If, before the 2011 college football season had started, you promised that Arkansas would be 7-1 going into their game against South Carolina, most Razorback fans would have been extremely happy.
Well, Razorback fans, guess what? You are 7-1 going into homecoming against No. 14 USC with a ranking of eighth in the nation. So, why are Razorback fans reaching for the panic button?
After four straight come-from-behind victories, including back-to-back lackluster performances against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, Razorback fans are getting nervous. They want to know what’s wrong with the offense and why the defense is giving up so many yards in every game.
The ugly truth is that Arkansas is in the middle of an in-season rebuilding process. The bigger picture shows that the entire 2011 season could be construed as a rebuilding season for Arkansas, as injuries and departed players have affected the depth chart greater than most fans realize.
Entering two-a-days, the Razorbacks had 12 total starters returning from last season’s 10-3 team: five on offense and seven on defense. Included in the five starters slated to return on offense was All-SEC running back Knile Davis. Davis suffered an ankle injury in fall practices, however, and has been declared out for the season.
When Davis was announced as lost for the season, the Hogs seemed to lose their team identity as well.
During the 2009 and 2010 seasons, former starting quarterback Ryan Mallett was the leader of the Razorbacks. Mallett left school after his junior year for the NFL, and 2011 was supposed to be Knile Davis’s year.
With backup running back Broderick Green out with a torn ACL from spring practices and Dennis Johnson still recovering from a bowel injury suffered in 2010, who would Petrino depend on to make the Hogs' offense successful?
The wide receivers became the strength of the Razorback team after Davis was lost. Petrino had four receivers named to the preseason Biletnikoff Award watch list: Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Cobi Hamilton and Jarius Wright. The Biletnikoff Award has been given to the best wide receiver in the nation since 1994, but who was going to be the quarterback for the Hogs?
High hopes and expectations have been placed on junior quarterback Tyler Wilson. After his performance off the bench against Auburn in 2010—when he threw for 332 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions against the eventual BCS National Champions—Razorback fans immediately anointed Wilson as a savior in place of departing Ryan Mallett. But were those expectations too lofty?
Wilson has played well as the starter for the Hogs. Wilson is eleventh in the nation in passing yards per game with 290.88, but is 48th in the nation in pass completion percentage. He has three 300-yard passing games, including a school record of passing 510 yards against Texas A&M. He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in every game (expect against Ole Miss) while only throwing three interceptions.
Statistics aside, Wilson has struggled at times. His thought process and reads are a second too slow; it seems as though he may be over thinking his decisions instead of instinctively reacting. His delivery and arm strength has not improved as the season has progressed, resulting in under throwing his talented receivers.
Wilson’s mobility as a runner has kept Razorback drives alive behind an offensive line that has not gelled in passing blocking or run blocking to date. Breaking in three new starters along the offensive line, they have given up 15 sacks when Wilson has been under center—third most in the SEC. If nothing else, Wilson has proven his toughness and willingness to take a hit to get the ball off to his receivers.
With the dismissal of offensive tackle Anthony Oden after spring practice for violation of team rules, the offensive line has shuffled starters in and out since the season began. Junior college transfer Jason Peacock, along with true freshmen Mitch Smothers and Brey Cook, have competed for playing time while Alvin Bailey, Travis Swanson, Grant Cook and Grant Freemen have struggled to find the cohesion they had last season when the Hogs finished ninth in the country in total offense.
Much of Petrino’s passing offense is predicated by his receivers gaining separation from the defenders with drag routes or crossing patterns. The lack of protection from the line has prevented the offense from having the big-play ability seen when Mallett was at quarterback.
The passing routes and play calling have become stagnant at Arkansas. Because everything has to be kept within 12-10 yards, opposing defenses are staying in the box, jumping routes and punishing the wide receivers in the process. Wilson’s slow reaction time, compounded with the fact that he is not given time to make second or third reads in the process, has led to stalled drives and fewer yards after the reception.
The lack of a running game may be the most glaring problem of all. 2011 will more than likely be the second time in four years that Petrino’s offense will not produce a 1,000-yard rusher; in 2010, Knile Davis had 1,322, while in 2008, Michael Smith had 1,072.
Dennis Johnson now leads the team in total rushing yards with 325. The bulk of that yardage was gained against Ole Miss—160. Johnson appeared to be the spark that the team needed at running back, but he has put the ball on the ground in two straight games. Given the fact that the defense does not create that many turnovers, these become critical mistakes that could cost the Hogs a game before season's end.
The defense has been heavily scrutinized for poor play during the first half of games against Texas A&M, Auburn, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. All four games resulted in wins, but not until the defense buckled down in the second half.
Against A&M, the Hogs gave up 35 first-half points, 14 in Auburn, 17 in Mississippi and 21 to Vanderbilt, for a total of 87 points. In the second half, the Hogs only gave up a combined 17 points in those four games.
What’s the difference between the first-half and the second-half defense? The Razorback offense.
In the first quarter against A&M, the Razorbacks' average time of possession was 1:28. Against Auburn, the Razorback offense held the ball for an average of 2:26 through five first-quarter possessions. At Ole Miss, the Hogs were on offense for a total of 3:04 in the first quarter, leading to a 17-0 first-half deficit. Vanderbilt was able to limit their offense to an average of 2:47 seconds per possession in the first half of play.
While Willy Robinson has proven to be able to make adjustments when given time, the only time he has been given is during halftime. If the fortunes of the defense are to change, the offense has to stay on the field longer. The old saying, “The best defense is a good offense” applies.
When the Hogs can force their opponents to become offensively one-dimensional, they tend to excel. However, that has not happened against quality opponents this season (sans Auburn).
A lack of playmakers has hurt the defense as well. The Hogs are tied with Kentucky for the fewest sacks in the SEC with eleven, and currently rank eighth in the conference with eight interceptions. In theory, due to the amount of time the defense has been on the field, more turnovers and big plays should happen for them, but it has not worked out that way. Defensively, they are tied for 88th in the nation with eleven turnovers gained for the season.
Injuries have accumulated along the defensive side of the ball. Both starting cornerbacks and defensive ends have missed significant game time due to injury. Starting safety Tramain Thomas is seemingly benched every game for missed tackles and the defensive front is not getting any pressure on the opposing quarterbacks.
Robinson continues to run a base 4-3 defense and rarely calls a blitz or any stunts unless he calls outside linebacker Jerico Nelson’s number. His lack of faith in the secondary is obvious, but with the amount of yardage and points given up in the first half of play, it seems that an occasional corner blitz or defensive line stunt could make a difference.
Reasons Not to Panic
Even through all of the bad, the Hogs are still 7-1 with a great opportunity to win out, even against LSU. Since 2005, Arkansas and LSU have split their series 3-3. Twenty-one total points separates the winning team from the losing team, with Arkansas having the largest winning margin, winning by eight points in 2010 in Little Rock, Arkansas—a 3.5 average margin of victory between the two schools.
During the past five games, the Razorbacks have only played one game at home, against Auburn. There’s no surprise that was Arkansas' most complete game of their past five games.
Since 2009, the Hogs have a home record of 16-2. The good news is that the next three games are all at home.
A win is a win, ugly or not—even if Ole Miss and Vanderbilt looked like Top 25 teams against Arkansas.
The hunters have become the hunted. One of the major differences from years past is that the Razorbacks are no longer the underdogs. For the past two years, Arkansas has taken every other team’s best shot instead of possibly being looked over. In the process, Arkansas has won 17 games and only lost four total games, with each loss coming to a higher ranked team.
As much talent as the Razorbacks have, one gets the sense that they are due for a big breakout game. Fans can only hope that will come against either South Carolina, a team Arkansas has beaten 7 times in the past 10 years, or LSU come November 25.
The expectations placed upon Wilson have not been fair, but he has responded well. The tremendous amount of depth and talent at the wide receiver position has helped him look better than he may really be. Or, is it the lack of a running game that allows teams to key on Wilson throughout the game?
What will the Hogs' final regular-season record be?
Petrino should open up the offense a little more, and giving scripted plays to Wilson may help. Keeping the offense limited has had an ill effect on both sides of the ball.
Cobi Hamilton has become a non-factor at the wide receiver position, due to the offensive line and deep-ball throws from Wilson. The Hogs also miss the ability that receiver Greg Childs, when healthy, used to give them with jump-ball passes in the corner of the end zone. Look for Petrino to revive these aspects of the offense.
Johnson runs with an attitude, and hopefully he will not get too far back in Petrino’s doghouse, as Petrino benching Johnson for effort plays could hurt more than help. If Johnson holds onto the ball, he gives the Razorbacks the best chance to win out.
Not only has head coach Bobby Petrino instituted a new football culture at Arkansas, he has also ushered in a new era of hope for Razorback fans. Gone are the days when eight or nine wins is considered a good season; winning 10 games every year is to be expected with a shot at playing in a BCS bowl as well.
Coach Petrino, you have created a monster, but you have also delivered—even if you are not earning style points amongst fans or national critics.