Third And A Long Shot

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas' third-down offense has been getting the third degree. And rightfully so.

The Razorbacks are ninth in the Southeastern Conference in third-down conversions with a 35 percent success rate. That's the second lowest in coach Houston Nutt's eight seasons. They converted 33.3 percent in 2002.

It's one reason Arkansas is winless in conference play and may be the reason quarterback Robert Johnson's starting job is in jeopardy heading into Saturday's game at No. 4 Georgia.

"We're just not executing and it's easy to see," said Nutt. "We've got guys open ... just throw and catch. It's been there. We just didn't hit it.

"It kind of goes along with our season, it comes down to executing. That's when you have to deliver. That's when everybody has to step up and get their job done."

The success rate has actually been bolstered by nonconference wins against Missouri State and Louisiana-Monroe. They even converted 50 percent in a 70-17 loss at Southern California.

But in league play, the Hogs have been a dismal 11 of 43 on third downs for a 25.6 percent success rate.

Consider these third-down facts in SEC games:

• All three conversions against Auburn were running plays on third-and-1.

• All three conversions against Alabama also were runs.

• Two of the 11 successful conversions were passes.

•They're 2 of 12 in the fourth quarter.

• Johnson is 10 of 25 passing with two interceptions.

The Razorbacks have been forced to pass more than run because the first- and second-down plays often have been minimal gains, forcing third-and-long situations. There also has been a handful of penalties that were especially costly at Alabama as several third-and-4s turned into 3rd-and-9s.

It's truly been 3rd and a long shot at times. So far in league play, the longest successful third down play came on third and seven.

"We should have converted a lot more of them," said tailback Darren McFadden. "We've had some mental breakdowns and sometimes it's everybody not getting it done and other times, it just one or two not executing.

"In this league, we've got to have all 11 on the same page to execute."

Of Johnson's 10 completions, eight were thrown short of the first-down marker on screens or passes in the flat. Some were designed, but others were supposed to be thrown down field.

"I think some times (Johnson) comes off his reads a little quick," Nutt said. "We always want to throw down field to get the first, but there's some plays where it's third-and-4 and we want to throw a little swing or a little option route and let Peyton Hillis go get (a first down).

"We've made a lot of first downs that way."

During two key third down plays in Alabama territory, Nutt called for draw plays to Felix Jones. After both were stopped, he took some heat. Nutt defended the calls by pointing out plays where former tailbacks Madre Hill and Fred Talley broke long runs on draws when the defense was expecting a pass.

"That's a hit or miss," Nutt said. "It's a good, safe play when they're in nickel coverage and if we get a hat on a hat, we're in the secondary now. But they twist and we miss a block, it looks bad when you get a two- or three-yard gain.

"So people say, 'Well, why would you call a draw?' But we didn't call a draw to get two yards. We called it to get 10 or 12, but again, it's just executing.

"If we wouldn't have hit it so many times with Fred Talley and Madre Hill, they would have been saying the same thing.

"But since those worked, they think I'm a genius for calling a draw."

Perhaps, the biggest problem is a lack of a consistent playmaker. Former quarterbacks Matt Jones and Clint Stoerner could turn nothing into something with the ability to break big runs or scramble long enough to allow receivers time to get open.

"All those guys were a little older (than Johnson) and their junior and senior years were always the best," Nutt said. "But I'm not trying to make excuses, we just haven't done a good job."

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