Running Backs Travel Rough Road

FAYETTEVILLE -- Tailback De'Arrius Howard stormed up the red ramp and into Arkansas' locker room, seething about his zero-carry outing minutes after the 20-14 loss to then-No. 10 Georgia.

Freshman Peyton Hillis left the field before the rest of his teammates, frustrated after being limited to a few plays because of a lower back injury. Starter DeCori Birmingham struggled to find running room for the third straight week and was disappointed, while junior Dedrick Poole limped around after missing the game with a pulled hamstring he sustained a week earlier at Auburn.

The month of October hit the Hogs hard.

But it might've stung the backfield the most.

"We're going through some tough times," Howard said. "We've hit some adversity."

The 100-yard outings, big plays and touchdowns Arkansas grew accustomed to on the ground the past few seasons have been missing through much of 2004. The Hogs are fourth in the Southeastern Conference in rushing (179.3 yards a game), but the production was particularly absent during the three-game losing skid.

Florida, Auburn and Georgia limited Arkansas to 119.7 rushing yards a game, including a season-low 97 against the Bulldogs. The longest carry by a tailback in that stretch was Poole's 16-yard run during the 38-20 loss at Auburn. The Hogs also haven't notched a rushing touchdown since the 45-30 loss at Florida on Oct. 2.

Arkansas gets a chance to rebound against South Carolina, which was stingy against the run before last Saturday's 43-29 loss to No. 9 Tennessee. The Gamecocks surrendered 226 rushing yards against the Volunteers, giving the Hogs backfield hope that it can get back on track in time for an important stretch.

"It's frustrating," said Birmingham, who leads Arkansas tailbacks with 85 yards and 1 touchdown on 36 attempts the past three games. "I set a lot of goals for the running backs this year. We just have to find our niche right now. It's kind of tough right now. But we're not going to mope on it or complain about it.

"We're just going to have to do what we have to do to get better and get this position back to where it needs to be."

Coach Houston Nutt said part of the decline has been because of the strength of Arkansas' opponents, who were ranked No. 16 or higher when they met the Hogs.

Nutt said they fell behind early at Florida and Auburn, forcing them to throw the ball more. The offensive line, which started two redshirt freshmen against Georgia because of injuries, had their hands full opening holes. And it hasn't helped having Hillis, Poole and quarterback Matt Jones banged up.

"I think they've been running into some very good defenses, tops in the country, top 10 teams," Nutt said. "I think that has a lot to do with it. Again, when you take Matt, he's not healthy, they can key a little more on the backs and stopping other people. When Matt is full speed they have to spend a little more time concerned with him and that's when the backs do pop open.

"So, we just need everybody healthy and everybody to do their role and I think we'll get our backs back to where we've been."

That would be a welcome change for Birmingham, who has been disappointed by his production after finishing 2003 as an explosive compliment to Cedric Cobbs. He rushed for 549 yards in the last seven games, including a 40-carry, 196-yard effort in the 71-63, seven-overtime win at Kentucky last November.

Birmingham has only four carries of 20 yards or more in seven games, including a season-best, 47-yarder against Louisiana-Monroe. Nutt said the senior has been pressing to make big plays and caught running east and west against quick defenses.

"It's something that I've got to get out of," Birmingham said. "I'm trying to make too much happen at once instead of getting what they give me.

"I've always felt that was part of my game, to be able to break a long one. I had one good one the (third) game of the season, but it's just not the same. I'm still looking for my way. Hopefully I can find that within the next four weeks."

Birmingham has one of Arkansas' two 100-yard rushing performances this season and leads all tailbacks with 333 yards. After seven games last season, Cobbs had 728 rushing yards and four 100-yard outings.

Birmingham's 21-yard run during Arkansas' 27-10 win against Alabama on Sept. 25 was the last time a tailback recorded a carry of 20 yards or more. In all, the Hogs' tailbacks have only five carries of 20 yards or more this season.

"We've got a lot of new guys (on the offensive line) that are doing an excellent job, but you can tell there's a lack of experience," Birmingham said. "But those guys are doing an excellent job and us as running backs have to do a better job of finding the holes and hitting it. Getting the tough yardage and work on going north and south."

Birmingham said it helps knowing the Hogs' production slipped during a similar three-game stretch last season when injuries sidelined Cobbs and Howard. Arkansas averaged 147 rushing yards in losses to Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss, but returned to full strength in time to lead the Hogs to a 4-1 record in November.

Jones will be close to 100 percent against South Carolina, forcing defenses to prepare for his arm and legs. Running backs coach Danny Nutt will choose between Birmingham, Howard, a healthy Hillis and Kyle Dickerson, who led Arkansas with 38 yards against Georgia.

Tackle Tony Ugoh also returns after missing the Georgia game with a kidney stone, giving the Hogs more stability on the left side of the offensive line.

That's why Howard said there's hope in the backfield despite the difficult month.

"It's a little tough, a little frustrating at times," Howard said. "(Danny Nutt) said it best (last) Sunday, we're facing some tough times. This is a test.

"If we stick together, we'll be all right. It'll make us all closer as a family and it will make us mature a lot better and stuff like that."

Hawgs Daily Top Stories