Tom Murphy is a sports 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. He was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Executing game plan paramount for Hogs' offense
Arkansas interim offensive coordinator Kenny Guiton walks around the field, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, during warmups before a game against Florida at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla.
FAYETTEVILLE — Kenny Guiton mania lasted one week for the Arkansas offense.
After racking Florida for a season-best 481 yards, 226 rushing yards and 23 first downs in a 39-36 overtime win in Guiton’s debut as coordinator and play-caller, the Razorbacks returned to their previous sluggish form with 255 total yards and 10 first downs in a 48-10 home loss to Auburn.
In Game 3 with the restructured offense against Florida International on Saturday, the Razorbacks hope to rediscover the flash and promise they exhibited at The Swamp, with their star talent KJ Jefferson and Raheim Sanders enjoying a blast from their past.
Because they were operating behind the chains virtually all game, not netting a first down until a fourth-down conversion in the second quarter, the Razorbacks could not dictate play with their tempo attack and put pressure on the Auburn defense. Defenders for the Tigers beat blocks or shot through gaps, putting Jefferson’s run-pass option reads under duress and applying almost instant pressure in the pass game.
Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said he thinks the Razorbacks can crank it back up under Guiton.
“Oh yeah, I believe in Kenny,” Pittman said. “Certainly the execution of it wasn’t what it was against Florida. To me, it wasn’t the play-caller. He was trying to keep Auburn off balance and things of that nature.”
Arkansas guard Josh Braun said the offense understood there was no guarantee their success against Florida would carry over.
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“I would say there are a lot of factors, but ultimately it just comes down to personally how we execute the game plan,” Braun said. “College football, one week does not mean anything for the next week or the week before. Even though we had success against Florida and we won the game, there were things that we didn’t do well in that game [against Auburn] that we unfortunately weren’t able to correct.”
Receiver Andrew Armstrong noted Auburn had the advantage of seeing the faster tempo and other changes from the Florida film.
“I mean, I know there were going to be some bumps and bruises for that game to start off because last game, Coach Guiton, it was his first game, so they probably weren’t going to know a lot of what we were going to do,” Armstrong said. “So this [Auburn] game, I’m pretty sure they watch film and things like that. We had a great game plan going in, it’s just we didn’t execute as a team.”
Jefferson accounted for 347 total yards and 3 touchdowns at Florida, while Sanders rushed for a season-best 103 yards and 117 all-purpose yards against the Gators.
In the step back against Auburn, Jefferson had 166 total yards and no touchdowns, while Sanders had eight carries for no yards.
Still, Florida International Coach Mike MacIntyre said he is well aware of the All-SEC level of performances from the Razorbacks’ big duo in 2022 and their level of capability.
“KJ Jefferson is bigger than some of our offensive linemen,” MacIntyre said of the 6-3, 247-pounder. “He’s powerful, he can run, he has a very strong arm. He’s played good football there for a while now. … I knew about him when I was coaching at Ole Miss. He’s a heck of a player.”
MacIntyre referred to the 6-2, 242-pound Sanders as an all-SEC player.
“He’s bigger than a lot of our D-linemen, too,” MacIntyre said. “He’s big, powerful, strong. They’re a physical, powerful football team. Their offensive line is huge. They’ve got tall, powerful wide receivers. So it’s going to be a tough contest.”
Against Auburn, the Razorback coaches got their longest look at reserve quarterback Jacolby Criswell, the 6-1 Morrilton High School product who had not come off the bench since the season-opener. Criswell had a 60-yard run that set up his 11-yard touchdown pass to Isaac TeSlaa for the Hogs’ only touchdown.
“I really think he gave us a spark and man he looked fast,” Pittman said. “He’s played two games and thrown touchdowns in both games. I’m really excited about him and our future.”
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Pittman said the Razorbacks aren’t planning anything drastic at quarterback, but added Criswell has “earned the right to get on the field.”
Jefferson will enter last Saturday’s game needing one touchdown pass to break his tie at 64 with Brandon Allen for the UA career passing record and with 7,722 passing yards, is 43 yards shy of Tyler Wilson’s Arkansas record of 7,765.
Pittman said the offensive line has taken heat, but the entire offensive unit has shown flaws.
“We just physically … we got whipped. At every spot,” Pittman said. “When you say that, a lot of people think you’re talking about the offensive line and that’s not … we didn’t make anybody miss, YAC [yards after catch] yards, a lot of things.
“But Kenny, obviously I talk to him every day, but then I have a personal one-on-one meeting with him every week. He knows exactly what’s going on there and he’s doing a wonderful job. His approach this week is, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go win’ and to give us a game plan to be able to do that.
“And I feel like he’s done a wonderful job along with his offensive staff over there of getting a fine game plan ready for FIU.”
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