Arkansas looking for answers to red zone woes

Updated: October 5, 2012, 4:21 AM ET
Associated Press

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AP Sports Writer

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Paul Petrino couldn't have been happier with Arkansas' offensive output against Texas A&M last week, at least on the surface.

The offensive coordinator watched as the Razorbacks gained 515 yards on 98 plays, putting together five drives of more than 50 yards -- all coming against an Aggies' defense that entered the game allowing an average of 279.7 yards per game.

So, what was Petrino's problem with all that offense?

It came in a 58-10 loss, one in which Arkansas' season-long struggles at finishing drives was again on display. The Razorbacks (1-4, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) scored on just one of their five trips inside Texas A&M's 20, a first-half field goal, causing the former offensive powerhouse to fall to 109th nationally in red zone offense.

"We've just got to get the ball in the end zone," Petrino said. "I've never lost a game in my life putting up that kind of yards and having 98 plays. To go and get your butt kicked, you should win if you have that many yards and that many plays."

Arkansas, which is sixth in the SEC in total offense with 417 yards per game, has scored on just 12 of 19 drives in the red zone this season. It's the latest issue in a season full of disappointments for the Razorbacks, who travel this week to Auburn (1-3, 0-2).

The days of leading the SEC in passing offense, as Arkansas did in each of the previous three seasons, seem like a long time ago for a program reeling without the architect of its past success -- former coach Bobby Petrino. The Razorbacks led the conference in average points scored last season, but they've slipped to 11th (23.2 per game) this year.

The fall has been the result of a number of factors, and Petrino's less-than-graceful exit in April is only a small part of the reason.

Arkansas scored on 86.4 percent (51 of 59) red-zone opportunities last season, fourth in the SEC. That, however, came with three future NFL receivers (Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright) on offense, all who were drafted in the fourth round of April's draft.

The departures of three of the top receivers in school history has played a part in the Razorbacks' red zone struggles, as has their anemic running game -- which is last in the SEC at 106.6 yards per game. An offensive line that's failed to consistently open running lanes has hurt, just as has a season-ending foot injury to starting fullback Kiero Small and most recently, a bone bruise that kept tight end Chris Gragg out against Texas A&M.

"That's been a big staple to what we've done in the past, to convert (in the red zone)," Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said. "We take pride. When we sniff it out and when we smell it, to go get it and make a mark down there.

"... You all have to be in, and you've got to be on the same page. That's how you score when you're down there, and we haven't done that, haven't done it. Is it frustrating? Absolutely."

Wilson, who was first-team All-SEC last season, hasn't been immune from his own struggles near the opponents' goal line. Against the Aggies, the senior was 0-for-9 passing in the red zone -- putting a damper on his 373-yard effort and leaving interim coach John L. Smith searching for answers.

"It's not one thing, but we've just got to keep fighting," Smith said. "We spent a lot of hours on the critical zone last week game planning. ... We've just got to go execute. We've got to get more points. That's the bottom line; that's my job. That's up to me to get more points when we get down there. We have to do it."

Wilson had his coming-out party against Auburn two years ago, throwing for 332 yards and four touchdowns after replacing starter Ryan Mallett in the first half. The Tigers won 65-43 on their way to the national championship, but they've struggled this season -- with their only win coming in overtime against Louisiana-Monroe.

Arkansas lost a week before that to the Warhawks, a game in which Wilson missed the second half with a concussion. Auburn's defense performed well in a 12-10 loss to No. 4 LSU two weeks ago, and coach Gene Chizik knows how critical it will be to stop Wilson.

"He's an impressive young man," Chizik said. "One of the things I thought about him two years ago when he came into the game -- I just thought that when you look at a quarterback and you say, `What are the intangibles of a quarterback that you look for at that position in a young man?' and that is the competitive nature of that guy, he's got it."


AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Auburn, Ala., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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