Arkansas in search of running game against Alabama
John L. Smith did his own share of second-guessing after Arkansas' deflating loss to Louisiana-Monroe last week.
The first-year Razorbacks coach admitted as much this week, particularly regarding the team's inability to run the ball in the second half against the Warhawks - to the point where Arkansas appeared to give up on the running game all together late in the loss.
It's an identity crisis Smith and the Razorbacks (1-1) must find a solution to, and they have little time to do with a visit from No. 1 Alabama (2-0) on Saturday.
Arkansas had 96 yards rushing against Louisiana-Monroe, but only 23 in the second half on 11 carries. Take away a 19-yard fourth-quarter run by Knile Davis, one which came with less than a minute remaining, and Arkansas has just four yards on 10 carries in the half.
The Razorbacks were so ineffective running the ball that they attempted only five runs against 10 passes after Louisiana-Monroe closed to within seven points in fourth quarter. On one series, redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Allen - playing for the injured Tyler Wilson - threw three straight incompletions and ran just 34 seconds off the clock.
The Warhawks were able to tie the game in the closing minute and win in overtime.
''It was disappointing we were not able to pound it like we would have liked,'' Smith said. ''And it's like we've said all along from Day 1, there comes a point in the game where you have to be able to run it to win.''
The lack of a capable running game has come as a surprise for the Razorbacks, who entered this season with excitement about the return of Davis and the steady presence of senior Dennis Johnson. Davis, however, appeared tentative on several runs against the Warhawks, finishing with 62 yards on 16 carries.
Johnson ran well - finishing with 50 yards on seven carries - but he had just two second-half carries. The distribution led to Smith's second-guessing, as well as questions about the recovery of Davis, who missed all of last season with an ankle injury.
Davis insisted this week he's fully recovered from the broken ankle he suffered prior to last season, but he hasn't yet resembled the player who led all SEC running backs with 1,322 yards rushing in 2010. The junior didn't face live contact during the spring or for much of preseason camp, and he's averaging just 3.9 yards per carry through two games.
''Once you've taken a break from doing something, you have to do it some more once you start back,'' Davis said. ''You've got to do it over and over again to get back to where you were. Just like Tiger Woods. He stopped playing golf, and he's getting back into that rhythm. It's the same thing in other sports. You've got to get back in that rhythm.''
During one second-half run, Davis had a hole to run through over the left side of Arkansas' offensive line, but he appeared to hesitate - bracing for contact rather than running through the hole. Smith said he's seen flashes of the old Davis, but he added that the mental wear of returning from the severe injury is likely weighing on him.
''Is Knile back to where he was? No yet,'' Smith said. ''Is Knile going to get back to where he was? Yes. ... But he's not back to where he was, by no means, I don't think.''
Arkansas' running game could become an even more of a needed ingredient this week, with the team facing the prospect of playing without Wilson. The senior missed the second half of last week's game with a head injury, and his availability for Alabama has been the subject of much speculation this week.
Regardless of who plays or doesn't play, or whether Davis, Johnson or senior Ronnie Wingo plays at running back for the Razorbacks, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban isn't taking Arkansas' offense lightly. The Razorbacks led the SEC in scoring and total offense last season, and they've led the conference in passing for three straight seasons.
''We have a tremendous amount of respect for (Davis) and their ability to run the ball, if they decide to do that, with him,'' Saban said. ''We also respect the other two runners that they have. We feel like they have really good running backs, and we have a really good respect for all three of them.''
Also hampering the Arkansas running game last week was the loss of senior fullback Kiero Small with a broken foot. Smith said Small could be out anywhere from 6-12 weeks, likely costing him the season.
Small's backup, sophomore Kody Walker, was also lost for the season during the second half last week with a broken leg, leaving the Razorbacks in search of other blocking options this week during practice.
They're also counting on improvement from Davis and the offensive line to help the running game against Alabama.
''It's something we have got to work on obviously,'' Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. ''It's not one of the strong points of our team right now. We came to work with that mindset. It's going to be a day to day thing.''