Bob Holt is a sports reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he sits on the board of directors for the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. He has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year four times and has been inducted to the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.
Razorbacks fail on first down, third down, any down
Arkansas offensive linemen Ty'kieast Crawford (53) and Brady Latham (62) walk off the field after a failed third down during a game against Auburn on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — When the University of Arkansas faced third and 9 from its 20 on its third offensive play of Saturday’s game against Auburn, the Razorbacks failed to convert.
KJ Jefferson connected with Tyrone Broden, but for only a 6-yard gain. That set up fourth and 3 and a punt by Max Fletcher.
For the Razorbacks, it was a sign of things to come.
Third down was a problem for the Arkansas offense the entire game as the Tigers forced eight punts and won 48-10.
Arkansas finished 1 of 12 on third-down conversions (8.3%) after coming into the game with a 40.6% conversion rate (54 of 133).
In the Razorbacks’ 39-36 overtime victory at Florida last week, they were 8 of 18 on third-down conversions.
So what happened against Auburn? Coming into the game the Tigers ranked third in the SEC and 17th nationally in third-down defense, but opponents still had converted at a 31.2% rate.
“Third and long,” Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said of what plagued his team’s offense. “It always seemed like we couldn’t win first down at all.
“Third and long was a problem for us.”
The Razorbacks had an average of 9.6 yards to go on third down.
“It’s hard to convert on third down when it’s always third-and-long,” said Arkansas senior receiver Issac TeSlaa, who had three catches for 32 yards. “We struggled a lot on first and second down setting ourselves up for short yardage on third down.”
Arkansas averaged 4.4 yards on 22 first-down plays, which doesn’t sound bad.
But take away Jefferson’s 35-yard pass to Isaiah Sategna in the third quarter and the Razorbacks averaged 2.7 yards on their other 21 first-down plays.
Arkansas gained a combined 20 yards on its first 13 first-down plays.
Running back Raheim Sanders, who rushed for 103 yards at Florida, had carries for 1 yard each on the Razorbacks’ first two first-down plays Saturday.
“We tried several different things,” Pittman said of Arkansas’ third-down offense. “Empty [backfield], six-man protection, rolling out, nakeds, running it.
“They were just more physical than us and really dominated us.”
Jefferson twice was sacked on first down for losses of 11 yards.
Arkansas’ lone third-down conversion came on Jefferson’s 31-yard pass to Andrew Armstrong in the second quarter that gave the Razorbacks a first down at the Auburn 49.
But the drive stalled at the Auburn 46 when Jefferson threw an incompletion on third and 7 and Fletcher again was called in to punt.
The constant third-and-long situations made it tough on Arkansas interim offensive coordinator Kenny Guiton, who moved from receivers coach to play-caller at Florida after Dan Enos was fired.
“It’s really hard,” Pittman said of calling plays. “You try to concentrate on first and second down and stay out of that long stuff.
“And then you’re going, who are your playmakers? We’ve got to get them the ball. Who are they?
“Who can we go to, to get the ball and get the first down or get open?
“Who can we count on to protect?”
Jefferson was sacked four times for 35 yards in losses and backup quarterback Jacolby Criswell was sacked once for an 11-yard loss.
“Obviously if you’re not doing a great job of protection, you don’t have as much time to get open and then you’ve got to think about moving the pocket,” Pittman said. “Moving the pocket is good, but not if it’s for more than 5 or 6 yards.
“When it starts getting a little deeper than that, you have a little bit more difficulty of success.”
Auburn’s offense found success on third down, going 7 of 12 on conversions.
“We were 7 of 12 on third down, which was huge,” Tigers Coach Hugh Freeze said. “They were 1 of 12. That tells a big story there.”
Auburn gained 273 yards on 38 first-down plays — a 7.3-yard average.
The Tigers rushed 26 times for 183 yards on first down and quarterback Payton Thorne completed 9 of 12 passes for 95 yards.
“We lost first down all day on defense,” Pittman said. “I mean, all day.
“It seemed like second and 3, second and 2, second and 4 all day.
“We couldn’t win first down, and they should have pretty good success on third down because they were ahead of the chains it seemed to me like most all of the game.”
The Razorbacks conversely found themselves constantly behind the chains.
It started on Arkansas’ first offensive series and never stopped.
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