Lit­tle things turn into big buga­boos

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - TOM MUR­PHY

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 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.”

NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE

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.

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