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Air of concern: Hogs try to shore up pass defense

by Tom Murphy | November 25, 2015 at 5:45 a.m.
Mississippi State receiver Fred Ross catches a pass in front of Arkansas safety Kevin Richardson on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Tomorrow may be Thanksgiving, but there has been enough carving already this season for the Arkansas secondary.

The Razorbacks have been victimized through the air by an assortment of veteran quarterbacks, capped by Dak Prescott's 508-yard performance in last week's 51-50 loss to Mississippi State.

Picked apart

Arkansas’ defense, which is near the bottom of the FBS rankings in several categories, faces a Missouri passing attack that is also unheralded. A comparison of the two units, with NCAA rankings in parenthesis


PASSING YARDS;302.8 (123);173.0 (111)

COMPLETION PCT.;.674 (123);.512 (110)

COMPLETIONS;259 (123);177 (t95)

YARDS PER ATTEMPT;8.7 (120);5.5 (t118)

PASS EFFICIENCY;150.2 (110);100.5 (117)

TOUCHDOWNS;17 (t65);10 (t113)

INTERCEPTIONS;9 (t68);11 (t89)

Arkansas is allowing an average of 302.8 passing yards per game, which is more than 10 FBS teams are allowing in total yardage per game, including Missouri, the Razorbacks' opponent in Friday's 1:30 p.m. season finale at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The Tigers rank No. 10 nationally by allowing just 301.3 total yards per game.

The only teams giving up more passing yards per game than Arkansas are Nebraska, Kansas, Oregon and Indiana.

The Razorbacks brought back three starters in their secondary -- safety Rohan Gaines and cornerbacks Jared Collins and D.J. Dean -- as well as top nickel back Henre Toliver to form the nucleus of what they thought would be a good coverage unit.

Instead, Arkansas' lack of a consistent pass rush, combined with struggles in pass coverage from the linebacking corps and the secondary, has led to consistent problems.

"You've got to be able to fix problems," defensive backs coach Clay Jennings said. "That's been our focus this week. We have to be like a plumber. If the pipes are busted at the house, you can't just go buy a new house.

"You have to have the approach, let's find the problem, let's attack the problem. Let's address it. ... You've got to figure out a way to get the kids back so they can have some confidence to be successful."

Every component that can play a role in poor pass defense -- such as an accurate passer, bad tackling, a lack of pass-rush pressure, shoddy coverage, a lack of eye discipline -- contributed to Prescott's field day Saturday.

"Their quarterback is an excellent football player and they did a nice enough job to keep us honest with the run game," Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. "That's the dilemma. When you play spread offenses the margin of error is very slim there in space, in terms of making tackles.

"We've got to do a better job as coaches putting them in better positions. We've got to do a better job of executing. That's going to be our goal moving forward this week."

Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema agreed that a lot goes into a quarterback like Prescott throwing for 500 yards.

"What we have to do is really get everybody to lock in and understand with 11 guys on the field they're going to find that one, and you can't be that one that's got your eyes in the wrong spot," Bielema said. "I thought Dak was very opportunistic on three or four, especially scoring plays, where everybody was doing their job and one guy wasn't and he'd find that guy.

"To be quite honest, he presents a challenge in this conference like no other quarterback as far as being able to throw the ball accurately."

Prescott and the Bulldogs became the eighth team to pass for at least 250 yards on the Razorbacks. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 67.4 percent of their passes on Arkansas, the fifth-highest percentage allowed by the 127 teams in the FBS.

Arkansas' pass defense has faced its share of prolific passing teams, including three teams ranked in the top 20 in passing offense in No. 3 Texas Tech (391.3), No. 11 Ole Miss (342.5) and No. 16 Mississippi State (316.3), as well as No. 36 Texas A&M (259.5).

None of Arkansas' opponents have performed as poorly in the passing game as Missouri, which is No. 110 in passing offense with 173 yards per game, just below Auburn (176.1).

The Tigers were forced to turn to freshman Drew Lock after starter Maty Mauk was suspended in Week 5 and subsequently dismissed from the team. Lock is completing 50.8 percent of his passes (120 of 236) and has more interceptions (7) than touchdown passes (4). The 6-4, 205-pounder has shown gradual improvement, with his best game coming in a 20-16 victory over BYU two weeks ago in which Lock completed 19 of 28 passes for 244 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception.

"We've got to make sure we're able to defend their formations and defend their skill players in space," Smith said. "I think their quarterback is improving on a weekly basis. I think they've had their ups and their downs, just like anybody else, but our focus has been primarily on us and correcting our problems."

Arkansas' struggles also can be traced to the number of experienced quarterbacks it has faced, as well as the offenses that utilize a quick-passing attack, as the Bulldogs did last week.

The struggle against quick-release teams started early, with Toledo's Phillip Ely completing a large number of clutch third-down passes in Week 2, followed by Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes completing 27 of 31 passes for 315 yards and 2 touchdowns in back-to-back Razorback losses.

The blueprint to pick apart the Arkansas defense is readily available.

"I'm sure that Missouri's going to take things that they've seen on film, and we've got to improve in a hurry," Smith said.

Sports on 11/25/2015

Print Headline: Air of concern


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