Arkansas Offense Enjoying Turnover-Free Month

FAYETTEVILLE -- Maybe it's because Arkansas' players are reminded on a daily basis to protect the football.

Or perhaps it's because Arkansas running backs coach Danny Nutt again has his tailbacks doing unusual ballhandling drills in practice.

Better yet, maybe it's because freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain has matured to the point where he's making better decisions on the run and not forcing as many passes into tight coverage.

Whatever the reason, Arkansas' offense has taken especially good care of the football over the last three games by not committing a single turnover. No fumbles, and perhaps more importantly, no interceptions.

That's a stark contrast from earlier in the season when running backs Felix Jones and Darren McFadden surprisingly had fumbling problems, and Mustain was going through his growing pains as a first-year starter.

"Once we've got the ball in our hands, that's the most precious thing in the game," Jones said. "So we take care of it as much as possible."

The popular assumption is that when a team has a true freshman starting at quarterback, there is bound to be more turnovers.

While they may not like it, coaches often assume there will be more interceptions and maybe even a few fumbled snaps with a freshman quarterback, who's still trying to adjust to the speed of the game.

But Mustain has made better decisions over the last three games, and that has contributed to lopsided wins over No. 7 Auburn, Southeast Missouri State and Ole Miss.

He didn't throw an interception during that span, and rather than trying to force a pass into double coverage as he tended to do in his first few starts, he's learning to throw the ball away.

"I hope we're careful (with the football) every game. I think that directly relates to us winning the last three games, and hopefully we can continue to do that," Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said.

"And it doesn't make a difference if you've got a senior quarterback or a freshman quarterback, when you don't turn the ball over, you've got a good chance at winning. So that's been working for us."

In fact, Arkansas' offense hasn't turned the ball over since Mustain threw the last of his three interceptions in a 24-23 double-overtime win against Alabama on Sept. 23.

Since then, the only turnover the No. 13-ranked Razorbacks (6-1, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) have committed was on a fumbled punt return by senior Cedric Washington in the second quarter of a 63-7 win over Southeast Missouri State on Oct. 14. But by that point, it didn't make much of a difference.

Arkansas, winners of six straight games, will attempt to go the entire month of October without committing an offensive turnover when it faces lowly Louisiana-Monroe (1-6) at 6 p.m. today in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium.

"When we're not turning the ball over, we make it a whole lot easier on the offense, make it a whole lot easier on the defense because you don't give (the opposing team) a short field," McFadden said. "The defense, they have to work hard still, but it's not trying to keep (the opposing team) from going 30 yards and scoring."

Over the first four games of the season, Arkansas turned the ball over 10 times, including five that resulted in No. 3 Southern California scoring 31 points in the Razorbacks' lone loss, a 50-14 defeat.

The early-season turnover problem was surprisingly in large part because of Arkansas' running backs, who traditionally have been good about protecting the football.

Jones committed the team's first turnover of the season when he fumbled the ball only 88 seconds into the season opener against USC, and his second and third fumbles came only a few minutes later.

McFadden, meanwhile, fumbled the ball in back-to-back wins over Utah State and Vanderbilt, including one on the 1-yard line.

To fix the problem, Nutt went back to the basics by bringing back the basketball-like ballhandling drills he's done since he arrived at Arkansas.

Judging by the last three games, it's helped. So has Mustain's maturation.

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