Razorbacks must adjust after Aggies exploit team weaknesses

Jared Cornelius / Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The fallout from Arkansas’ 45-24 loss to Texas A&M last Saturday at Arlington, Texas is confirmation of suspected team weaknesses that date back to spring practice.

With a third of the season in the bag, the Razorbacks (3-1, 0-1 SEC) are still unsettled on the offensive line, and the middle of Arkansas’ defense remains stretched thin.

The Aggies controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football in a ballgame that was competitive through the third quarter, but when the Hogs broke it was an Aggie avalanche of monumental proportions.

The game went from a 17-17 tie to a 38-17 blowout within a matter of minutes after Texas A&M mounted a game-changing goal-line stand, denying the Razorbacks from reaching the end zone on four plays inside the two yard line with 1:33 left in the third quarter.

It was an impressive showing by an Aggie defense against an Arkansas offensive unit that bases its identity on running the football. It not only deflated the Razorbacks’ offense, but also took the wind out of Arkansas’ defense.

During the next six minutes on the game clock, the Aggies burned the Razorbacks for a 92-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Knight to Josh Reynolds, a 33-yard touchdown run by Trayveon Williams, and a 9-yard touchdown pass from Knight to Christian Kirk.

To Arkansas’ offense’ credit, it responded to the three-touchdown onslaught with another scoring drive, culminated by a 5-yard touchdown pass from Austin Allen to Jared Cornelius to trim the lead to 38-24, but Williams broke off another 22-yard run with 4:57 left to play for a 45-24 lead dashing the Hogs’ hopes of a comeback.

The final score could have been worse. On the final drive of the game, Knight broke away for a 62-yard run, but Arkansas safety Santos Ramirez caught him. There’s little doubt that the Aggies could have tacked on another touchdown the way the tide had turned, but A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin had them take a knee on successive downs to run out the clock.

The No. 9 Aggies rolled for 366 rushing yards on 37 carries, while the No. 20 Razorbacks could muster only 120 yards on the ground on 40 carries.

The Aggies have a fine defense. Even with Alabama and Florida remaining on Arkansas’ schedule, Texas A&M could be the most talented defense the Hogs see this season. However, it was discouraging to see the Razorbacks’ running game stonewalled so often on Saturday.

The Razorbacks averaged just 3 yards per carry on the day, which doesn’t look that bad on the surface, but when the Hogs needed two yards the most, the Aggies denied them time after time.

Even more alarming, though, is how the Aggies offense outschemed the Razorbacks defense throughout the ballgame. The Aggies used their sets to draw defenders from the middle of the field, leaving a gaping hole in the center of the Hogs defense. If an Aggie runner broke free of the line of scrimmage, it was a sprint to the end zone.

While Arkansas’ defensive front is a relative strength, it appeared that Arkansas’ defensive scheme relied too much on them in an attempt to keep Knight in the pocket. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith and his staff must make adjustments or other teams will use similar schemes to spread and plunder the Razorbacks.

However, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema addressed the most disheartening issue right after the ballgame in stating that he did not like the demeanor of some of his players in the fourth quarter once the Hogs fell behind.

Bielema didn’t go quite so far, but it looked like some of the Razorbacks spit the bit in the physical contest. Bielema espouses physical football. His goal as a coach is to force opponents into submission, not to see his guys back down.

He called it uncharacteristic, and it has been for about the last year and a half. Certainly mental and physical toughness will be addressed this week as Arkansas prepares for Saturday’s 11 a.m. matchup with Alcorn State.

The good news is that four games into the season, Austin Allen is a better quarterback than most onlookers ever would have dreamed.

Against immense pressure, Allen performed as admirably as anyone could expect. He completed 28 of 42 passes for 371 yards and two touchdowns while absorbing one bone-bruising hit after another.

Led by Jared Cornelius’ seven catches for 126 yards and a touchdown, the Razorbacks’ receivers played gallantly, too.

The Razorbacks can win with efforts like Allen and Cornelius’ as well as Drew Morgan’s, Jeremy Sprinkle’s and Cody Hollister’s.

However, they’re going to need more help from the running game. A&M so stymied the Hogs’ running game that once they had the lead they were able to pin their ears back and rush Allen, unworried about staying at home to play the run.

The Razorbacks have to avoid that again or Allen may not be able to withstand the beating he’ll take.

Bielema’s Arkansas teams have generally performed better in the back half of the season. That trait needs to hold true for this team as well. If it does the A&M loss could just be a big bump in the road of an otherwise good season.

If strides aren’t made in the running game and on defense, then the Hogs’ road is going to get a lot tougher before it eases up.

After Saturday, the Razorbacks play a stretch of games against No. 1 Alabama, No. 16 Ole Miss, Auburn, LSU, and No. 23 Florida that’s as difficult on paper as the program has ever faced. In the Hogs favor is that all but the Auburn game are at home.

But the Aggies have given the rest of the SEC a roadmap on how to dismantle the Razorbacks. Arkansas has to adjust and improve, or it could be a very long, tough season.