FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas was on the move in the second quarter last Saturday, trying to strike back after Texas A&M had taken a 13-10 lead.
Running back Knile Davis put the Razorbacks in scoring position with a season-best 28-yard run, moving the ball to the Texas A&M 19. But the junior fumbled on the next play and, although the ball was recovered, resulted in a two-yard loss.
An alignment penalty further damaged the drive, wiping out a 16-yard completion. Then quarterback Tyler Wilson threw an interception two plays later.
“You all have to be in and you’ve got to be on the same page,” Wilson said about the red zone offense. “That’s how you score when you’re down there and we haven’t done that. Haven’t done it. Is it frustrating? Absolutely.”
Defensive struggles have hogged most of the spotlight during the Razorbacks four-game losing streak, but the Arkansas offense has sputtered in the losses as well.
Red zone struggles were the glaring problem in the 58-10 loss to Texas A&M. The Razorbacks gained 515 yards and moved the ball inside the Texas A&M 20 on five different possessions, but came away with just three points.
“I’ve never lost a game in my life putting up that kind of yards and having 98 plays,” Petrino said. “You have 98 plays and 515 yards you should win. We just didn’t get it done in the critical zone. Five times. That’s 35 points. We have to get touchdowns.”
The struggles added to a three-game stretch loaded with red zone woes. Arkansas, which is last in the SEC in red zone scoring with points on just 63.2 percent of its trips (12 of 19), was 4-for-11 in losses to Alabama, Rutgers and Texas A&M. If that’s not bad enough, Arkansas has scored a touchdown only once on those 11 trips.
So Arkansas coach John L. Smith said fixing the red zone flaws are an area of emphasis as the Razorbacks (1-4, 0-2 in Southeastern Conference) prepare to play at Auburn (1-3, 0-2) on Saturday at 11 a.m.
“Believe me, we are somewhat and have been our worst enemy, you know?” Smith said. “We’ve got to realize that as coaches and as a team, and say, ‘OK, we’re going to take care of ourselves and we’re going to fix this.’ It’s our consistency and mistakes.”
The frustrating part to the Razorbacks is that it was rarely a problem in the past.
Arkansas prided itself on getting points in the red zone and put up impressive numbers to back it up. The Razorbacks scored on 86.4 percent (51 of 59) of their red zone trips under Bobby Petrino in 2011. The high mark was 95.2 percent (47 of 49) in 2009, while the low was 79.5 percent (31 of 39) in 2008.
“That’s been a big staple to what we’ve done in the past, to convert,” Wilson said. “We take pride in when we sniff it out and when we smell it to go get it.”
So what has gone wrong?
Wilson said Arkansas’ mentality in the red zone hasn’t changed under Paul Petrino’s watch this season. The Razorbacks emphasize it and started strong, going 8-for-8 with eight touchdowns to open the season before the success faded.
The first problem Arkansas has pointed to since is a run game that has struggled in short-yardage situations. The Razorbacks have not been able to lean on their line to mash opponents, create running lanes for backs and gain positive yards this season.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to win,” Petrino said last Saturday. “I’ve got to block you. I’ve got to block him. I’ve got to run through a tackle. That’s just one-on-one winning a lot of the times. That didn’t happen a couple of times (Saturday).”
Arkansas had 18 rushing yards on seven carries in the red zone last week.
“We have to take it to heart and we have to kick our offensive linemen in the tail to take it to heart that we’ve got to become better in the red zone at running the football,” Smith said.
That’s not the end of the struggles, though.
Turnovers and other self-inflicted wounds have been red zone killers. Penalties stalled drives and dropped passes kept potential points off the board. Davis lost a fumble. Wilson threw two interceptions on drives that reached the red zone.
Arkansas’ passing offense — which has been without red zone and short-yardage staple Chris Gragg since the first half of the Rutgers loss — has had a difficult time leading the way as well.
Cobi Hamilton scored the lone touchdown on a 10-yard pass from Wilson in the Rutgers loss. But Wilson was 0-for-9 on red zone passing attempts at Texas A&M.
“In the most critical situations we’re not executing,” Hamilton said. “We’re going on long drives and we’re really not finishing them. That’s stuff we’ve got to focus on more in practice and kind of just take it over to the game.”
Petrino said nothing will change with Arkansas’ preparation.
Red zone offense was a big part of its gameplan and practices leading up to Texas A&M. It will remain the same this week as Arkansas prepares to face an Auburn team that ranks sixth in the SEC in red zone defense.
The Razorbacks know the red zone struggles must end Saturday.
“It’s hard to run 98 plays and have 515 yards with just 10 points,” Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. “That’s in our minds this week. We’re coming to work, extra work, on critical zone situations this week to prevent that from happening again.”