J.R. and Henry: Nothing to see here
Well, it was a win. That’s about all there is to say about the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 20-0 victory over Utah State in Fayetteville on Saturday night. Coming into the game, Hogs fans had hoped to see signs at least that their team was beginning to establish an identify on offense. Instead, what they got was a strange and largely unsuccessful mix of what appeared to be two vastly different philosophies attempting to co-exist in the same offensive backfield.
From the time Arkansas head football coach Houston Nutt hired Gus Malzahn from Springdale High School to be his offensive coordinator, there has been ample speculation that the union would not work. Some argued the Malzahn was not ready for the post, largely because he had never been an assistant in college, much less a coordinator. Others insisted that Nutt, who has always called the plays as a head coach, would not allow another coach to take that duty without interference. Those who believe that Nutt will take the play-calling duties back will point to Saturday night’s game (which featured a steady diet of the I formation and the full return of the zone blocking running plays that have been a staple of the Nutt era) and argue that Malzahn’s much-hyped spread has been scrapped.
Judging from the first two games of the year, there is little doubt that if Malzhan is calling the plays (and at this point, it appears that he is), he is calling plays from a playbook that includes material never previously employed by him. Case in point. Of the 46 snaps taken by freshman starting quarterback Mitch Mustain, only 21 came in the shotgun, the starting point for the spread. The 25 under center snaps may have been more than Mustain took all last year running Malzahn’s offense at Springdale, where he was under center around five percent of the time.
No surprise, given Houston Nutt’s comments at the SEC media days in the summer. There, Nutt assured the questioning media that Malzahn would be calling the plays. However, he made clear that the plays included in each week’s game plan would result from a group effort by the full offensive staff each week. “I tell you where it’s all going to start, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, we’ll all be in that room together. When I called plays, the thing that we had was we had a good group of coaches in that room. It just doesn’t happen on Saturday. There is a feel, there is instinct, no question. But the preparation and the study is done Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, through the week. So that’s where we’ll be.”
Really, there should be nothing wrong with every coach on offense helping out with the game plan, including the head coach. In fact, you’d like to think that all the coaches have something to contribute in that regard. But that’s only true when all the coaches have the same idea of what an offense should be.
What makes the experiment currently going on at Arkansas so different is that Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle, spread attack is diametrically opposed to the offense run by Arkansas under Houston Nutt in years past. Remember, Nutt is the same coach who repeatedly had his quarterback milk the clock in the first half before calling time outs. Nutt’s philosophy has been to shorten the game, keep his team in it, and try to win it at the end. Malzahn’s offense is the exact opposite, speeding up the game, all in an effort to the keep the defense off balance and out of position.
So the $1.3 million question is, can these two styles blend together to create an effective offense? It’s hard to imagine that they can, given the opposite strategies employed. And the first two games offer little hope, especially Saturday’s struggle with Utah State. The Aggies were coming off a 38-7 loss to Wyoming the week before, and Arkansas fans (including us) mistakenly expected a rout. However, mistakes, penalties and a costly turnover at the Aggies 1 kept the score close throughout. Most disturbingly, the offensive line failed to dominate an unquestionably lesser opponent. That doesn’t bode well for SEC success. But who knows, maybe, like the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials where the guy with the open jar of peanut butter runs into the fellow eating a chocolate bar, Malzahn and Nutt’s offenses will blend together to create something wonderful.
Turning to the defensive side of the ball, has there ever been a shutout where more fans leaving the game thought that the defense had problems? Utah State’s offense is not good. After Saturday, the Aggies haven’t scored an offensive touchdown in 10 quarters. And the defensive line, like its counterpart on the offensive side, failed to control the line of scrimmage and allowed a 100-yard rusher. Now with the news that sophomore Freddie Fairchild is out for the season with a torn ACL, an already thin linebacker corps loses its second best starter. This staff’s repeated failures in recruiting, particularly on defense, have become impossible to disguise.
But Reggie Herring’s defense is not likely to get much press this week. The talk will be of Mustain and Malzahn, and the debate will be over who’s running the offense. And no matter what you hear, what happened in last Saturday’s game doesn’t shed much light on that subject. What it does show is that this Razorback team is not ready for the SEC. Something that might become obvious to all next Saturday in Nashville against Vanderbilt.
J.R. and Henry post their sports column on the Little Rocking blog every Monday and Thursday.