Just Plain Offensive

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Michael Smith is just like everyone else.

The junior was sure there would be instant success. He thought Arkansas would light up the scoreboard and pile up yards right away.

So it's easy to understand Smith's disappointment in Arkansas' offense struggles after five games.

"It's extremely frustrating because you want to go out there and score points," Smith said. "You want to get in the end zone. You want to move the ball up and down the field and you want to win."

The Razorbacks can at least find comfort in something when they play 20th-ranked Auburn on Saturday: They're not alone in their struggles.

Auburn has had its own problems adjusting to a spread offense after tossing aside its long-standing reputation as a hard-nosed, grind-it-out group. In fact, the Tigers' troubles prompted coach Tommy Tuberville to fire first-year offensive coordinator Tony Franklin on Wednesday.

So Arkansas and Auburn will meet with offenses laboring near the bottom of the nation in scoring, averaging 17.4 and 18.7 points a game, respectively. Frustrations are outnumbering touchdowns as both schools have traded in power running games for more sophisticated attacks.

"We knew going into the season, and I prepared the team for this, that we would have growing pains," Tuberville said two days before firing Franklin. "It's just at times, when you do get so close and you're not successful, it makes those growing pains a little bit harder to take."

Will things get any better soon for either school? No one can say for sure. But one college football expert believes any team undergoing offensive changes like Arkansas and Auburn must learn to be patient because, whether they like it or not, it typically takes time to see the results.

"A lot of it has to do with the athletes they have and what they were recruited for," said Phil Steele, who has published his massive, College Football Preview magazine for 14 years. "And that they're not really set for the switch in the offense. That's why it's usually a two-to-three year process."

Steele, who has studied trends in college football for years, said the most difficult task for an offense is switching from a run-base attack to a pro-style or passing scheme. Nebraska offered a good example when it went from the option to the West Coast offense in 2004.

Nebraska, which was 10-3 in 2003, fell to 5-6 under new coach Bill Callahan that season. He has since been fired.

Steele said the biggest problem is with personnel. Running teams have offensive linemen that are used to mashing opposing defenses, quarterbacks that hand the ball off, and receivers that block more than catch the ball.

So asking a quarterback to read coverages and throw the ball 40 times a game, offensive linemen to pick up blitzes and excel in pass protection, and receivers to turn into playmakers takes time. And a few recruiting classes.

"It's just really an impossible switch," Steele said. "I don't see any team having great success going from a completely run-based attack like Arkansas was, and shifting up to a pass offense. That doesn't mean the success won't be there in the future. Look at Nebraska.

"Nebraska, the first year of the switch, really struggled. But last year they put up 33 points a game in the fourth year of the switch. So the success will come at Arkansas."

That doesn't solve the immediate problems, though. And Arkansas center Jonathan Luigs said it's a "show-me world." Everyone wants results now.

The senior said the Razorbacks still believe they're capable of success this season even though they've scored just 24 offensive points the past three weeks.

"It's complicated," Luigs said. "But I think the more we get to practice it, the more we get to use it in games. ... I think we'll get there eventually."

Arkansas hasn't had much trouble moving the football in four games, but has been hampered by poor decisions and mistakes that have killed scoring drives.

Penalties, sacks and turnovers have been an Achilles' heel, and maddening to coach Bobby Petrino. His Louisville teams scored fewer than 28 points only eight times in four years. It is the most Arkansas has scored in five games.

"It's always a two-phased deal," Petrino said when asked about the process. "You teach it, you install it, you think you learn it. But then the defenses are always changing. So it's really the adjustments that you have to make there.

"The other part of it is not just knowing it, but really understanding the details of the technique and the details of the fundamentals that make it work. You always talk about, as a coach to your staff, that everybody has a lot of the same plays. It's really how you know the details and how you execute within those plays."

It's safe to say the defenses Louisville faced in Petrino's first season at the helm haven't compared to the gauntlet Arkansas has faced so far this season.

Alabama, Texas and Florida all rank in the top 14 in the nation in scoring defense. It hasn't helped progress.

"You have so much to think about on any given play," Luigs said. "And obviously the speed of the game with the last three teams we've played, it's a tough task."

But Luigs said maintaining faith in the new offense is critical as Arkansas moves forward. The same for Auburn.

Franklin may have been fired because of the Tigers' early season woes, but Tuberville vowed that Auburn will continue to run the spread against the Razorbacks. He has said the light is somewhere at the end of the tunnel.

Who knows, maybe one or both teams will finally find it in their new offenses Saturday.

Either way, they're better off keeping their eyes on the future as they struggle through the transition.

"You try not to get down, but sometimes you do," Smith said. "You just have to hurry up, brush yourself off, go back out there and play."



Arkansas (SEC Rank/NCAA) Category Auburn (SEC Rank/NCAA)

17.4 points (11/109) Scoring Offense 18.7 points (9/103)

352.2 yards (7/73) Total Offense 309.2 yards (11/104)

100.6 yards (12/107) Rushing Offense 148.5 yards (7/60)

251.6 yards (2/33) Passing Offense 160.7 yards (10/103)

117.9 rating (8/78) Pass Efficiency 105 rating (11/105)

21 (12/119) Sacks Allowed 12 (10/T-74)

19 (6/68) First Downs 16.8 (9/94)

37.9 percent (7/72) Third-Down Conv. 29.7 percent (12/112)

76.9 percent (9/84) Red Zone Scoring 65 percent (11/111)

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