Balancing Act

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas will run the ball two of every three plays during Saturday's game against Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock.

Just don't tell coach Houston Nutt his offense is predictable.

"I don't see how anybody can say we're predictable," Nutt said. "Number one, we've got the leading rushing team in the (Southeastern Conference), we're No. 5 in the nation and if we were that predictable, we wouldn't be that high. Number two, we're working with a young quarterback in Robert Johnson.

"(Florida quarterback) Chris Leak was a great example. He's three years experienced and he goes into Alabama (during last Saturday's 31-3 loss) and threw for only (187 yards) and they come out of there with three points ... And Florida's unpredictable."

It's probability as much as predictability.

Counting this season, the Razorbacks have passed 34.4 percent of the time since 2001. That's 1,265 passes in 3,681 snaps, meaning nearly two of every three are rushing plays.

The Hogs have passed 38.8 percent of the time since Nutt arrived in 1998, with his first three seasons weighing heavily into the equation. Those years, the Razorbacks were much more balanced. More than 46 percent (1,044 of 2,263) of plays were passes from quarterbacks Clint Stoerner, Robby Hampton and Zak Clark.

But when Matt Jones emerged as the signal caller in 2001, the air was taken out of the ball. His speed and improvisation turned a high percentage of passes into runs.

"It was because of Matt Jones," Nutt said. "You go back when we had passers like Clint Stoerner and Robby Hampton, until he got hurt, and when I had Mike Cherry (at Murray State), we were about 54 percent throwing. Then we get Matt Jones, who is more of a true runner.

"You've got to do what's best to fit the personality of your team and what you have."

The decline in passing is continuing this season, which was billed as the year Arkansas would open the offense back up in the post-Jones era. However, dropped passes, missed blocking assignments and difficulties breaking in a first-year starting quarterback have kept the passing game grounded through four games.

In fact, the Razorbacks are passing less frequently than a year ago. They've thrown 36.7 percent of the time this season, a drop from 38 percent in 2004. As Nutt pointed out, their 277.7 rushing yards a game is tops in the SEC. However, the 130.5 passing yards is dead last and 110th out of 117 teams nationally.

"The pass blocking, especially against a good defense, makes you have a tendency to not want to throw it as much," Nutt said. "With an inexperienced quarterback, you don't want anybody in your face and you don't want sacks because, as we've seen a few times this year, it leads to turnovers.

"But we are working towards being more balanced and we want to create more balance with run and pass. We've always done that."

A quick peek at the SEC's top offenses over the past five years reveals balance equals production.

Under Steve Spurrier, Florida sported the league's elite offenses from 2000-2002. All three teams were balanced in the number of passes and runs that were carried out.

The "Fun 'N' Gun" was more "Gun 'N' Run" than it seemed.

The Gators passed 51.7 percent of the time in 2000 and 52.6 percent in 2002, the year Ron Zook took over the program. Even when quarterback Rex Grossman led the nation with 354.2 passing yards per game in 2001, Florida managed to stay relatively balanced by passing 58.8 percent of the time.

Spurrier, who's in his first season at South Carolina, said it also takes confidence in defense to maintain balance on offense.

"Almost all coaches like to have a balanced offense and a lot of that can occur if you have an outstanding defense," Spurrier said. "Those years, we obviously had outstanding defenses. So, if the offense threw three long balls in a row and missed them all, we could come back and try it another way. And if we ran three and didn't make a first down, then we'd get back on the field about a minute and a half later (after a quick defensive stand).

"It all goes together. Offense, defense, special teams play and once you can do it all, I think you can get a little more balanced."

Nutt couldn't agree more. He said defensive stops allow play calling to be more creative, with less pressure to produce long drives or points on every possession.

"Having a good defense does make a difference," Nutt said. "That comes into time of possession and that also lets you create more chances and more opportunities to go for the big one or try more trick plays.

"You go back to '98 or '99 or even our defense we had in 2002 when we went to the SEC Championship. If we would have had Clint Stoerner in 2002, we would have thrown more. But you had Matt Jones."

Balance often breeds success. Southern California won the last two national championships with a balanced attack. In 2003, the Trojans passed on 50.7 percent of the plays. They threw it 53.4 percent of the time in 2004.

"Ideally, every team would like to be 50-50," said Arkansas passing game coordinator Roy Wittke. "You want to force people to defend the entire field. Not only the entire width of the field, but the entire length of the field. The more they have to defend, the more base looks you are going to get.

"Defenses are always going to try to force you to play left handed. They're going to try to take away what they perceive your strengths to be, but if you can be balanced, you're able to take advantage of them now."

Louisiana-Monroe coach Charlie Weatherbie has a different take on balance heading into Saturday's game against the Razorbacks. His Indians are a nearly perfect split with 179 running plays and 177 pass plays through five games.

"I don't know if it's as important to be balanced as it is to be productive in being able to run the football as well as pass the football," Weatherbie said. "And being able to perform and execute your offense. I think it's important to be successful and find a way to win football games."

But balance is the one constant in high-powered offenses. With quarterback Eli Manning, Ole Miss passed the ball 47.8 percent of the time to lead the SEC in total offense in 2003. Florida was tops again in 2004 when it passed the ball 49.5 percent of the time.

Georgia sports the SEC's top offense this season and it has passed the ball 43.1 percent (110 of 255) of the time. A reason for the unbeaten Bulldogs' discrepancy is because they're whipping opponents by more than three touchdowns a game, allowing them to keep the ball on the ground most of the fourth quarter.

"Our philosophy is if a defensive team is just bent on stopping the run, then we better throw it good enough to get them to back off a little bit and vice versa," said Georgia coach Mark Richt. "You've got to keep them honest. You absolutely have to do that. If you don't keep them off balance at all, they will wear you out."

In the SEC, Richt said defensive fronts are so athletic they seldom need help from safeties walking up to stop runs. Against teams lacking a passing threat, he said defenses can put eight or nine defenders close to the line of scrimmage -- without fear of getting beat deep. In that case, even the most sound running teams "cannot block them all" and with the number of unblocked players "you're going to struggle mightily."

Richt used a practice scenario to illustrate. During inside drill, seven defenders (linemen and linebackers) stack the line to try to stop basic running plays.

"You never throw the ball in inside drill and when there's no threat of any kind of pass, you can't hardly get an inch," Richt said. "But when you run those same plays out in a scrimmage situation, when they have to think about a play-action pass and they have to think about other things besides just honing in on that running game, then all the sudden, you provide a little space for yourself."

Alabama leads the league and is sixth in the nation in total defense, surrendering 251.2 yards per game. Coach Mike Shula said it's much easier preparing to stop an unbalanced offense as opposed to one that blends run with pass.

"You try to make the game one-dimensional," Shula said. "There's not too many defensive coordinators that don't believe in stopping the run first. But I think a team that does both and ties in the run with the play-action (pass) and then has the ability to throw the ball -- whether it's down the field or mix in some four-wide (receivers) or mix in some quick passing -- is the one that has been the most difficult to defend."

To the Razorbacks' credit, their 318 yards in a 24-13 loss at Alabama on Sept. 24 is the second most the Tide has allowed. Alabama allowed 326 yards against Florida last week.

"We're trying to get there this year," Nutt said. "We've had a successful running game, an older offensive line by one year and a young quarterback, who's not quite ready to handle everything. But he's getting better.

"The bottom line is we know we're going to throw more and get more balance as the season goes along because we're working on it every day."

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