FAYETTEVILLE — Fullback Kiero Small knows Arkansas can be successful on offense despite its season-long struggles.
He saw signs of it in last week’s loss at Auburn. The Razorbacks got good production on the ground, made a few plays through the air and moved the chains against the Tigers. But then there were the issues that resulted in missed opportunities.
“We can’t step on our own feet,” Small said. “Of course, the defense does their part by stopping us. But when we get down there we’ve got to find a way to punch it in.”
Arkansas (3-6, 0-5 in SEC) is hoping that will happen again and again when it plays Ole Miss (5-3, 2-3 in SEC) in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss.
The Razorbacks are trying to snap a six-game slide and understand it must be more productive on offense than in the 35-17 loss to Auburn.
Arkansas did show important signs of progress after being shut out over seven quarters entering the game, but turnovers, penalties and other mistakes still held the Razorbacks under the 20-point mark for the fourth straight game.
Most of those issues came in the first half, when Arkansas reached the Auburn red zone three times and only came away with three points. The most critical came on a goal line stand late in the half, when the Razorbacks had four plays to punch it in from the Auburn 4-yard line — including two plays from the one — but failed.
“It doesn’t really matter how you get it down there, how good you move it,” Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. “The thing is, if you don’t capitalize on it, it means nothing. That’s the scenario this last game we had. We moved it great but on those times we needed to capitalize we couldn’t for some reason.”
Arkansas ranked last in the SEC and 107th in the nation in scoring (20 points a game) because of its struggles to finish drives. Ole Miss, meanwhile, is seventh in the SEC and 45th in the NCAA (32.5 points a game).
The Razorbacks’ struggles started early in the Auburn loss, when a promising drive ended with backup quarterback A.J. Derby’s interception in the red zone. But Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said the turnover wasn’t the only issue.
He highlighted other plays for his team that should’ve resulted in a touchdown before the turnover, including Brandon Allen’s 41-yard pass to Javontee Herndon.
“We had the drop in the end zone for the touchdown, and a play two or three plays later than that we had a draw play where we didn’t block the corner and if block the corner we might have scored on that,” Chaney said. “Then a direct (snap) to (Alex Collins) later on in that same drive that there was nobody over there and we mis-blocked on the defensive end or we could have scored on that. So three plays we feel like we had an opportunity to score on on the first drive prior to the interception.”
It has been that type of season for the Razorbacks, who are dangerously close to missing out on postseason play for the second straight season.
Arkansas must win today’s game to remain bowl eligible this season. A loss would knock the Razorbacks out of postseason play for the second straight year, which would be its first back-to-back absence since 2004-05.
The Razorbacks also hoping to avoid another historical low as well. Arkansas would tie a school record with seven consecutive losses if it falls to Ole Miss today. It has happened two other times in school history: Arkansas lost seven straight in 1990 and six straight to end the 1952 season and the 1953 season opener.
But Arkansas coach Bret Bielema was optimistic that the struggles will end soon.
“It’s a work in progress but I do feel closer this week,” Bielema said after Thursday’s practice. “I don’t know when it’s going to come — I sure would like it to happen (today) — but it’s getting ready to pop.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze hopes it won’t happen against his team, though, as his team tries to become bowl eligible for the second straight season.
Freeze knows Arkansas has struggled, but said earlier this week the potential is clear for an offense that can be frustrating to opponents.
“If they ever convert drives, they would be very, very dangerous, because they control the time of possession, and they run the ball extremely well,” Freeze said this week. “They have two of the finer running backs that we’ve seen, and again, just for whatever reasons have not finished drives the amount of times they’ve had chances to. And if they ever did that, it would be a very, very scary game.
“We sense that in this building. Hopefully our kids will sense that and know it’s another SEC battle that’s going to take place (today) and will be a very difficult task.”
Arkansas, which lost every conference game by 12 points or more this season, wants to turn the corner and snap its lengthy losing streak.
Swanson and the Razorbacks are confident it will happen if they finish drives.
“The biggest thing is just as an offense is capitalizing at those critical moments,” Swanson said. “If you do that, I think we’re going to be where we want to be.”