O-Line Pointing the Way

FAYETTEVILLE -- If Arkansas' offensive line needed any extra motivation, center Kyle Roper said coach Houston Nutt provided it a few days before the Razorbacks' 35-32 loss at South Carolina.



That's when Arkansas gathered in the team meeting room, like it does every Tuesday, to go over the game plan for the Gamecocks. Nutt told the room he was counting on the offensive line to help the Hogs snap their four-game losing skid.

"He pointed us out and said, ‘Hey, it's in your lap,'" Roper said. "I think that's been a motivation for everyone on the offensive line. When you've got a coach telling you he's putting it in your laps, that's a pretty big thing."

Arkansas couldn't snap its losing streak against South Carolina, but the offensive line has responded to Nutt's challenge with powerful performances the past two weeks. The unit is paving the way for a ground attack that averaged 272 yards in two weeks, wiping out an ugly stretch in which it struggled to accomplish anything against Florida, Auburn and Georgia.

The Razorbacks averaged 119.7 yards against those three teams.

Roper said the difference is a group, which was loaded with inexperience entering the season and plagued by a rash of injuries, that has become cohesive and confident after Nutt's challenge. It might have taken awhile, but Roper said Arkansas' front is prepared to carry the offensive burden throughout the final month of the season.

"We're going to try to run the ball and run it up the middle," Roper said. "That's what we did last year. We were going to hit it (last year). If you wanted to put nine (defenders) in the box we were still going to try to do the same thing.

"I think we're getting back to that now. It has helped having some time to get used to everything through the year and getting some confidence. It's coming along now."

That didn't happen early on, when right tackle Zac Tubbs opened the season as Arkansas' most experienced lineman.

The offensive line played well in September, but ran into snags in October after Tubbs broke his left ankle and left tackle Tony Ugoh missed the Georgia game because of a kidney stone. Redshirt freshmen Robert Felton and Matt Gilbow were pressed into starting jobs at left and right tackle, respectively, against the Bulldogs.

The Hogs struggled against powerful fronts from Florida, Georgia and Auburn. But Arkansas, which has had four different starting units this season, have molded into a solid group with Felton at right tackle the past two weeks.

"They've gotten so much better by being physical," Nutt said. "They're getting a much better feel of who to block and they're playing at a faster pace and then they're playing together.

"The chemistry of that offensive line the last two weeks has stayed the same, which is good, because we've been mixing them up it seems like all year long since Zac Tubbs' injury."

The starters combined for a season-high 36 knockdown blocks against Ole Miss and was led by Roper, who had 11.

The Rebels weren't as strong up front as Auburn and Georgia, which are among the best in the Southeastern Conference. But Parker said Arkansas' mid-season difficulties have helped the offensive line improve on the run.

"I feel more comfortable," said Parker, who has nine starts after appearing in one game last season. "You lock on and you know what you're doing. We've shown that the past two weeks. (Ole Miss) had two pretty good guys in the middle and we just stayed on them. That's all you need is just keep churning first downs, keep moving the ball when you know you need to.

"That opens up stuff for the tight end and the quarterback. It takes pressure off of (quarterback Matt) Jones, which is the most important thing."

Overall, Parker said communication has improved, mental busts have declined and Arkansas hopes the confident play will continue against Mississippi State on Saturday. The Bulldogs are 10th in the SEC and 85th in the nation in rushing defense (182.7 yards) and have struggled to slow opponents all season.

Arkansas' game plan probably won't change after putting together impressive performances in consecutive weeks. Roper said the offensive line welcomes the challenge and expects even more success "playing our type of game."

"We've come together as a group and everything's just clicking for the offensive line right now and everybody's doing their part," Roper said. "Everybody just realizes that we've got to win and everybody is willing to do whatever it takes."

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