FAYETTEVILLE -- The Arkansas Razorbacks hit the midway point of the season with a 2-4 record and a tough assignment looming Saturday against No. 21 Auburn at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The Razorbacks, who are 0-3 in the SEC, have lost their past six games to Power 5 conference teams dating to November, and they've dropped their past two games that have been decided by a touchdown or less.
The Razorbacks are trying to regain their footing midseason after enduring a run of injuries to key players, the last a shoulder injury that kept senior quarterback Austin Allen out of last week's 41-9 loss at No. 1 Alabama.
Since the final day of spring drills April 29, Arkansas has lost its top tailback, 1,360-yard rusher Rawleigh Williams; its top cornerback, Ryan Pulley, in the season opener; its top receiver, Jared Cornelius, in the middle of a 50-43 overtime loss to Texas A&M; and now Allen.
Fifth-year University of Arkansas, Fayetteville Coach Bret Bielema said he does not get bogged down on the unavailable players.
"It's not coach-speak," he said. "I think everyone that's been in this position realizes that what you try to preach to the kids before it happens is the next-man-in mentality, no matter what."
Strangely, the Razorbacks will play their first conference home game Saturday, becoming the last team in the SEC to do so. Arkansas was the designated home team for its game in Arlington, Texas, against Texas A&M.
Here are the Hogs' midpoint grades:
Austin Allen's status as the most-hit quarterback in the FBS since the start of 2016 was a hot topic a couple of weeks ago, and the accumulation of those shots might have played a role in his sluggish start. Allen seemed tentative in losses to TCU and South Carolina, with impressive games against Texas A&M and New Mexico State in between. Allen's completion percentage is down nearly five percentage points from last year, to 56.4 percent. His touchdowns (8) to interceptions (4) ratio of 2-to-1 is improved over last year. He was starting to find a rhythm with a mostly new group of receivers before the injury at South Carolina. Cole Kelley has been a brash addition, and his performance in the face of Alabama's complicated pressure and coverage schemes was impressive. He's completed 56.7 percent of his passes and also has a 2-to-1 touchdown (4) to interception (2) rate.
The streak of 1,000-yard rushers for Bret Bielema offenses is in serious jeopardy. The three-man group of Devwah Whaley, Chase Hayden and David Williams has not gotten fully on track in the games against Power 5 teams. All three have between 240 and 284 rushing yards, and all three average between 4.5 and 4.8 yards per carry. Whaley has been the most consistent in pass protection, although all three had shaky moments in the past two games. The screen game, particularly to Williams, was productive until the Crimson Tide stuffed it. Hayden in the WildHog package has been a plus. Fullbacks Kendrick Jackson and Hayden Johnson have been mostly solid.
The depth of this group is just starting to show with recent performances by Deon Stewart, Jordan Jones and Brandon Martin to complement Jonathan Nance. The loss of senior Jared Cornelius to a torn Achilles tendon in Week 3 left the unit without a veteran with key experience. Top tight ends Austin Cantrell, Cheyenne O'Grady and Jeremy Patton have been OK in blocking, but after a hot start not as productive in pass catching.
The thought was this group would at least hold its own and maybe take a stride forward with the loss of left tackle Dan Skipper, but it has not done that. Center Frank Ragnow has been solid, followed by left guard Hjalte Froholdt and tackle Johnny Gibson, but the consistency at other spots has been lacking in both pass protection and the run game. The new combination that moved Ragnow to right guard, Gibson to left tackle and brought in center Zach Rogers and right tackle Brian Wallace looks like the game plan again this week. The Razorbacks' front has struggled to play with the physicality demanded at the top of the Power 5 heap.
Arkansas has been able to maintain a rotation in the three-man front behind McTelvin Agim, Bijhon Jackson and T.J. Smith, with Austin Capps, Briston Guidry, Jake Hall, Armon Watts and Jonathan Marshall contributing. The results have been better all around under new coordinator Paul Rhoads, but there has been slippage in the run defense against Texas A&M, South Carolina and Alabama, and in the passing game against New Mexico State. The pass rush had been just so-so before more blitzes led to some positive results against Alabama.
Middle linebacker De'Jon Harris is playing at a high level, leading the SEC with eight solo tackles per game and showing a significant leap from last season. He has done well at making the calls. Dre Greenlaw on the weak side has been OK in his return from injury, but the junior had a couple of notable busts the past two weeks. Dwayne Eugene is having a good senior season at one outside linebacker spot. More was expected from outside linebacker Randy Ramsey, who was nursing a sore ankle last week, and from Karl Roesler.
For a unit that lost its top cornerback Ryan Pulley, the Razorbacks have held up admirably, though the defensive backs have been victimized by big plays and missed tackles in the biggest games. Henre Toliver is playing very well at cornerback and freshman Kamren Curl has shown great promise while being bombarded by targets. He's drawn key pass interference calls that were debatable in SEC losses. Nickel back Kevin Richardson's battle through injury to be productive has been uplifting. Safeties Santos Ramirez, Josh Liddell and De'Andre Coley have upgraded their play from 2016 but still have occasional misses.
Outside of freshman DeVion Warren, there hasn't been much going on in the return game and particularly on the nearly non-existent punt returns. Last week, Deon Stewart signaled fair catch against Alabama with no defender within 10 yards. Connor Limpert has made both of his field goal after Cole Hedlund started 0 for 2, but Limpert missed a PAT last week. Punter Blake Johnson's average of 39.3 ranks No. 93 in the FBS. He had a snap slip through his fingers last week. The coverage teams allowed a 100-yard kickoff return to Christian Kirk of Texas A&M and have been average otherwise.
The Steamboat and WildHog packages electrified the Texas A&M game without resulting in a victory, and they could have been useful in short-yardage situations the previous week against TCU. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos has had to adjust for losing top playmakers seemingly each week, with mixed results. The Hogs did not respond well on the sideline during their second-half meltdown at South Carolina. The switch to the 3-4 defense looks to be the right call at this stage. There were very few missed assignments or tackles against Texas A&M, but the errors led to home run plays. Stopping teams on third down has been a problem in some big games, but there was a hint of improvement last week. Injuries to key personnel cannot be disregarded. The coaching staff has kept the team focused during a downturn, and as Bret Bielema has said, the Razorbacks are a team that could use a break.
Sports on 10/19/2017
Print Headline: Treading water best Hogs can manage