FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas made a point a year ago to promote and publicize itself as the home of the largest offensive line in football, both in college and the NFL.
This season, a line in transition has left the No. 20 Razorbacks (3-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) focused more on performance than girth through three games.
It’s a unit that once again hurt Arkansas in a 45-24 loss to No. 9 Texas A&M last week, a game in which the Razorbacks struggled in short-yardage situations and saw quarterback Austin Allen repeatedly bruised and battered by the Aggies pass rush.
While the Razorbacks did gain almost 500 yards in the loss and averaged six yards per play, they failed to score touchdowns during three key goal-line chances. One was the result of a fumble by running back Rawleigh Williams, but the other two came after Arkansas simply couldn’t create the holes it needed to score on a jaw-dropping nine plays from the Texas A&M 2-yard line — or less.
And those plays don’t include two others that didn’t count because of Texas A&M penalties.
“Lots of missed opportunities out there for us in that game,” Allen said. “We’ve got to finish those drives if we want to win SEC games.”
Arkansas averaged 319.6 pounds per offensive linemen a year ago, an average that’s down only slightly to 318.4 this season after the Razorbacks were forced to replace three starters because of graduation and early NFL entry.
While more mass might have helped against the Aggies, experience would have been even better. Right tackle Brian Wallace made his first career start in the game, while left guard Hjalte Froholdt — a former defensive lineman — and right guard Jake Raulerson are in their first seasons as starters as well.
Left tackle Dan Skipper and center Frank Ragnow have provided the experience for the Razorbacks, but their contributions weren’t enough to overcome Texas A&M in short-yardage situations.
“We’re not as stout as I’d like to be, especially there on the goal line,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “Up front, you’d like to get a bigger push from tackle to tackle, and right now we just don’t have it. We can and we will, and we’ll continue to develop it, but right now we don’t.”
If there’s reason for optimism about improvement, it comes from Bielema’s lengthy history of developing standout linemen. Also, after allowing four sacks in a season-opening win over Louisiana Tech, Arkansas has allowed only three in the three games since — though none of that helped ease the frustration of last week’s missed goal-line chances.
“They threw multiple looks at us, but it really doesn’t matter what the look is,” Ragnow said. “We should have been able to execute.”
Despite the pressure he faced against Texas A&M, including one hit that sent him to the sideline medical tent in the first half, Allen threw for a career-high 371 yards in the loss.
Bielema said the junior signal caller made his frustrations known with the blocking of his offensive line during the game. Afterward, however, Allen said he has “full faith” the line play will improve — beginning this week when the Razorbacks play their final nonconference game against Alcorn State.
“(There are) still some young guys up there on the offensive line,” Allen said. “It’s the first SEC game, and they’re going to get better.”