Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
ARKANSAS VS. TULSA:
Razorbacks missing the points
Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson (8) and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino (right) lament missed opportunities by the Razorbacks’ offense in a 58-10 loss to Texas A&M in September. Arkansas is averaging 27 points a game, its lowest total since 2008.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas’ offensive output this season — an average of 432 yards per game — is roughly on par with its production of the past four years, but there is a significant disconnect between the Razorbacks’ yardage and their scoring figures.
The past three Arkansas teams each averaged 36 points per game or better, but the 2012 Razorbacks are averaging just 27 points a game, a 25 percent decline that has impacted the team’s 3-5 start as it heads into Saturday’s game against Tulsa at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The 27-point scoring average ranks 69th in the nation, the lowest for Arkansas since the 2008 team ranked 91st with 21.9 points per game.
And the Razorbacks still have to face South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU, all of which rank in the top 16 nationally in defensive scoring and give up fewer than 20 points per game.
The factors involved in Arkansas’ scoring drop-off are many:
- A lack of defensive and special teams touchdowns
- A drop in red zone production
- A season-long series of injuries to key skill players
- A changing of the guard among the receivers
Last season, Joe Adams returned four punts for touchdowns, while Dennis Johnson and Marquel Wade also accounted for two kickoff returns for touchdowns. The defense also returned two fumbles for scores.
“They had six touchdowns on special teams last year,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “They had two on defense. So when the yardage is exactly the same and the scoring isn’t the same, there might be something to that.”
Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said simply: “We need to get one. We need to get them. ... We always challenge our defensive guys, definitely on special teams, that we’ve got to change the game, and that’s how that happens with blocking a kick or a kick return for a touchdown.”
The kickoff return unit has been hampered by the rule initiated this season in which teams kick off from the 35 instead of the 30.
“It sucks,” Johnson said. “Any time I get a chance, I’m trying to take it out.”
Arkansas is one of only 19 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision without a defensive or special teams touchdown this season, according to cfbstats.com.
The 56 points from Arkansas’ non-offensive touchdowns in 2011 raised the team’s scoring average by 4.3 points per game, so that only accounts for about half of the scoring gap of roughly nine points between the 2012 Razorbacks and all three of its most recent predecessors.
Quarterback Tyler Wilson, whose average of 322 passing yards per game is up more than 30 per game from his average through eight games last year, has had to blend with a revamped set of receivers, excluding holdover Cobi Hamilton. Injuries to tight end Chris Gragg and fullbacks Kiero Small and Kody Walker have further altered the offensive plan.
Turnovers decimated some of the Razorbacks’ early games and snuffed out promising drives. They currently are tied for 111th nationally with a minus-1.25 turnover margin per game, but that number has come down considerably from earlier this season.
Arkansas’ red zone scoring, which ranked second in the country a couple of years ago, has suffered and is on track to be the lowest since former coach Bobby Petrino’s arrival in 2008. While the Hogs have been perfect in red zone scoring the past two weeks, their full-season figure is 24 of 32 (75 percent), which ranks 90th in the nation.
Among the red zone problems:
- Knile Davis’ lost fumble against Alabama
- Mekale McKay’s dropped touchdown pass against Rutgers
- Wilson’s interceptions against Rutgers and Texas A&M.
“We’ve done a really good job of moving the ball from 20 to 20,” Wilson said. “We’ve struggled a little bit inside the red zone, settling for field goals rather than touchdowns. That’s big. That’s where you get your points.
“I’m not going to do the math, because I’m not a math major, but it obviously helps out our chances when you’re scoring touchdowns rather than field goals.”
Arkansas had a stretch against Alabama, Rutgers and Texas A&M in which in converted less than 50 percent of its red-zone chances into scores.
“We’re just not executing in the critical zone,” Hamilton said. “Just small things that we’re not doing as a team. ... It’s a small room for error and we just keep making those small mistakes that are keeping us out of the end zone.”
Paul Petrino said the lack of a running game earlier in the year put more stress on Wilson and the passing attack.
“We’re probably throwing it too much, to be honest with you,” Petrino said. “He’s on par to have way more yards, more touchdowns and more interceptions, kind of like Brett Favre used to have or some of the greatest quarterbacks ever.”
Petrino said all the issues have added up to make Wilson more eager to complete long passes.
“At times I think he’s feeling too much pressure to make the big play,” Petrino said. “The other day, both [interceptions] he should have checked down to his running back. Neither one of those balls should have been thrown, and he knows it, and it doesn’t hurt anyone more than it hurts him.”
The Razorbacks’ point-scoring problems are also hurt by its third-down conversion rate of 35.8 percent, which ranks 96th among the 120 FBS teams.
Missouri at Florida, 11 a.m.
Texas A&M at Mississippi State, 11 a.m.
Vanderbilt at Kentucky, 11 a.m.
Troy at Tennessee, 11 a.m.
Tulsa at Arkansas, 11:21 a.m.
New Mexico State at Auburn, 11:30 a.m.
Mississippi at Georgia, 2:30 p.m.
Alabama at LSU, 7 p.m.
Sports, Pages 17 on 11/01/2012