When Tyler Wilson’s pass to Mekale McKay in the endzone fell incomplete and the Razorback lost their final game of the season versus LSU, the Razorback Nation could finally exhale. It was over. A very disappointing 4-8 season had come to an end. One of the emotions felt had to be relief. Relief that all the bad play on the field and all the bad coaching decision were over.
With time many Arkansas fans will forget about how miserably this team failed at living up to the high expectations that were heaped upon it at the start of the season, despite losing the “straw that stirred the drink” Bobby Petrino. Even I thought the Hogs would do well without him. I had predicted that they would win 10 games including a bowl game. Many others saw a national title for this team.
No doubt that as quickly as Wilson’s pass fell to the field turf at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, many began to wonder to themselves (and probably aloud as well) what the hell went wrong this year?
Well that’s where I step in and try to explain what went wrong.
Many people believe that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. While I don’t think statistics tell the whole story, I do believe that they give insight into the whole story. And there is no doubt in my mind that the 2012 Razorbacks’ statistics tell a story of what went wrong on the field. In studying the stats I began to wonder if the blame for this debacle of a season lies with the offense or defense. For many the obvious, easy answer is the defense. After all that’s all you heard consistently during the season; how bad the defense was. But I submit to you that the majority of the blame for this season’s failures lie with the offense.
The Offense pronounced [uh-fens]:
The Arkansas offense, pronounced [aw-fens], saw some sharp declines in key offensive areas from last year. Those declines sent the Hogs plummeting in the NCAA rankings for the different areas. During the Petrino years Arkansas was all about high flying offense with one of the so-called best play callers in college football. “Pass to score and run to win” was his mantra. During the 2012 season, Arkansas ranked 89th in scoring offense with 23.5 points per game. In 2011 they ranked 15th and averaged 36.8 points per game. Another offensive area this year’s Hogs struggled in was rushing, where they ranked 104th with 118.7 yards per game and 3.9 yards per rush. No doubt the Hogs have been a pass first offense since Petrino took over, but in 2011 they ranked 81st with 137.4 yards per game and 4.3 yards per rush. Marginal, but decent numbers and a decent rushing game goes hand in hand with having a great passing game. If you care to get really technical the passing yards per game were down in 2012 as well (300.7/gm in 2012 and 301.5/gm in 2011).
Coming into this season two Razorbacks that were deemed the stars of this team, Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis, were sent through the ESPN “carwash” where they visited the different ESPN programs and talked about their possible Heisman Trophy candidacy. The University’s athletic department even launched a Twitter account to hype these two players. It was clear early on in the season that not even these two would be able to carry the Hogs the way they would need to have a successful season. Tyler Wilson was certainly productive and one of the two best players on offense. Only problem is, Knile Davis never showed himself as the second best player on offense. That distinction clearly belonged to wide receiver Cobi Hamilton. Davis was barely in the top ten of great players on the offense. His struggles hurt this team. Sure he was out two games with a “hamstring” (those are air quotes) injury, but losing his job to Dennis Johnson was a no-brainer. It just took an inept coaching staff way too long to realize what was obvious to most. Davis managed just 377 yards rushing for the entire season. Not even close to the Heisman campaign many expected to see. He had 0 games over 100 yards (his season high was 70 in the opener against Jacksonville St.) and in 3 games managed to rush for less than 10 yards. Pathetic!
Tyler Wilson managed to lead the passing game (3,387 yards, 21 TDs and 13 INTs), which clearly focused on Cobi Hamilton. On many occasions it didn’t even appear that Wilson went through his progression and instead just locked onto Hamilton. Cobi lead all receivers with 90 catches for 1,335 yards and 5 TDs. Great numbers, but here’s where the problem is – the second leading receiver in catches had just 25 catches and the second leading receiver in yardage had just 317 yards. Further making those stats a problem is the fact that running back Dennis Johnson was the player with 25 catches. The rest of the receiving corps basically disappeared. They showed no ability to get open and struggled to catch passes when they did get open. The player that was expected to be the second best receiver and a match-up nightmare, tight end Chris Gragg, was injured early in the Rutgers game and proceeded to play in just 1 of the final 8 games. Yet Gragg had more TD catches (3) than all but one other receiver.
All these things scream offensive failure. Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino looked like the proverbial “fish out of water” the entire season. He made it clear who was calling the plays when he served as OC under his brother Bobby. He never seemed to be able to figure out how to attack SEC defenses.
Here are some other offensive “highlights” , if you will, by the numbers:
5 – Team high for turnovers in a game; vs. Alabama and at Mississippi St.
12 – Most receptions in a game by a receiver; Cobi Hamilton. (Junior Julian Horton had 14 for the entire season)
12 – Team high for penalties in a game; vs. Ole Miss
32 – Most yards gained on a single rush all season; Jonathan Williams at Texas A&M
167 – Most rushing yards by the team in a single game; vs. Ole Miss
303 – Game high in receiving yards by a player; Cobi Hamilton vs. Rutgers
419 – Game high in passing yards by a player; Tyler Wilson vs. Rutgers
564 – Team high in total yards in a game; vs. Jacksonville St. (the first game of the season)
It became obvious during the course of this season that this team was built for offensive success. I believe that the defense has always been marginal to bad for the last 4 years and no one was able to notice (or cared) due to the great success of the offense. As the offense began to fail this year, it became glaringly obvious how bad the defense was. The offenses inability to convert 3rd downs (they converted just 37% and ranked 83rd after converting 42% in 2011 and ranking 45th) put a poor defense that lacked depth, on the field for way too many plays. That cycle repeated itself over and over throughout the course of the season.
One stat that both the offense and the defense contributed to is turnover margin. The Hogs ranked 119th out of 120 in turnover margin with a -1.58 rating. That takes into account the 31 offensive turnovers lost and the 12 defensive turnovers gained. Not a good stat. Again, to me, it shows how the offense quite often hung the defense out to dry. In 2011, the Razorbacks had 11 fewer turnovers on offense. That’s a big number when you’re talking offensive turnovers.
The Razorbacks’ red zone offense also stunk. They converted just 34 out of 48 (71%) red zone opportunities into scores. That put them 114th in the NCAA. Good news in the bad news is that of the 34 conversions, 23 were touchdowns. There was a stretch of games during the 2011 season where the offense was perfect in red zone scoring. They finished 35th converting 86% of their opportunities.
To blame a defense that ranked 73rd in total defense and 114th in passing defense, would be easy. But the late, great former President John F. Kennedy reminded us that “we don’t do things because they’re easy, but because they’re hard.” And the hard thing here is to dig below the surface and see how the real problem during the 2012 season for the Razorback was an offense that let us down time and time again.