It's all about the O-line

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What's going on with the Arkansas Razorbacks? Is this team about to suffer a season-long collapse and finish 3-8? Or will Bret Bielema turn things around quickly after Saturday's stunning loss to Toledo and guide the Hogs to an SEC West championship?

The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

What Razorback fans should know, but might not, is that Toledo is actually a pretty decent football team. The Rockets went 9-4 in 2014 and defeated Arkansas State 63-44 in the GoDaddy Bowl. Their offense is led by quarterback Phillip Ely, a transfer from the University of Alabama. Ely passed for 237 yards Saturday as Toledo defeated Arkansas 16-12 at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

While Ely had a pretty fair day against the Arkansas defense, Razorback fans probably should be much more concerned about the Arkansas offense. While the Razorbacks did move the football very well at times, gaining 515 yards of total offense, the running game was pitiful and Arkansas couldn't find a way to punch the ball into the end zone, save for an Alex Collins touchdown run that was born more out of misdirection and finesse than the physical, smashmouth brand of football that Bielema has made his trademark.

Arkansas rushed for 103 yards on 31 attempts, both numbers that are way too low for this team to be successful offensively. Fifth-year senior quarterback Brandon Allen completed 32 of 53 passes for 412 yards. Those numbers look good in the box score, and Allen is a much more capable quarterback than many Arkansas fans gave him credit for over the past couple of seasons. Still, he threw a very costly interception in the end zone when the Razorbacks had a chance to take the lead early in the third quarter. Later, he overthrew tight end Hunter Henry in the end zone on Arkansas' final possession. Those two plays cost Arkansas dearly, and they illustrate why numbers and statistics don't tell the full story of a football game. Allen is a decent SEC quarterback, and Arkansas can win football games with him. But he's not the kind of quarterback who can win games on his own. That's the reality, and it's one Arkansas needs to accept moving forward.

The real concern for Arkansas fans should be this: What in the heck is going on with the offensive line? The big guys up front are supposed to be the strength of this football team, and yet they failed to move Toledo's defenders off the line of scrimmage on Saturday. And if they can't move Toledo's defense, how in the world can they be expected to move Alabama's? Or LSU's?

Frankly, I'm puzzled by the offensive line's struggles. This is mostly a veteran group, and it was supposed to be the anchor for this Arkansas team. So much was expected of them that Bielema chose to have their photo on the cover of this season's Razorback media guide -- an honor usually reserved for a running back, receiver or quarterback.

Those skill position players get the glory, and there is no doubt that they are important. But anyone who really knows football will tell you that controlling a football game, from either an offensive or defensive perspective, begins with the big guys on the line of scrimmage. It can end there, too, when those guys are ineffective.

Whatever the issue is with the Arkansas offensive line, the Razorbacks need to solve it, in a hurry. Texas Tech comes calling this weekend in Fayetteville. That is a game the Razorbacks should win -- at least most folks would have said that before the Toledo game -- but after that things get much tougher. Arkansas' next three games are out of state -- against Texas A&M in Dallas, at Tennessee and at Alabama.

There is still time for the Razorbacks to turn things around and have a good season, but it needs to happen in a hurry.

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com