Arkansas' run defense needs a reboot


FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash believed his group had a good week of preparation for Texas A&M.

The Razorbacks knew the challenge they were facing Saturday against quarterback Johnny Manziel. They realized how much of a threat he posed because of his strong arm and scrambling abilities. They knew how they were going to defend him.

In the end, Arkansas managed to hold the Aggies below their season average in points and yards during the 45-33 loss in Razorback Stadium. But the defensive performance didn’t sit well with Ash as he looked back at it earlier this week.

“If they got a lot of yards and we played to our potential, then I would accept that,” Ash said. “But we didn’t play to our potential. We made a lot of mistakes. Arkansas beat Arkansas Saturday night. I’m not taking anything away from A&M. A&M’s a great team, Manziel’s a great quarterback. They’ve got a lot of weapons and they executed. We just didn’t play the way I was expecting us to play.”

Ash is hoping his group will make up for what he perceived as a step back Saturday night, when the Razorbacks (3-2, 0-1 in Southeastern Conference) play at No. 18 Florida (3-1, 2-0 in SEC) on Saturday night. Especially its rushing defense, which was gashed by Texas A&M’s ground game again and again in the loss.

Manziel wasn’t the player who punished the Razorbacks in the second half. The Aggies kept the ball on the ground for 29 of their 36 plays, watching running backs find ample room through Arkansas’ front seven.

Texas A&M rushed for 150 yards in the second half. It was more than Arkansas had allowed in a game this season. The Aggies finished with 262 rushing yards, which was the most Arkansas had allowed since a 286-yard performance by LSU in 2011.

Bielema was asked Saturday if Texas A&M’s ground success was his biggest disappointment after the loss. His response: “100 percent.” It’s a problem the Razorbacks know they’ll have to fix if they intend to end the two-game losing streak.

“It’s been a big motivation because we felt like our defense was tested last week and we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to get accomplished,” Arkansas linebacker Braylon Mitchell said. “We let them rush for more yards than what we wanted.”

Bielema said the problem came when players failed to carry out their assignments Saturday, jumping out of gaps. It helped Texas A&M average six yards a carry.

“I’ve studied and coached defense my entire life,” Bielema said. “If one guy gets out of the hole that he’s supposed to be in, they all find it. They all find that hole.

“There were times on Saturday night where we’re lined up and we could see from the sideline the guy wasn’t getting in the right gap or didn’t have the right alignment, and I’ll be danged if they didn’t hit that hole.”

The fundamental mistakes were particularly frustrating to Ash, who said his team was not surprised by anything Texas A&M did with its ground game.

It had nothing to do with them. It had everything to do with us,” Ash said. “We repped all those plays multiple times throughout the week and we were good. We either didn’t align right, didn’t fit right or had poor tackling that led to some of the plays there. I’ll give A&M credit. They were able to run the ball effectively, but it was more about our mishaps than it was necessarily what they did.”

Florida is more than capable of taking advantage of mistakes Saturday.

In fact, the Gators want to run. Florida is 36th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 211.2 yards a game. The Gators have become more potent lately with top running back Matt Jones rounding into form after being limited earlier this season.

Jones — who missed the majority of preseason camp and the season opener because of a viral infection — is averaging 90.7 rushing yards a game. He piled up 176 yards last week at Kentucky, leading the Gators to a 24-7 win. It included a 67-yard run.

“There’s no question I was very pleased with Matt’s performance,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said Wednesday. “A lot of that goes to the offensive line. We got a hat on a hat in the run game, did a really nice job. For us to be successful we need to have a guy, or guys, be able to make some big plays … to hit some big runs for us.”

The Aggies did their run game damage out of a spread offense last Saturday. Mitchell believes Arkansas was caught paying too much attention to Manziel, which is why the Aggies had success over and over against the Razorbacks.

Florida wants to do the same, but with a more physical style.

So safety Rohan Gaines said the Razorbacks must be prepared and tackle well.

“We have to be more aggressive,” Arkansas safety Rohan Gaines said. “That’s just something coach Ash has been preaching all week. We have to be more aggressive because they are a more downhill team. That’s kind of what we want. Come at us.”

The Gators will try after the Razorbacks surrendered 262 yards on the ground last week. Gaines said Arkansas is confident it will have better results.

“It’s something that we know shouldn’t have happened,” Gaines said. “We’ve got to go out and transfer what we do at practice to the game field. And we just have to get better. Once we do that, we’ll be fine. It won’t be another 260-yard rushing day.”