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. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Hogs struggling with deep passes
Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen throws a pass during a game against LSU on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Baton Rouge, La.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The Arkansas Razorbacks' top pass plays in the last two games have gone for 25 yards to La'Michael Pettway, 33 yards to Will Gragg, 26 yards to Jeremy Patton, 31 yards to Patton, 54 yards to Jonathan Nance and 60 yards to T.J. Hammonds.
Only a couple of those throws were completed at least 20 yards down the field and neither came from a standard drop-back setup. The Razorbacks (4-6, 1-5 SEC) hope to change that trend Saturday against No. 16 Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3), which ranks No. 9 in the FBS in passing defense by allowing 173 yards per game.
Patton's 26-yard catch during the Razorbacks' second quarter touchdown drive at LSU last week came on a short roll-out and throwback from Austin Allen.
The Nance catch came on Cole Kelley's Hail Mary heave on the last play of the half that was tipped by Patton, then tipped and corralled by Nance a yard short of a touchdown.
Several of the long gains were on screens, throwbacks or short crossing routes that broke open.
Through a combination of reasons, the Razorbacks' ability to make deep passing connections has dried up in recent games since Nance caught a series of big-play passes against Texas A&M and South Carolina earlier in the season.
Offensive coordinator Dan Enos has given quarterbacks Allen and Kelley the chance to make those plays, but they have taken place only sparingly the last month.
Against LSU, Allen overthrew Stewart deep and under threw Jordan Jones, who had a step on LSU cornerback Andraez Williams down the right sideline.
"We had opportunities Saturday and we didn't hit them," Enos said. "Missed the read on one, under-threw a guy once. Over-threw a guy once. We had opportunities.
"You don't get a bunch of them, especially against good teams, and we had a couple guys open and we missed them."
Allen, playing his first game since Oct. 7, was a little off on his timing with receivers on a variety of throws, including deep ones, a crossing route to Deon Stewart that went for 18 yards, and a screen pass to T.J. Hammonds that fell incomplete in the right flats.
"The fortunate thing is, I've seen Austin throw those balls a lot," Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said. "I've seen him have great success. So you feel it's there."
Enos said Allen's deep throws in practice had been sharp prior to the LSU game.
"Our deep ball accuracy wasn't very good and it's kind of mind scratching because we're very good in practice throwing the ball down the field and connecting on those deep balls," Enos said. "It's something we talk about a lot as a quarterback group, our deep ball accuracy and how we do that. It's an area that needs to be improved and we're going to work very hard at it this week."
The freshman Jones had combined for 13 receptions for 236 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 4-game span in the middle portion of the season, but he's had 2 catches for 26 yards in the last three games, including a shutout in the Hogs' 38-37 victory at Ole Miss.
"We threw the ball to him four times, I think three deep balls, last week," receivers coach Michael Smith said. "We just didn't connect on them. We had an under-throw, an over-throw and another under-throw. I don't think anything's slowed him, we're just not making the plays."
The sophomore Stewart said the offense concentrated on deep passes in Tuesday's practice.
"I think Enos is just trying to get [Allen] used to throwing those deep balls," Stewart said. "The past few games we haven't really been connecting on them.
"We've been on point in practice. I'm just not really sure what it is in the game. It may be on my part or it may be on Austin's part, but we're going to get it fixed."
Enos said the injuries on Arkansas' offensive front, such as to preseason All-America center Frank Ragnow, has forced some adjustments in his protection calls. The Razorbacks played last week at LSU without tight end Cheyenne O'Grady, lost tight end Austin Cantrell during the game to a knee injury and also played stretches without Hjalte Froholdt (ankle) and his backup Ty Clary (knee).
"You have to adjust," he said. "You have to start weighing the pros and cons, the risks and rewards of certain protection. With protection issues and things like that, when you have certain guys in there you don't want to take the risk and things like that.
"So there's a lot of adjusting that goes on, and you've got to call the game differently when you don't have all your guys for sure. It's kind of how this year has gone."
Mississippi State defensive coordinator Todd Grantham dialed up repeated blitzes against Alabama last week with mixed success. The Bulldogs sacked Jalen Hurts five times and forced a few early and errant passes. But they also were burned a few times on Hurts scrambles and gave up some key pass plays behind the blitz, including the winning 26-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith with 25 seconds left in the game.
The Razorbacks expect more blitzing on Saturday.
"If they do we invite it," Smith said. "We've got to protect our quarterback and play pitch and catch. We're not going to change what we do. We've just got to get better at what we're doing."
Froholdt said the Bulldogs broke out new pressure packages against Alabama.
"They had some that they didn't show all year," he said. "They tried to go all-out. Lucky for us, you know. It's probably something they've been hiding for a couple of weeks now and we were able to put in our protection plan and plan accordingly."
Enos said he has not faced a defense coordinated by Grantham, and the Razorbacks haven't since a 31-24 victory at Georgia in 2010. In that game, Ryan Mallett completed 21 of 33 passes for 380 yards and 3 touchdowns and the Razorbacks piled up 433 total yards and did not commit a turnover.
The Bulldogs lead the SEC with four defensive touchdowns on three interceptions and one fumble return. Mississippi State's 319 interception return yards rank No. 3 in the nation and its 14 takeaways are tied for No. 67.
NO. 16 MISSISSIPPI STATE AT ARKANSAS WHEN 11 a.m. Saturday WHERE Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville RECORDS Mississippi State 7-3, 3-3 SEC; Arkansas 4-6, 1-5 TV CBS
Sports on 11/16/2017
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