Missed Opportunities Doom Hogs

FAYETTEVILLE -- Houston Nutt hoped it was all a bad dream.

Arkansas' 11 yards and zero first downs in the fourth quarter. Its nine penalties, which included two questionable calls in the last two minutes. Three failed attempts to get into the end zone from the Commodores' 1. And a senior quarterback's gritty, gutty, performance in leading his team to two fourth quarter touchdowns.

But when the eighth-year coach woke up Sunday, popped in game film and broke down Saturday's game, the nightmare remained. Arkansas lost to Vanderbilt 28-24.

"This is a very sick feeling," Nutt said Sunday. "That score didn't go away."

The Razorbacks, who hadn't played the Southeastern Conference's perennial cellar since 1995, didn't take advantage of its opportunity in Reynolds Razorback Stadium Saturday night. Arkansas jumped out to a 10-0 lead and held a 24-13 advantage at the end of the third quarter, but watched it slip away when quarterback Jay Cutler threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to receiver Marlon White with 26 seconds left.

It was just the second game of the season, but the loss already raises questions about Arkansas' hopes of returning to postseason play. The Razorbacks (1-1, 0-1 in SEC) finished under .500 last season for the first time in Nutt's tenure and entered 2005 determined to get back there this winter.

A home loss to the Commodores was a shaky first step.

"I think the biggest thing, our job this week, is make sure they stay tuned into us and not outside," Nutt said. "Don't listen and don't read so much. There will be a lot of people that want to jump off the wagon right now and become negative. It's easy to do that. We can easily be very, very happy right now (with a win against Vandy).

"What's key is, there's a whole season in front of us. Stay together, keep working, keep improving and it starts with the coaches."

The Hogs kick off a difficult, two-game road trip at top-ranked Southern Cal this weekend. The Trojans, who have claimed at least a share of the past two national championships, are led by 2004 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart and had no trouble handling Hawaii 63-17 in its opener on Sept. 3.

Nutt doesn't believe Arkansas will struggle to shake its hangover from the Vanderbilt loss with USC looming. But the Hogs won't keep up with the Trojans if they are plagued by penalties, fail to make defensive stops and can't maintain consistency on offense. All three areas were damaging against the Commodores.

"Boy, you watch the film and you just, it's hard to believe," Nutt said. "There's so many opportunities that we had and chances to put the game away. I guess that's the most frustrating thing. We really had opportunities to really put the game away."

A few of the mistakes were especially evident in the fourth quarter.

Arkansas, which rolled to 200 yards in the first quarter, could only muster 11 on eight plays in the final 15 minutes. At the same time, the defense failed to slow Vandy, allowing it to stay on the field for 11:54 and roll to 180 yards.

The Razorbacks failed to keep the clock moving after Vanderbilt missed a 43-yard field goal that would've tied the game with 2:46 left. The Commodores got the ball back with 2:22 left at their own 24 and moved 76 yards in 10 plays.

The defense drew two penalties on Vandy's final drive. Cornerback Darius Vinnett was flagged for holding. Safety Randy Kelly was penalized for pass interference.

"We have to finish," Nutt said. "You have to make a play. There's a lot of good things (from Saturday's game), but I'm going to tell our players (Sunday), (the Commodores) made a play when they had to. We couldn't. And we didn't."

But there were other missed opportunities earlier in the game.

• Tailback Peyton Hillis couldn't get in the end zone on three attempts from the Vanderbilt 1 in the first quarter. Arkansas led 7-0 at the time and could've extended its lead with either a field goal or a touchdown. Nutt went for it on fourth-and-goal and Hillis was stuffed short of the goal line.

• The Razorbacks nearly extended its 17-13 lead late in the third quarter on two unsuccessful trick plays. Receiver Marcus Monk narrowly overthrew Hillis deep down the sideline. Hillis couldn't connect with Monk in the end zone five plays later.

"There's so many plays," Nutt said. "You can watch and pick out and say, 'If. Coulda. Woulda.' That's the thing. That's the fine line between winning and losing.

"We just have to correct and improve and get better and go play this other little team called USC."

Nutt said the worst thing the Razorbacks can do this week is set Southern Cal week on a different pedestal as they prepare for the road trip. He said Arkansas is well aware of the Trojans' strengths, but will spend the week "worrying about ourselves."

Nutt, who believes Arkansas helped Vanderbilt "get in the win column," said the Hogs must find consistency on offense, shore up a defense that couldn't get a stop down the stretch and make several more corrections in practice this week.

"A loss is a loss," Nutt said. "We had every intention of being 2-0. When you watch the film it makes you even more sick. But, again, we have to put it behind us. We have to go forward. It's done. You can't do anything about it.

"I wish I could change three or four things in the ball game but I can't."

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