J.R. and Henry: History no Lesson for Nutt
Maybe some day Arkansas Head Coach Houston Nutt will get it. You can’t win consistently against quality opponents without a passing game. And in the seven years since Clint Stoerner left the program, the only consistent thing about Houston Nutt’s passing offense has been its ineptness.
That truth has been on full display the last two weeks against what are probably the two best teams in the conference. After a dream 10 game run that won Arkansas the SEC West, the Hogs needed to win only one of their last two (one at home, one on neutral ground) to make the BCS. And we know now that two wins would have put Arkansas in the national title game.
But instead of changing tendencies even the slightest bit and coming up with big, program changing wins, Arkansas stuck with what it does best. And, as is usually the case with one dimensional teams, its best was not enough against the conference’s top squads.
Most Razorback fans will probably see the Reggie Fish punt muff in their sleep, much like the Clint Stoerner fumble in 1998. And there’s no doubt that special teams play against Florida was abysmal, just like it was against LSU. How, after 12 weeks of football, does one team give up a punt block, have a fake punt executed against it for a first down, miss a relatively easy field goal, and have a player attempt to make a diving catch on a punt inside his team’s five yard line? And all this one week after Arkansas misses an extra point and gives up a touchdown return on a kickoff. Legendary Tennessee football coach General Robert Neyland is famous for his seven football maxims, one of which is: “Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.” Obviously, not much pressing went into Arkansas kicking game after the terrible showing against LSU. Maybe somebody should send a copy of General Neyland’s maxims to Arkansas’ special teams coach.
But even with all the talked about special teams gaffs, Arkansas still trailed only 24-21 and had the ball with 3:16 left in the third quarter. They had lost momentum, the fans had been taken out of the game. So how does Arkansas respond? Two running plays, a timeout, a pass completion on third down for a first down, two more running plays on first and second down, followed by a third down pass that is complete but short of the first down. Next comes a punt, and on the first play following the punt Florida’s Percy Harvin runs 67 yards for a touchdown and a ten point lead. When Arkansas most needed offensive diversification and an effective passing game, it got neither. Momentum had switched for good.
Run, run, pass. Run, run, pass. Sounds familiar and it should. Arkansas, which is fourth in the conference in total offense, is an embarrassing 11th in passing offense, with only Mississippi keeping the Hogs out of the cellar. All year, and really, for the last 7 years, Arkansas has been like the power puncher in boxing with a big right hand, but no overall skills. The Hogs just keep wailing away with their running backs and hope to land a big blow. When that doesn’t happen, the Hogs are usually the ones that get knocked out.
Look, with Darren McFadden, we’re not asking for the run and shoot. But why is it that after seven years Houston Nutt still hasn’t developed even a mediocre passing game? First, we were told it was Matt Jones and his style that kept the Hogs from throwing successfully. Then it was Robert Johnson. Then they said we couldn’t use the full playbook with true freshman Mitch Mustain in the game. Now, the problem is that the freshman receivers don’t run good enough routes.
It’s always something it seems. But in seven years, all the players have changed. The quarterbacks’ coach has changed three times. There’s only been one constant – the head coach and how he runs his offense. And that coach, and his staff, haven’t gotten it done. The last five years, Arkansas’ passing offense rank in the SEC has been 11, 11, 5, 12, and 12. That’s not players, that’s system.
And what makes it even worse is that the season started with the hiring of a new offensive coordinator in Gus Malzahn, and the promise of more wide open attack. How many times did we hear radio talk show personalities talk about how the offense would open up more and more as the year went on and the players got accustomed to Malzahn’s offense? Predictably, that didn’t happen, and the offense went into a time warp to the 1950s with the emergence and initial success of the Wildcat package. By season’s end, it was clear that Arkansas’ offense was basically unchanged since the year before, and that means that Malzahn’s input has been minimal.
As Arkansas’ aerial attack got 177 yards in two games from its quarterback, Mustain, the Parade National Player of Year, the true freshman quarterback who led Arkansas to 7 wins in a row before being pulled after one throw at South Carolina, stood on the sidelines and watched his “quick trigger” coach keep throwing running game haymakers against a Florida defense that repeatedly turned the rush offense away. It’s past time to give Mustain a chance. With three weeks to prepare for the Capital One Bowl against Wisconsin, if Nutt truly believes that the future lies with Mustain, he’ll name him the starter now.
But in the meantime, when Arkansas fans debate special teams and mental breakdowns, remember that the game is 60 minutes long and the best team normally wins. That was true on Saturday in the Georgia Dome. The team that found a way to successfully run with a wide receiver and passing quarterback, beat the team that couldn’t find a way to pass despite trying most everyone on the team. Except the number one recruit in school history of course.
J.R. and Henry blog their column here twice a week.