FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas offensive tackle David Hurd knew his exact mistake as soon as the play ended last Saturday.
The senior said the Florida linebacker was his responsibility. But he didn’t get it done. So quarterback Brandon Allen hit the turf with a thud.
“I was just like, what did I just do?’” Hurd said. “He got up kind of slow on that and I was like, ‘And I just ruined our quarterback probably on that one.’ So I got nervous.”
Hurd wasn’t alone last week. Arkansas’ offensive line and tight ends — as well as the rest of the offense and coaching staff — must have felt the same as they watched Allen hit the turf again and again in the Razorbacks’ 30-10 loss to the Gators.
Arkansas endured plenty passing game struggles at Florida, which played a role in the Razorbacks’ third straight loss. There were a rash of dropped balls by receivers and plenty of poorly thrown passes by Allen. But Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman said the beating the quarterback took was most concerning.
Pittman counted eight times the sophomore was hit in the loss. So it’s no surprise protecting Allen is paramount as the Razorbacks (3-3, 0-2 in Southeastern Conference) prepare to play 14th-ranked South Carolina (4-1, 2-1 in SEC), which brings a fast, physical and aggressive defense to Fayetteville.
“Any time you can start your season with your starting quarterback and end with him you’ve done a nice job,” Pittman said Sunday night. “But we can’t continue to do what we did last (Saturday) night or we’re going to play somebody else. Because he won’t be able to stand up to that. I don’t think anybody would.”
Pittman broke down the eight blows even more Tuesday. He said four of them were the result of missed assignments by linemen, which allowed players to run free and get a shot on Allen. Four more were the result of linemen simply being beaten.
One blind side hit on a cornerback blitz forced a fumble recovered by the Gators in the first half. Another made Allen leave the field for a few snaps in the second half after having his throwing hand stepped on by Florida’s Dante Fowler.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said each one was taxing for his quarterback.
“I think as the game wore on, B.A., because he was getting hit so much, he got a little gun-shy, which caused some of those throws to be a little bit off,” Bielema said of Allen, who also made his own mistake earlier in the game by throwing an interception returned for a touchdown to give Florida the lead.
“That’s human nature. We’ve got to let him know we’re going to stand in there and protect him and he’s not going to take those unnecessary hits.”
It wasn’t a problem through five games. In fact, the quarterback was barely touched by Texas A&M during his first game back from a shoulder injury two weeks ago.
Allen and backup AJ Derby had been sacked just three times in five games before last Saturday, when the Gators recorded two on Arkansas’ 43 pass plays.
Pittman said the Gators’ “twist game” up front created some of the headaches. The five offensive line starters — Hurd, Brey Cook, Travis Swanson, Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland — also agreed after Tuesday’s practice that miscommunication led to the rest of the pass protection woes against Florida. They plan to have those issues ironed out before the home game against South Carolina.
“Obviously that was our first SEC road environment and it was a lot louder than anything we’ve been in this year,” said Arkansas center Travis Swanson, who left the game in the second half because of a knee injury. “I think some communication at certain points kind of failed and that’s been a big emphasis this week so far.”
So has the passing game in general. Arkansas’ offense will continue to rely on the success of its ground game, but the Razorbacks have devoted more time to improving its ability to throw the ball this week.
Arkansas is averaging 175.3 passing yards a game and the two quarterbacks have combined to complete just 50.6 percent of their passes. Allen is at 49.6 percent.
Bielema said one surefire way to improve is by not becoming a one-dimensional offense. Arkansas was forced to throw the ball on 23 of 26 plays in the fourth quarter, trying to come from behind after falling behind by 20 points.
“I thought we put our guys in some situations that were very difficult to win from,” Bielema said in reference to the passing offense. “But we put ourselves there when we got down by that last score. I think when we were within that two-score game we could have stuck with our run game and play-action pass game a little longer.”
Arkansas couldn’t and its passing problems became apparent. Bielema said protection from the offensive line, accuracy from the quarterback and clean catches from receivers must become the norm for the offense after a rough week.
“We went down there well prepared,” Arkansas tight end Austin Tate said. “We just didn’t follow through with our execution. We were there to win it, but obviously things didn’t go our way. Not everything is going to go your way. Whenever you get punched in the face you have to shake it off, stand back up and go back to doing what you are doing. We didn’t do that too well so we got beat.”
Allen took a beating as a result.
The quarterback said his fingers were fine Tuesday. His shoulder — which he injured against Southern Miss on Sept. 14 — wasn’t affected by the hits.
That didn’t make it any easier for Arkansas’ offensive line as they try to make sure it doesn’t happen again against South Carolina.
“That definitely hurts as an offensive lineman to see that happen regardless of whether it’s because you got beat, because of communication,” Cook said.
“It happens, but it’s something we definitely want to prevent.”