FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman wouldn’t make any excuses for the Razorbacks’ run-game woes at Rutgers last week.
Sure, Arkansas was in a hostile environment for the first time this season. But he shrugged off any thought that it contributed to communication problems, missed assignments or mistakes among the offensive line during the 28-24 loss.
“I don’t think so,” Pittman said Sunday night. “I think they just whipped us. We’ve got to coach better, and we’ve got to play better. They got the best of us, and they were the better team. Their D-line vs. our O-line, they whipped us.”
Arkansas wants to prove the problems were a one-week snag as it prepares for Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener against Texas A&M. The Razorbacks need to get their run game back on track after turning in their worst performance of the season, rushing for 101 yards on 34 carries against the Scarlet Knight.
The output was well below the 294.3 yards Arkansas averaged in its first three games, establishing its identity as an offense that would thrive on the ground. So the Razorbacks are working to correct the flaws as they prepare for the Aggies.
“It wasn’t really just a big huge bust on plays,” Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. “It was just kind of single-handedly something here, something there. I think the good thing that we take away from it is they’re real easy mistakes to fix.”
Swanson presented a few examples of the fixes, saying there were technical mistakes like poor hand placement or bad first steps that led to trouble with blocks up front last Saturday. Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said other issues came from the Razorbacks’ inability to see some of the myriad of run blitzes Rutgers threw at them to try to slow running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.
Neither running back found much room outside of Collins’ 19-yard carry in the second half. Six of their 28 combined rushing attempts went for negative yardage.
It was a large number, considering the two had combined for just four lost-yardage rushing plays on 121 carries during Arkansas’ first three games.
“When we don’t have a good run, it’s somebody breaking down somewhere,” Chaney said about the troubles. “It’s one guy here, one guy there. And when we do everything right, it looks like it’s supposed to. There were several tight zone plays there in the third quarter and the fourth quarter that look like we knew what we were doing. And there were other times when the pressures that they gave us stunned us and we weren’t prepared to block them and we didn’t look very good.”
Collins finished with 63 yards on 16 carries, while Williams finished with 12 carries for 25 yards. It ended their streaks of three straight 100-yard rushing performances.
But Williams said it hasn’t shaken their confidence heading into SEC play.
“It was tough last week,” Williams said. “We didn’t rush for what we wanted to and we had the loss. But you can either go in a slump or you can learn from it. (Tuesday) we came out and had a great practice and we definitely learned from it.”
The ground-and-pound approach remains vital to Arkansas’ hopes of upsetting Texas A&M on Saturday.
The Aggies are averaging 50.2 points and 602.2 yards a game, moving up and down the field with little trouble so far this season. One of Arkansas’ priorities will be keeping quarterback Johnny Manziel on the sideline as much as possible.
A run game that steers the Hogs on lengthy drives is one way to accomplish it.
“The offense has a big role in that,” Arkansas guard Brey Cook said. “Whoever is on that side of the ball, the offense needs to go out there and maintain the clock. The first three games you could see that we really did that and we look forward to coming out and really just doing that again.”
There’s potential for success, too, against a Texas A&M defense that has endured its share of struggles this season. The Aggies score in bunches, but have surrendered plenty of points as well in allowing an SEC-high 30.2 points a game.
Texas A&M will come to Razorback Stadium allowing 218.2 rushing yards a game, which ranks last in the SEC and 105th in the nation.
Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said his team has to be prepared for “big boy football” once again after playing SMU’s spread offense last week. Chaney said there’s little doubt part of the plan will be stacking defenders in the box to combat Arkansas’ ground game whether Brandon Allen or A.J. Derby starts Saturday.
“I’ll look for us to have a hard box the rest of the season. I don’t necessarily think it matters who is playing quarterback,” Chaney said. “I think we’ve proven we’ve been able to run the football so I see that happening quite often.”
Arkansas’ goal is to execute much better than it did at Rutgers.
Pittman said it won’t necessarily be easy no matter how many rushing yards Texas A&M has allowed so far this season. But Arkansas’ offensive line and ground game are ready for some redemption after last week’s struggles.
“We’ve made an identity for ourselves,” Swanson said. “So we’re just going to get back to doing what we do good and obviously take the mistakes that we learned from this past game and work on them so we don’t make the same ones this week.”