game passing.

That average is likely to take a hit this week as the Louisiana-Monroe defense does wonders for the Razorbacks' running game. Meanwhile, SEC teams know that Arkansas' passing game is shaping up as more than a third-down play or a come-from-behind offense.

Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media Group's Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is hking@arkansasnews.com.

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