Razorbacks more a work in progress than originally anticipated

Photo: Courtesy, ArkansasRazorbacks.com

It’s better to make corrections after winning than it is after losing, and you better believe the Arkansas Razorbacks are already waist deep in making corrections from their 21-20 victory over Louisiana Tech last Saturday.

Last week I had trouble believing the 26-point spread odds makers had established for the football game. Going into the game, I honestly did not believe the Hogs would cover, but I also didn’t think there was any possibility that the Razorbacks would need a late fourth-quarter drive to pull out a tenuous 1-point victory.

During the spring, summer and preseason, the vibes had been so good from fourth-year head coach Bret Bielema, his staff and the players that I assumed the Razorbacks were further down the path than what their play showed last Saturday.

Clearly the program has not matured enough to absorb the loss of offensive talent that it did last year and come out of the gates firing on all cylinders.

There had been so much concentration by the media in the preseason on who the second-team quarterback would be that I assumed Austin Allen’s growing pains, as a starting quarterback would be minimal and that they would likely come against stouter opponents than Louisiana Tech. When Bielema deadpanned to the media about wanting more questions about Allen, it should have been a clue.

Despite the warning signs, I assumed the offensive line would react better to the live bullets being fired than they did on Saturday. When Bielema continually pointed out in the preseason how many practices promising sophomore guard Hjalte Froholdt had worked at the position, it was a message that the young man was still learning. It kind of flew over some heads. Arkansas’ three first-year starters struggled in the opener at times, and fourth-year senior captain Dan Skipper drew a holding call that the Hogs had to overcome on their game-winning drive.

I also assumed the Razorbacks would understand where their bread was buttered and lean more on their running game early in the football game, rather than trying to sling the football around the yard quite so much. But that wasn’t the cases on Saturday.

Defensively, the tackling issues that plagued the Hogs last year persisted to a degree, particularly on kick-off coverage. Part of the tackling issues might be written off to opening-game overeagerness, but it was enough to spread doubt about the defense, despite a fairly solid performance all things considered.

Until my own eagerness for the season to start blinded me, I felt Arkansas’ defense would have to play well enough to mitigate the growing pains the offense would no doubt go through in replacing such stalwarts as quarterback Brandon Allen, tight end Hunter Henry, running back Alex Collins, and offensive linemen Sebastian Tretola, Denver Kirkland, and Mitch Smothers.

From a macro view, that was the story of the game. Certainly there was a bit of good fortune that the Bulldogs placekicker missed a couple of field goals, either of which would have likely done the Hogs in, but all in all, the Razorbacks had enough in them to win. Just enough.

The mistakes of the offense and the kick coverage kept the defense’s back against the wall all day. Between Allen’s two interceptions and the poor kick coverage, it seemed Louisiana Tech was playing on a 60-yard field.

Both of Allen’s interceptions set up Bulldog touchdowns. That has to improve. Two interceptions a game will doom this team to a losing record in SEC play.

As troubling as that may be, the kick coverage worries me more at the moment because execution there is not as difficult as it is at quarterback. Admittedly, the kick coverage is probably the easy issue the Hogs have to fix, but it’s a problem that shouldn’t be an issue during the fourth year of a coach’s tenure at a program.

Bielema mentioned in his postgame comments that kicker Adam McFain had performed well kicking for touchbacks in practice, but has struggled when the lights are on and the stadium is filled. He booted only one of four kickoffs into the end zone Saturday.

Regardless, the special teamers must break down and tackle better than they did last Saturday. Field position is too critical to the Razorbacks’ fortunes this year for the problem to persist. The issue needs to be corrected by the time the Hogs kick off against TCU at 6 p.m. Saturday in Fort Worth.

Other than Ryan Pulley’s foolish out-of-bound shove of a Bulldog on the Louisiana Tech sideline which garnered a flag, I was fairly happy with the defense’s performance all things considered. The tackling needs to be sharper, but when the team needed a big play Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Randy Ramsey provided with an outstanding sack.

The defense’s job gets exponentially more difficult Saturday at No. 13 TCU. The Horned Frogs revved their engines for a 59-41 victory over the South Dakota State Jackrabbits last Saturday.

Against spread teams, the Hogs are basically giving up short routes to protect the back end, but for that to be effective tackling has to be sharp and field position is imperative. If the Horned Frogs routinely only need to drive 40 to 60 yards to score, it could be a long night for the Razorbacks.

The Hogs suffered four sacks last Saturday against Louisiana Tech’s wild blitz package. There’s a discussion on whether the blame should go to the offensive line or to Allen for holding the ball too long. I’d say it was a mixture of both. The inexperience showed at both spots.

There were times when Allen should have thrown the ball away or checked down more quickly, but there were times when defenders were on top of him before he could even set to throw.

Tech’s pass rush had the Hogs’ offensive front confused much of the day. First-time starters Froholdt and right tackle Colton Jackson whiffed on blocks and generally had their heads on a swivel, attempting to figure out what they were seeing. They are young and will improve. Both played better on running plays. Froholdt is bulldozer who only needs seasoning to become a formidable player.

Zach Rogers closed spring ball as a starting guard, but was moved to backup center a couple of weeks into preseason practices. The idea of having the Hogs two best centers, Rogers and Frank Ragnow both starting, created a tactical issue that could become a problem if a rash of injuries forced players to be jostled around.

It will be interesting to see if Rogers remains as a back up or if adjustments might be made this week. Jalen Merrick was also running first-team right tackle before suffering a concussion. If he is healthy, Merrick might be able to add more stability up front.

I think Allen will improve game by game as his experience grows. It’s just a matter of how quickly that growth might occur.

Allen’s most impressive play came on the game-winning drive, when he rolled and elephant walked his way out of pressure to fire a seven yard pass to Keon Hatcher, who turned the play into an 18-yard gain to get the Hogs out of a 2nd-and-13 situation. That wasn’t just driving the bus, Allen made a fine throw under duress and Hatcher did the rest.

That drive also featured strong inside running by sophomore tailback Rawleigh Williams III. It was good to see the Hogs get down to business on that drive, and for offensive coordinator Dan Enos to finally play to the offense’s strength. If the Hogs can establish control with their running game first, it will be easier for the Razorbacks to have success with all the gadgets that Enos called during the first three quarters.

It’s going to be interesting to watch this team improve and progress. September could once again be a rocky month for the Hogs, considering the trips to Texas to play TCU this Saturday and A&M on Sept. 24. We’ll just have to see.