FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas opened 2012 with a pair of Heisman Trophy hopefuls in quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis.
It had NFL-caliber pass catchers in receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg. It had other veterans like running back Dennis Johnson, guard Alvin Bailey and center Travis Swanson. So the Razorbacks were optimistic in August, believing they had the pieces to put one of the nation’s best offenses on the field even without former coach Bobby Petrino calling plays from the Arkansas sideline.
It hasn’t worked out as Arkansas (4-7, 2-5 in SEC) closes the 2012 season against No. 7 LSU (9-2, 5-2 in SEC) in Razorback Stadium on Friday.
The Razorbacks enter the final game of the season as one of the lowest-scoring teams in the SEC, averaging 24.5 points in its 11 games. Arkansas’ inability to generate points on special teams and defense have played a role in the scoring decline this fall, but the offense has shouldered plenty of responsibility as well.
Wilson said the Razorbacks can’t erase those struggles now.
But there is something they can accomplish in the season finale.
“This is it,” Wilson said. “Now, we’ve got one game left. So, why not go out there and light it up one more time? That’s how I’m looking at it.”
So Arkansas’ offense will take one final swing against an LSU defense ranked among the best in the nation. The Tigers are fifth in the NCAA in total defense (281.1 yards a game) and 12th in scoring defense (17.3 points).
It’s a stiff test for a group that hasn’t scored more than 20 points in its past three games. Or one that reached 30 only three times this season. But receiving Cobi Hamilton said Arkansas remains eager for the challenge Friday.
“It would mean a lot,” Hamilton said. “With this group of guys, this whole offense.
“We’ve seen guys like Tyler and Swanson emerge into the players they are. It would mean a lot to try to finish off with a good showcase together.”
To do so, Arkansas will have to curb the self-inflicted wounds that have damaged them all season. Penalties, blown assignments, red zone woes and turnovers have been the calling card for the offense, turning promise into frustration most weeks.
Injuries to key players like Gragg, who will miss his seventh game because of a knee injury, have played a factor in the demise. Davis’ surprising ineffectiveness has been a big part of the struggles as well. And Arkansas’ overall shakiness up front in both pass protection and the run game has contributed to the woes.
Turnovers have been even bigger killers. Wilson has thrown 12 interceptions, which includes seven in the past four games. Arkansas has fumbled 33 times, losing 14.
The five-turnover day at Mississippi State pushed Arkansas’ total to 29 entering the season finale. Only four other teams in the country (California, Houston, Western Michigan and Idaho) have committed more turnovers this season.
It has led Arkansas to its lowest scoring and total yardage averages since 2008, when Arkansas managed 21.9 points and 373.1 yards in Petrino’s first season. It has been a far cry for a group that averaged at least 36 points a game from 2009-11.
“It’s always trying,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “Especially when you see times in the game you have a great plan and it’s executing and you’re doing well. And then you kind of just self-destruct, turn the ball over.
“It’s frustrating. But it’s part of life. You get knocked down, you get up, you keep fighting. You keep throwing with both hands as hard as you can.”
Petrino, Wilson and Hamilton still see opportunities against LSU, which appears to be most vulnerable in the secondary with young players in key roles.
Ole Miss scored points on the Tigers in a nail-biting loss last Saturday, while Alabama sliced through the secondary on a game-winning drive earlier this month.
“They’ve been in some dog fights this year,” Wilson said. “It gives us an opportunity. We come in and play well. We prepare. We play emotional. We play with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, although we haven’t done that in the past few weeks.
“We do that and there’s no doubt we have a chance.”
That’s all the Arkansas offense — which had so much promise when the season began — is asking for now in the finale. One more chance to make an impression.
“That would be awesome,” Petrino said. “That would be great to go out there that last game and have everybody play real well, execute and leave the field with a great feeling.”