State of the Hogs: Passing Game

HI.com publisher Clay Henry writes about the differences in the passing game for the bowl game. Unfortunately, Arkansas still lost, 17-14, to Wisconsin.

Orlando, Fla. - Arkansas coaches and players talked for the better part of a month that the Capital One Bowl would be decided by the run.

Wrong.

Arkansas could run the ball just fine. The Hogs, inserting an extra defensive tackle, didn't have all that much trouble with 1,500-yard rusher P. J. Hill as the Badgers jumped ontop 17-7 in the first half en route to a 17-14 triumph.

And, for the third straight game, a veteran quarterback chewed up the Hogs' man coverages, making plays against safeties and cornerbacks alike.

This time it was Wisconsin senior John Stocco. Just as highly experienced Chris Leak and JaMarcus Russell did to beat the Hogs in their last two games, Stocco made more than enough plays early in the game spreading the ball around to a solid group of receivers to overcome the running of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.

Balance is what the Arkansas staff talked about before the season, but the Hogs are still a long ways from that. Of course, they've got a true sophomore (Casey Dick) and a true freshman (Mitch Mustain) playing at quarterback.

After working on the passing game for the duration of bowl practices, that was still too much of a liability for this Arkansas football team. Dick got all but one series in the first half and was inconsistent. He threw high or behind enough receivers that the Hogs sputtered.

Coaches and players alike talked afterwards about the focus of bowl practices and the decision to free up quarterbacks with some line-of-scrimmage checks in hopes of boosting the passing game.

"We definitely did more in this game than we have been," Dick said. "We had some run-pass checks and we used them. I think we got better in the passing game, but maybe you couldn't tell it because of the opportunities we missed."

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said the Hogs had been "very limited" in what they had allowed the signal callers to do at the line earlier this year.

"We wanted to do some things that would hopefully open up the down-the-field game on first down with the checks at the line," Malzahn said. "I thought our quarterbacks were really good at when they used them. Casey probably checked 14 to 15 times and Mitch did it once. I thought the decisions were good on the checks, but we just didn't hit them consistently.

"I think we made progress in our bowl preparations, but you just couldn't see it on the field. We saw our young quarterbacks develop in the last few weeks. This is something to build on and get better with. You'll see them do that now. They both need a spring practice doing this and making those checks."

Dick said, "We had some opportunities, but we didn't make the plays when they were there. I had some chances and missed them. I could have done better."

Mustain felt the same way, noting he played more than he expected and was disappointed he couldn't get the Hogs any points with solid field position in the third quarter.

"I could have done better," he said. "We just didn't take advantage of our opportunities."

Quarterback coach Alex Wood called the experience of running the check package against a quality top 10 opponent "invaluable. You'd just like to be able to get that experience in a win. But we have to take this and learn from it.

"I wish it had gone better. Casey hit a couple of plays, but he missed some others and he took a sack when he has to throw it away. I'm not happy with the performance overall, but I'm pleased with the job both quarterbacks did with the check package. They did a nice job with those run-pass checks, but we just didn't hit the plays down the field when they were there.

"This should help us for next year. We'll take this check package, work more on it in the spring and hope we grow with it and use it better next year."

The defense did produce three turnovers when Keith Jackson and Chris Houston each intercepted a Stucco pass and Matterral Richardson stripped the ball away from Hill, but the secondary also failed to make plays when it was in position. Safeties Kevin Woods and Randy Kelly had chances to bat down passes in one UW touchdown drive and Houston took the long (and wrong) way to get around a mild pick play for the clincher on another TD drive.

The Hogs actually outgained the Badgers in the first half by a 259 to 168 count and by 167 yards for the game. The Hogs won the battle on the ground by 232 to minus 5 thanks to seven sacks. Jamaal Anderson, with three sacks (to tie the single season school record with 14), was shaking his head about the way the Hogs stopped the Badgers, especially in the second half, only to lose.

"We knew what this game was all about, stopping the run, and we did that," he said. "I figured if we held them to minus 5, we'd win. But we didn't." Secondary coach Louis Campbell said it was about not being ready at the outset.

"You saw it," he said. "We knew their plays and we'd practiced against them for several weeks. We just didn't cover them. They made the plays and when we had a chance to make plays, we didn't.

"At the end of the day, we got our butts beat and by a team we should have beaten. That's all you can say and hope you get better from it. That's definitely a negative and now we have to try to make it a positive."

Defensive coordinator Reggie Herring said the answer lies on the recruiting trail. He is looking hard for some safeties after the Hogs failed to make plays in the secondary down the stretch.

"Bottom line, we need players," Herring said. "Who we sign might just play there (at safety) and play quickly. I don't see anyone there right now." Herring was proud of the Hogs' play up front, but said it remains a team game.

"You can't just say we won that battle up front and dominated them," he said. "That's not the way the game is played. You have to do it all areas and we didn't early in the game. We gave them too much wiggle room with the way we played in the first quarter. It doesn't matter that we shut them down after that. We didn't win.

"We came to win the ball game, not to win the stats. In the end, we didn't get it done." The scheme didn't fail the Hogs in the first half, according to Herring. He said the Hogs still played four defensive backs. He said the extra player came from subbing for a linebacker with a down lineman.

"It was just a 5-2-4, instead of the 4-3-4 and we didn't even need it in the second half," he said. "When we did use it, we still had our same guys covering the guys we wanted covered. We just didn't make plays. We had our main cover guys on the guys we wanted and we shut down their main guy, but others made plays. We allowed someone else to step up and make a play. It comes down to their guys beating our guys. It wasn't a problem with the scheme.

"In the end, it's nothing to be ashamed about. It was a 11-1 team, ranked No. 6. We were with them and had a chance at the end. The game could have swung either way."

Perhaps it could have swung if McFadden hadn't been caught from behind on the Hogs' first possession, a scoring chance that slipped away on a missed short field goal. Was McFadden's ankle 100 percent?

"I know that's what everyone is going to say, that Darren wasn't full speed," trainer Dean Weber said. "I'm not going there because he looked great in practices the last two weeks. He was fine down here, full go. His problem today wasn't his toe or his ankle. It was his shoulder and he got that later in the game. I saw the play. I don't think Darren knew the guy was that close. He surprised him, plus the other guy had some speed, too."

Jones (150 yards) and McFadden (89) were both chased to the south end of the playing field after the game by Wisconsin coaches and players for a congratulatory handshake.

"That was nice," Jones said. "Several of their coaches ran to where we were leaving the field and I know I talked to two or three of their coaches. They told me I played a heckuva game. That's nice, but that's not what I came here for -- we wanted a victory.

"I do know that we feel like we are close. We know these last three games have been against top 10 teams and we are right there. That will make us work that much harder this offseason. We know what we have coming back and what we are about. We are going to get there."

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