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.
Razorbacks happy to pass while run game evolves
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) hands to running back Raheim Sanders during a game Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Little Rock.
FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas passing game and the Hogs’ scoring ability worked in tandem in the season opener.
The Razorbacks are ranked ninth nationally in both team passing efficiency and scoring offense after KJ Jefferson and Jacolby Criswell combined to go 20 of 25 for 274 yards and 4 touchdowns with no interceptions in a 56-13 whipping of Western Carolina last Saturday.
It’s the Razorbacks’ running game that was lacking steam on a hot afternoon at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium, and now they’re hoping for more in this week’s campus opener against Kent State at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Coach Sam Pittman said offensive coordinator Dan Enos could have kept the ball in the air against a Western Carolina defense that was cheating its safeties down in an effort to clog the run game. The aim was to make Jefferson and a largely new batch of receivers be in sync in order to beat them, and the Razorbacks did just that.
The Hogs’ 224.86 passing efficiency, a rating that uses completion percentage, yards per pass and touchdown-to-interception ratio, is second in the SEC behind only Ole Miss’ 226.37.
However, Pittman and Enos said their run game will have to play a big role when the schedule toughens.
Pittman was asked Wednesday about the balance between forcing the issue against a stacked box to work on the running game versus just taking all the air lanes left vulnerable.
“To answer your question, I don’t care if we run it at all if we score as often and as fast as we were throwing the football,” Pittman said. “But at some point in there I want to be able to turn around and be more physical, strain more than what we did.
“And I know if a safety makes a play, he makes a play. But I think I was more frustrated after the game than I was after I watched the tape to be honest with you.”
Lead tailback Raheim “Rocket” Sanders was limited to 42 yards on 15 carries while scoring twice, and he suffered a left knee injury that is still undergoing evaluation. Eight of his carries went for 2 yards or less, including losses of 11 and 1 yards, and a 1-yard touchdown run on the final play of the first half.
The rest of the team combined for 21 rushes for 63 yards, a pedestrian 3.0 yards per carry for a team that averaged 236.7 rushing yards per game and snapped off multiple explosive runs in virtually every game in 2022.
Against the Catamounts, the Razorbacks accumulated a smattering of 7-, 8- and 9-yard runs by AJ Green, Rashod Dubinion, Dominique Johnson and Isaiah Augustave, but they had just two over 10 yards: A 14-yard burst by Sanders and Jefferson’s 17-yard touchdown.
Pittman groused about the lack of big run plays at halftime and during the postgame, but his attitude has softened a little since watching video of the game.
“Well, I was just frustrated really in the run game, simply because we didn’t have any explosive runs,” he said on Wednesday’s SEC coaches teleconference. “I think we had a couple. But I just felt like we could’ve been more efficient running the ball.”
Pittman said the Razorbacks’ offensive linemen did not take full advantage of some of their double-teams and their pull plays, and he indicated he and position coach Cody Kennedy would emphasize some technique points this week.
“Definitely, no matter what, offensive line is a technical position,” junior guard Josh Braun said. “It’s something we’re going to be focusing on every week no matter what the product on Saturday is.
“You need to hit technique every day or before you know it, you lose it. So it’s just going into every practice not falling for the monotony of technique work. And so it’s just something we focus on every day and need to get better at day-in and day-out.”
The run-game production could be enlivened by the return of fifth-year senior guard Brady Latham, who was back at practice in his regular jersey Tuesday. Latham’s presence at left guard will allow Braun and Ty’Kieast Crawford to share playing time at right guard.
Meanwhile, Jefferson has rallied the passing game with an almost brand-new set of targets, much as he did last season. Transfers Andrew Armstrong and Isaac TeSlaa and freshmen Luke Hasz and Davion Dozier joined with holdovers Jaedon Wilson and Isaiah Sategna to lead the pass catchers in the opener.
The Razorbacks not only had just five incompletions, they also had no drops and hauled in a couple of tough catches.
“We did have a total of zero drops on Saturday, which we were extremely happy with,” TeSlaa said. “We’ve had drops here and there in practice obviously, but I felt like when we got to the game it was time to execute and everyone was locked in and making sure it was eyes on the ball to the hands. So obviously we were focused on it and it was cool to see everyone execute at a high level.”
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