Little things turn into big bugaboos
FAYETTEVILLE — The more a football team struggles with a troubling facet of the game, the more that issue can evolve into an obsession that gnaws at the psyche.
There’s no gauge to measure how much the Arkansas Razorbacks’ offense is hung up on two very specific areas of trouble, but until coordinator Dan Enos and his unit gets them fixed, they hang like an albatross.
The Razorbacks have not scored in the second halves of their past three games against Power 5 competition. That’s 17 series and 96 plays over the course of 90 minutes in losses against Missouri, Virginia Tech and TCU. Arkansas has been outscored 70-0 in the second halves of those games after outscoring those teams 55-21 in the first halves.
On five of those 17 series, the Razorbacks have had the ball inside their opponents’ 10, but came away with no points.
Which leads into the second issue.
The Razorbacks have also run into a roadblock when it comes to completing promising drives that have reached
deep into their opponent’s territory, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the first or second half.
On their past seven possessions that have gone inside the 10-yard line — not counting games against FCS competition the Razorbacks have scored 2 touchdowns, thrown 2 interceptions, missed 2 field goals, and lost 1 possession on downs at the end of the 28-24 loss at Missouri.
Allen was asked Thursday if the red-zone woes have gotten in the Razorbacks’ heads.
“No, they just had some good plays where they brought a safety down, plugged a guy,” Allen said, speaking specifically of a series in which Arkansas reached first and goal at the TCU 3 and managed 1 yard on the next three snaps before missing a field goal.
“We’ve got to make that extra yard. Football is a game of inches and you see it. We’re on the 1-yard line right there, a one-score game. We’ve got to get in there.”
Enos said a missed assignment burned one play near the end zone against TCU.
“The second run, I put it on structure, which is my fault,” he said. “The call, it should have had the ability to bring in one of the receivers to block the edge blitz.
“So really the numbers of people [in the box] didn’t hurt us so much as just those two things I just mentioned, and then on the third-down call we had a guy open in the end zone and he lost track of where he was.”
Indeed, on the second play of the fourth quarter against TCU, Allen found tight end Austin Cantrell crossing at the back of the end zone and put the ball on him. Cantrell had stepped on the back line and out of bounds before catching the pass.
Whether it has been runs to David Williams or Devwah Whaley, or passes for Cantrell or any other receivers, the last couple of yards have been hard to come by for a Razorbacks offense that has been good enough to drive into scoring range against all those opponents.
All kind of factors have prevented the Razorbacks from either scoring in the second halves against Power 5 opponents or punching in drives deep in the red zone.
Missed assignments, missed reads, bad decisions, bad luck and lack of spatial awareness have all played a role. Add it all up and it seems the Razorbacks can’t get out of their own way at game-winning time.
“Our lack of production in the second half offensively, it’s something that’s very real that we’ve got to be in tune with and have a plan,” Coach Bret Bielema said this week. “I felt very good with where we were at, but obviously when it came time to convert in the third and fourth quarter, we didn’t do it. So that’s there.
“If there’s something that needs attention, we need to respond to it. And it’s me as a coach working with another coach or myself dealing with a player, or if it means another player getting an opportunity because another one hasn’t done it.”
The second-half scoring bugaboo was a huge point of emphasis for the Razorbacks during the off season, but the issue will be approaching a 10-month anniversary when Arkansas suits up again vs. Texas A&M on Sept. 23.
“The TCU game is a little bit different than the other two games,” Bielema said. “We had massive production in the first half [against Missouri and Virginia Tech] and didn’t in the second half. It’s a little bit different. We learned from ’16. … We’ve moved forward.”
Allen said he cannot point to one factor that has led to poor offensive production in the second halves.
“I mean it’s a collective team effort,” he said. “We’ve got to put the ball in the end zone as an offense.
“That’s our job. Get first downs. We can’t kill ourselves on third downs. We have to get those third and 3s and third and 4s and punch it in on the goal line. We were right there knocking three times, just right there and couldn’t do it. So it’s something we’ve been working on and something we’ll get better at.”
Because Bielema wants his teams to wear down opponents and be physically superior at the end of games, the struggle to close out drives in the second halves of games has been perplexing and frustrating.
“A lot of it isn’t so much physicality as being able to strain a little bit longer,” Bielema said. “I think the part that jumps out is there was a couple of plays on Saturday where our guys were on the right guys and if they had held it maybe just a little bit longer the play might have actually been a touchdown rather than a 10yard run.
“The difference is so little, but it’s just learning the type of play that you have to maintain until that whistle blows dead at at this level. It’s the biggest obstacle that I think every player that comes in this league has to learn to overcome is what the SEC strain is all about.”
Enos did not dodge a question about the recent second-half shutouts.
“In the Missouri game, we got inside the red zone three times and got no points,” he said. “In the Virginia Tech game, I think we had the ball on the 6-inch line and fumbled the ball out of the back of the end zone, and in the TCU game we got down there twice and didn’t get any points and just fell apart.
“If there was just one thing I could pinpoint I would do it. This is my third season here and I know we’ve scored a lot of points in the second half and overtime games. Every game is really different in my opinion and we’ve just got to keep doing what we do, keep coaching and keep playing hard. I think things will take care of themselves.”
Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos is studying ways to solve the Razorbacks’ recent inability to score in the second half against FBS competition, as well as the team’s overall struggles within the red zone.