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 AT MISSISSIPPI STATE:
Time ticking on Hogs' bombed season
Arkansas punter Dylan Breeding tries to run down an errant first-quarter snap in a 52-0 loss to Alabama in the Razorbacks’ conference-opening loss to the Crimson Tide. Alabama took control on the Arkansas 6 after a penalty on Breeding for illegal kicking. Eddie Lacy scored for the Tide on the next play.
FAYETTEVILLE The Arkansas Razorbacks have no more leeway.
They must beat Mississippi State on the road Saturday then follow up by defeating BCS No. 7 LSU in Fayetteville on Nov. 23 or they will be left out of the postseason for the first time since 2008, Bobby Petrino’s first season as coach.
Arkansas has gone from a preseason No. 10 ranking in the Associated Press poll to 4-6 overall, 2-4 SEC, and on the brink of being out of the bowl mix.
If such an award existed, Arkansas might be a strong contender for the most disappointing team in college football in 2012.
How did a program that had gone 21-5 the previous two seasons, participate in two elite bowls, including its first BCS appearance in the 2011 Sugar Bowl, and returned key talent like quarterback Tyler Wilson, receiver Cobi Hamilton, tight end Chris Gragg, tailbacks Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson and a deep defensive front, crumble so far below expectations?
“What we did is we went by the skill positions to think this team was still going to be able to win a lot of games,” said Keith Jackson, the color analyst for the Arkansas radio broadcasts on the Razorback Sports Network, before he pointed out “gaps” in the offensive line.
An unfortunate string of injuries, an unsteady performance by the offensive line, a sputtering run game for much of the season, poor play from the thin and inexperienced back seven on defense and a significant drop-off in special teams play have all contributed to the disappointment. Plus, the loss of Petrino in the middle of spring practice had a marked impact on the rest of the coaching staff in terms of its responsibilities and its control on the team.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” Arkansas Coach John L. Smith said during Wednesday’s SEC coaches teleconference. “It’s been one of those years.
“Again, you kind of look at it as a little bit of a perfect storm.”
Hardly anything has gone according to the preseason script for the Razorbacks, from allowing 24 points and 322 yards to Jacksonville State in the season opener to losing Wilson with a concussion just before halftime in a Week 2 loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
If there was one week that most drastically altered the course of Arkansas’ season, it was the second week. Fullback Kiero Small, a team leader and facemask-busting lead blocker, fractured a bone in his foot midway through the week, just as Smith was making his first personal bankruptcy filing.
In the process of blowing a 28-7 second-half lead against the Warhawks, Arkansas lost cornerback Tevin Mitchel and fullback Kody Walker to injuries that required ambulances on the field.
The Razorbacks’ inexperienced secondary was picked apart by veteran quarterback Kolton Browning, who deftly eluded the Arkansas rush, which played a key role in converting 6 of 7 fourth-down opportunities.
Injuries mounted at multiple positions. Cornerback Kaelon Kelleybrew, safety Eric Bennett, linebackers Tenarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith, offensive guard Tyler Deacon, Davis, Gragg, Mitchel and Walker all missed either significant playing time or the entire season after suffering injuries.
“If I had to pick one thing, it’s the injuries,” Jackson said. “You can’t be a team that loses so many players from the previous year, then have so many injuries, starting with Kiero Small.”
Things have never clicked for Davis as they did in 2010. Injuries to Small, Walker and Gragg stripped offensive tackles David Hurd, Jason Peacock and Brey Cook of needed blocking support, and Davis didn’t have a blocking back to run behind.
Davis is averaging 3.4 yards per carry this season, while the Razorbacks’ team average is 3.9.
“Obviously not as good as you’d want it to be,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said of the Arkansas running game. “I think it’s definitely improved in the last five weeks compared to how it was early.
“Just something, if you look back on it, in pre-fall you expect to be running behind Small and having Chris Gragg at tight end and Knile being healthy. There’s just a lot of things that have played into it.”
The run game, which ranks 104th nationally with 119.5 yards per game, and personnel turnover among the receivers that left Hamilton and Gragg as the top veterans, put added pressure on Wilson, and it has showed.
“He doesn’t have the phenomenal talent around him that they have had,” said ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr., “and obviously not having [Bobby] Petrino there, that’s obviously impacted that team overall.”
Wilson’s interceptions are up — from six last year to 10 — his touchdown-to-interception ratio has slipped from 4-to-1 to 1.8-to-1, and his completion percentage has dropped marginally to 60.9 percent.
“We feel like we’re playing pretty good football as far as our ideas,” Wilson said. “Our schemes, I think, are very good. It’s the attention to detail. It’s the little things that are holding us back.”
An alignment bust by a foot or less brought back a gametying touchdown against Ole Miss, and another illegal formation by Hamilton last week against South Carolina nullified his 40-yard catch on the first drive.
The defense has been racked by injuries after losing four top playmakers from 2011. Defensive captains Highsmith and Wright didn’t make it to the halfway point in 2012 before being lost for the year, and the secondary has suffered while undergoing a transfusion of youth.
Arkansas ranks 114th in passing yards allowed per game (291.1) and 74th in total defense (410.8 ypg). Teams not known for spectacular passing, like Rutgers and South Carolina, found a way to crank up their aerial games against the Razorbacks.
But Jackson said he admires the pluck Arkansas has shown, despite the problems.
“This team has been impressive to me in the way that they keep on fighting,” he said.
Arkansas fans spent the summer hoping Bobby Petrino’s midspring firing would not derail their championship hopes.
Instead, the Razorbacks and their fans have spent a season taking hard knocks in the toughest division of the toughest conference in college football.
Sports, Pages 19 on 11/15/2012