Final step the hardest for Razorbacks

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Thursday, November 17, 2022
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman runs onto the field prior to a game against LSU on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Fayetteville.
( Charlie Kaijo)
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman runs onto the field prior to a game against LSU on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — The longest yard has been the last yard before the end zone for the Arkansas Razorbacks this fall.

LSU defended that final yard late in the first quarter last week, turning away the Razorbacks on third and goal from the 1, then stopping fourth and goal from the 3 on a pair of Malik Hornsby runs.

What was likely the defining sequence of the game — won 13-10 by the Tigers — with the University of Arkansas trying to seize a 10-0 lead at the time, highlighted what has become a troubling trend.

That marked the fourth time this season the Razorbacks have come away from goal-to-go from the 1 with no points.

The Razorbacks (5-5, 2-4 SEC) will have to find a way to power in from close distances and, in a broader sense, kick start their misfiring run game to have a shot at upsetting No. 14 Ole Miss (8-2, 4-2) on Saturday night at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

“The bottom line is if you’re going to be a good offense, you’ve got to score touchdowns down there and we’re certainly trying to figure that out and work on that,” Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said Wednesday.

The health of quarterback KJ Jefferson, who had rushing touchdowns in each of the first four games but only two in his four games since, is obviously a component to the Arkansas run-game plan and its low red zone philosophy. Jefferson has practiced much more this week in his recovery from a right shoulder injury and appears on target to play against the Rebels.

Pittman said there are other factors at work — like deployment of personnel, blocking assignments and physicality — that have hindered success near the goal line.

“I think obviously we’re having edge problems, so we have tried to close the edges out,” he said. “I think we have to be willing to play-action throw the football down there.

“And certainly we have to get some knock back off the ball. We’ve got to knock them off the ball, which we’re not getting enough of those right now.”

Opposing defenses, particularly Mississippi State, shot personnel off the edges to crash in on run plays between the tackles.

“Our biggest problem early down there has been edge pressure,” Pittman said. “The other night if we pull the ball, we’ve got a walk-in and we just … and our reads have been a problem a little bit as well. So all those things in combination.”

Pittman was referring to the second down play from the LSU 2, suggesting Hornsby could have scored had he elected to keep the ball rather than hand to AJ Green at left guard.

On two occasions, the Hogs’ goal-line disappointments didn’t prove costly in the win-loss column: Raheim Sanders’ lost fumble at the 1 against Missouri State and the inability to score on four runs inside the BYU 2 late in a 52-35 win in Provo, Utah.

However, the first instance might have kept Arkansas from having to mount a furious fourth quarter rally, stoked by Sanders’ tackle-breaking 73-yard run with a shovel pass. The second instance would have allowed the Razorbacks to score on nine consecutive possessions against the Cougars in what has been their most complete offensive showing of the season with 277 rushing yards and 367 passing yards.

Arkansas’ other short goal-to-go misses have been critical. At Mississippi State, trailing 27-10 early in the third quarter, the Hogs failed to break the goal plane on four shots inside the 2, with Sanders, Dominique Johnson and Rashod Dubinion all getting carries and Hornsby throwing wide of an open Matt Landers on third down.

Last week, Green ran for 1 yard on second and goal from the 2 following his 8-yard gain on first down. Then Hornsby was stopped from the 1 and the 3 to cap the Tigers’ goal-line stand.

The in-close frustrations haven’t just been with Hornsby behind center and they don’t stop there.

Jefferson made the decision to leap from the 3 with the ball extended and the Hogs ahead of Texas A&M 14-7 in the second quarter. His lost fumble and Texas A&M’s 97-yard touchdown return was the defining play of the Aggies’ 23-21 win.

Against Liberty, trailing 21-19, the Razorbacks went with a quarterback run over the left side by Jefferson on a 2-point try from the 3, and the Flames managed to get his knee down just before he extended the ball over the goal line.

So while Arkansas has had one of the nation’s top running attacks with an average of 222.1 yards per game that ranks 12th in the country, the Hogs’ production in the shadow of their opponents’ goal posts has been wanting.

Firing up the ground game looms as a crucial element for Arkansas against Ole Miss, which ranks 72nd in the nation against the run by allowing 151 yards per game. The Razorbacks were held to 132.5 rushing yards in their past two games against Liberty and LSU after posting an average of 244.5 per game through the first eight, with a low of 187 versus Alabama.

The Liberty and LSU defenses ran interior twists to stymie the Arkansas run and executed more pressure schemes and committed secondary support into gaps, challenging the Razorbacks to beat them through the air.

‘Well, it is tough when they load the box and blitz everybody,” left tackle Luke Jones said. “But we’ve got to be better as a unit, as an O-line of going five for five together.

“It’s tough when you’re going four for five when one guy might get on the edge of a block. We’ve got to be better about this this week, of staying together as a unit, staying together five for five.”

Right tackle Dalton Wagner, speaking on the same video conference with Jones, chipped in, “Yeah, and making sure we’ve got support players on the right guys, too, through our communication, through our effort as well.

“When we’re communicating calls, we need to make sure receivers know it, running back knows it and quarterback knows it. So we can step up our communication a lot these last two games.”


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