FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has placed an emphasis on improving its passing offense this spring, determined to put last season’s struggles in the past.
Quarterback play with Brandon Allen healthy was going to be better. He had more weapons — and trusted them — with a maturing group of receivers and tight ends.
So, naturally, the spring-ending Red-White Game in Razorback Stadium was a good forum to showcase Arkansas’ growth. But the results, especially in a sloppy first half, left the impression the passing attack is an area of concern entering the summer.
“Not what we wanted to come out and do,” Allen said.
The Arkansas offense struggled with interceptions, inconsistency and other issues in front of an estimated crowd of 30,000 in Razorback Stadium on Saturday. The Red beat the White 61-22 in a game that featured plenty of points, but left plenty of questions as the Razorbacks wrapped up their second spring under Bret Bielema.
Allen went 12-for-21 for 108 yards with a touchdown and interception against the second-team defense Saturday, needing a solid third quarter to overcome an ugly start. He threw an interception on his first pass — a ball that bounced off receiver Keon Hatcher’s hands — and started the scrimmage 5-for-11 for 21 yards with 2 interceptions before the first-team offense regrouped after halftime.
Bielema said afterward it was “disappointing” and believed the offense was “sleepwalking a little bit” to start the scrimmage. But he also pointed to the improvement after putting Allen back on the field for the third quarter.
“The good thing about a quarterback, about a competitor, it’s about how you finish, and he finished extremely well in the third quarter,” Bielema said. “I thought it was important. I didn’t know how much we were going to play him in the second half, but at halftime I said ‘Leave him in the entire third quarter and see where he can get,’ and obviously he came back and found a rhythm. So that was a big part.”
Allen, who shouldered plenty of scrutiny after his struggles last season, secured his spot as Arkansas’ starting quarterback this spring. He worked with the starters throughout Arkansas’ 15 practices and received Bielema’s public support two weeks ago. But the first-team unit had problems under his command Saturday.
His first pass was pulled in by safety De’Andre Coley.
Arkansas went three plays and out on three of its next four possessions as well.
“I think we just got out there, we weren’t focused in, we didn’t have our minds ready to get out there and start working,” Allen said. “I think we had a diluted play call sheet. We had all these things going and I think we were just kind of going through the motions and just kind of doing what we were supposed to do, but not trying to win at our positions. I think we were just slow and that’s what we talked about.”
The only early bright spot was a 7-play, 73-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter. Running back Korliss Marshall had a 19-yard run — with a 15-yard facemask penalty tacked on — to spark the drive. Running back Jonathan Williams finished it with a 4-yard touchdown run to give the Red a 7-3 lead.
“It was really the whole offense,” Williams said about the early struggles from the offense. “Everybody’s putting the blame on Brandon, and that’s kind of what happens when you’re the quarterback, but as an offense we struggled. We just didn’t go out there with a lot of energy like we should have.”
Marshall gave the scrimmage some much-needed life once again a little later, when he sprinted through the defense for a 59-yard touchdown run. It sparked a 16-second stretch in which the Red scored three touchdowns on three plays.
Arkansas safety Rohan Gaines followed Marshall’s touchdown by intercepting a pass thrown by quarterback Austin Allen and returning it 31 yards for a score. Then, defensive end Deatrich Wise stripped Allen, defensive tackle Darius Philon scooped up the loose ball and returned it 19 yards for another touchdown.
“This is definitely the most physical defense I’ve been a part of,” Arkansas linebacker Braylon Mitchell said. “Coach Smith preaches physicality day-in and day-out and this is what he expects of us. So we go out there and do it.”
The Red defense made life difficult for the White offense throughout the scrimmage.
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s aggressive, attacking philosophy was apparent as Austin Allen finished 8-for-14 for 94 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions with the White. He also lost a fumble and was sacked five times. Freshman Rafe Peavey went 4-for-9 for 42 yards and was sacked four times.
The only blemish from the group came late in the first half, when Gaines misplayed a deep ball from Austin Allen. Receiver Eric Hawkins pulled in the pass and his 45-yard touchdown catch ended the first half.
“I didn’t see a replay or anything I just saw the play as it unfolded,” Bielema said. “I asked coach Smith and he said he ran right by him. I literally don’t have an answer other than the fact, it can’t happen. Coach Smith was very animated at halftime about that play right there and obviously something we don’t want to relive again.”
Both sides regrouped at halftime to help the Red outscore the White 21-0.
Bielema said the offense wasn’t as “vanilla” in the second half as the Razorbacks tried to end the scrimmage on a good note. Receivers found ways to get open after struggling to break free in the first half. Allen went 7-for-10 for 81 yards in the third quarter, throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to fullback Patrick Arinze.
“I think B.A. is a guy that, it’s just not his game to sit back there and throw drop-back passes,” Bielema said. “You want to move him around in the pocket, get him with some play-action, helps him get in rhythm a little better.
Receiver Cody Hollister capped the scoring with a 33-yard touchdown pass from Austin Allen, who moved over to the Red team to go 3-for-3 for 42 yards in the fourth quarter. The Red got 132 of its 153 passing yards in the second half.
Still, the overall performance of the passing offense didn’t leave the impression Arkansas had hoped as it wrapped up spring practice Saturday.
But the second half improvement will have to do as the summer program begins.
“I was very frustrated with the first half,” Allen said. “We said at half we kind of got a clean slate. The first half’s over with, it wasn’t what we wanted. Came back in the second half and I think we did a lot better. Definitely more proud of our performance the second half. That kind of got us going into summer a little bit, ended on a little bit better of a note than what we did in the first half.”