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.
Saban sees uptick from Hogs’ offense
Arkansas players, including quarterback Ty Storey (4) and wide receiver Mike Woods (8) celebrate after a touchdown pass to Woods in the fourth quarter of a game against Texas A&M on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, during the Southwest Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The numbers don't stack up well for the University of Arkansas' offense this weekend.
The Razorbacks and their 108th-ranked offense must look for ways to pile up first downs, stay on the field and score against a unit for No. 1 Alabama that ranks 23rd in total defense with 317.6 yards allowed per game and fifth in points allowed at 13.0 per game.
Arkansas Coach Chad Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock stayed at the Fred Smith Football Complex all night Sunday breaking down the issues that have led to 29.3 percent third-down conversions -- which ranks 124th among 130 FBS teams -- namely poor results on first downs.
"As a play-caller, it's hard to stay on schedule when you're always behind the chains," Morris said. "We were forced into too many third and longs. We have not been effective on third down offensively this year. But when you have seven third-and-7 plus, which we consider third-and-longs, you have to look at what caused it."
Morris said the Razorbacks had 22 first-down plays in last week's 24-17 loss to Texas A&M. On 16 of them, Arkansas wound up in second and long or worse.
"Whether that be a penalty, whether that be a tackle for loss, whether that be a zero-yard gain ... you're immediately on second down behind the sticks, so we've got to do a better job of that in all areas," Morris said.
"The D-linemen in this league are the best in the country, so you get in third and long, they're teeing off on us a little bit," tight end Austin Cantrell said. "It's hard to control these guys when they know we're going to pass the ball. We just have to do better on first and second down and that'll help our offense. Third and 1 is a lot better and opens up a lot more options."
Craddock said breaking down the first- and second-down calls that led to third and long proved productive.
"I'm not going to sit up here and make excuses and talk bad about our team or anything like that," Craddock said. "But we've got to do certain things better. We've got to sustain the holes. We've got to do a better job of gaining positive yards on first and second down."
Texas A&M had the nation's fifth-ranked third-down defense. Alabama ranks seventh in that category, allowing a 26 percent conversion rate.
"I feel great about our third-down plan going into every game," Morris said, "but we've got to go execute. The big thing is let's not get in third downs. That's our big message. Let's not get in third downs."
Said quarterback Ty Storey: "I know we're really focusing on that, and we've got to figure out ways to move the ball.
"I think we're a really confident team. We know we've just got to get back to the basics and keep doing what we're doing, and do it a little bit better every single day. Keep working."
Due to larger than normal personnel losses, particularly in the back eight, the Razorbacks are not facing the normal dominating Alabama defense, which runs a base 3-4 front under 12th-year Coach Nick Saban.
Still, the Crimson Tide are unbeaten (5-0) and showing defensive improvement each week under first-year coordinator Tosh Lupoi.
"I don't want to disclose too much about what we're thinking in terms of what gives them trouble, but they're a 'do what they do' defense," Craddock said. "I know they've switched coordinators a lot the past couple of years and all that, but Coach Saban is still there. He's still heavily involved in what they do on the defensive side of the football."
Storey has improved his completion percentage since being installed as the starter for the SEC opener at Auburn. Storey completed 13 of 31 passes (42 percent) for 141 yards in the 34-3 loss to Auburn. Last week, he went 14 of 26 (53.8 percent) for 193 yards, with 1 touchdown and 1 interception against Texas A&M.
Saban was complimentary about the Razorbacks' offensive direction Wednesday.
"I think they've gotten better and better," Saban said. "I think this is one of the most improved teams from the beginning of the season until now.
"I think when you're new as a staff, it might take the players a little longer to sort of get a handle on things in terms of how they have to execute, but I think Ty has done a really good job.
"He's made a lot of very positive plays. He's been an effective passer. He can make plays with his feet, does some scrambling that has helped them and done a really good job of executing their offense. They've got some other good players around him, and I think they're really starting to play well. They did a nice job against A&M last week, which we think had a pretty good defense."
Arkansas made offensive strides last week, but the Razorbacks are still giving up too many sacks and pressures. They've also been inconsistent in the running game and are completing 51 percent of their passes to rank 121st in the country.
Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik, a defensive specialist who does analysis for ESPN, listed turnovers and sacks as two key issues that have impeded the Hogs.
"They've given up 14 sacks right now, and that's 13th in the league," Chizik said after his talk to the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club. "Ty Storey in the Auburn game, I bet you I counted eight to 10 times he was on the ground in the first half. That didn't necessarily turn into a sack. What that turns into is as the game unfolds, it turns into a beatdown.
"So there's pressure issues there with the quarterback. Sometimes there's accuracy issues. There's definitely turnover issues. But it's everything. You can't pin it on one thing. The whole offense collectively needs to be more in sync. That's what I see."
The Razorbacks have not scored in the first quarter of their past three games and fell behind by double digits early in losses to North Texas, Auburn and Texas A&M.
"The key ... would just be coming out fast, coming out strong, believing you can do it, executing," senior tackle Brian Wallace said.
Storey said executing the game plan is the key to offensive success against Alabama.
"I think coach Craddock and Coach Morris do a good job of game-planning," he said. "I think they're putting in new stuff, new wrinkles that are definitely going to help us. We've just got to go execute it. Simple as that."
NO. 1 ALABAMA AT ARKANSAS
WHEN 11 a.m.
WHERE Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
Sports on 10/04/2018
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