No Passing Fancy

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas didn't stretch the field or turn in big plays, struggled to protect its quarterback, committed critical mistakes and couldn't find a reliable target outside of its No. 1 wide receiver.

The biggest question entering the Razorbacks' 24-13 loss at Alabama might've concerned their battered defense, which couldn't stop Vanderbilt and Southern California the previous two weeks. But after Arkansas put together a poor offensive outing Saturday, coach Houston Nutt knows his passing attack must improve before the Razorbacks' next game against Louisiana-Monroe on Oct. 8.

"I think it will be easy to fix," Nutt said about Arkansas' lack of production against the Crimson Tide. "We started off on a good foot, but you're starting to get into better defenses each week. You're hitting the teeth of your schedule.

"But we've got to keep picking it up and keep getting better."

It can't get much worse. Arkansas sits at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference and 110th in the nation in passing offense (130.5 yards a game). It also ranks 12th in the SEC and 103rd in the nation in passing efficiency (95.7 rating).

The struggles were apparent against the Tide, when Arkansas could muster nothing more than a short-range passing attack. Quarterback Robert Johnson completed 11 of 26 passes for 81 yards and an interception in his fourth start. Receiver Marcus Monk, who Nutt said was double teamed most of the day, turned in the biggest catches, hauling in a pair of 19-yarders at the end of the second and fourth quarters.

Nutt blamed part of the Razorbacks' struggles on new wrinkles from Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines. Instead of Kines' usual 4-3 scheme, Nutt said the Tide used three linemen and five defensive backs "80 percent" of the time, locked down Monk and blitzed Johnson from a variety of places.

"To be in that package 80 percent of the time, threw us off a little bit," Nutt said. "You see why (Alabama was), the more you look at it. His best players are from the linebackers back. He has tremendous athletes at linebacker, safeties, corners, outside linebackers. I guess that's the reason for him to do that.

"They have excellent athletes that can run that package."

Nutt also said the offensive line, which thrives on run blocking, didn't communicate well and struggled to pick up blitzes. The unit, which has worked without senior Zac Tubbs all season, also was missing Jonathan Luigs. The redshirt freshman started the first three games at right guard before sustaining a high ankle sprain at USC.

Nutt said the passing offense was limited because Johnson had less time to make decisions and often was hit by the Crimson Tide. He lost a fumble after being blindsided by cornerback Simeon Castille on the first play of the second half. Johnson was on the run when he threw a critical interception to linebacker Juwan Simpson with Alabama holding onto a 17-13 lead in the fourth quarter.

"Robert made a couple of bad reads and I think he'll be the first to tell you," Nutt said. "Again, you can say he got hit, he got rattled a little bit. But I just think that he is going to grow from this thing. He's got to make better decisions."

Nutt also pointed to seven offensive penalties — false starts, illegal blocks and holding penalties — that killed momentum and put Arkansas into long-yardage situations. The Razorbacks converted a season-low 3 of 17 third-down conversions.

"We started out good for a young group," Nutt said about Arkansas' offense. "But now it's time, we're hitting the best defenses. SEC week in, week out. You're playing against great athleticism. You've got to buckle your chin strap and get ready to go.

"The biggest thing, it's not get behind the count. Let's not have an illegal procedure. Let's don't hit somebody in the back down the field. We don't need that kind of help. That's foolish penalties. To me, that's coaching.

"We've got to get that right."

Arkansas will go back to the drawing board, looking for ways to challenge defenses through the air. The Hogs didn't look into the end zone until an incomplete pass on the last play against Alabama and never tested the Tide with a deep ball.

That's been a problem all season. Arkansas' longest pass play came against Vanderbilt, when Johnson hit fullback Peyton Hillis for a 29-yard gain. In all, Hillis, Monk (21 and 20 yards) and Cedric Logan (24 yards) have accounted for Arkansas' four pass plays of more than 20 yards this season.

Nutt hopes receiver Chris Baker, who is expected to return from a knee injury after missing three games, will help. He's also hoping Logan and junior Cedric Washington will have larger roles in the passing offense to take some pressure off Monk.

"Cedric Washington is a guy that we really need," Nutt said. "Cedric Logan is a guy that's still learning on the run. But those two guys have got to really step up for us.

"They're capable. I know they're capable."

Arkansas has two weeks to get healthy, regroup and find answers for its struggling passing offense. The Razorbacks will be a heavy favorite against Louisiana-Monroe, but will face stiff opponents in Auburn (Oct. 15) and Georgia (Oct. 22) after that.

"I think these next two weeks are critical that we work real hard on (the passing offense)," Nutt said. "There will be a lot of people that watch that (Alabama) film, including even the next opponent. They'll try to use that and (the Tide's) schemes so you've got to be ready for that.

"We'd like to be a little further ahead (after four games). But we're going to be all right."

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