By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino has talked about his team’s slow starts all week.
His players have heard all about it, too, from Petrino’s staff, the media and fans.
So when the BCS No. 10 Razorbacks (6-1, 2-1 in Southeastern Conference) wrapped up on-the-field work for today’s game at Vanderbilt (4-3, 1-3) on Thursday, Petrino said it was time for the conversation to end.
"Everybody here knows we need to get a better start than we have," Petrino said. "Our players understand it. I understand it. You guys understand it. So now we have to go do it. Quit talking about it and go do it."
Arkansas will try to end the issue once and for all when it plays the Commodores in Vanderbilt Stadium.
The Razorbacks realize they’ve been fortunate to be 3-1 over the past four weeks despite falling into early holes each time. The most delicate situations came in 18- and 17-point deficits to Texas A&M and Ole Miss, respectively. Arkansas showed its resiliency in rallying to win both games, but quarterback Tyler Wilson said it’s a dangerous game to play.
"Obviously, it’s a concern," Wilson said. "If you’re playing a good team and you spot them 17 points, you’re not going to get a win a lot of times. ..."We’ve talked about it. Everybody in the world knows that’s our weakness the past couple of weeks. We’re definitely going to get it fixed this week."
Offensively, Wilson and the Razorbacks have been anything but a quick-strike unit early in games.
The Razorbacks scored a touchdown on their opening drives in wins against Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy to open the year. But Arkansas has sputtered since, going three-plays-and-out the past four games.
Wilson has completed just 4 of 9 passes for 12 yards on those possessions. His longest completion is a 4-yarder. The backs have had much success either, rushing for four yards on three carries those drives.
"It’s frustrating," center Travis Swanson said. "It takes us getting down a certain amount of points to kind of wake up and realize we need to get going."
Arkansas’ defense hasn’t been successful either, surrendering 591 yards in the first quarter of its past four games. Opponents have put together solid drives right off the bat, moving downfield with ease.
Texas A&M and Alabama each scored touchdowns on their opening possessions against the Hogs. Ole Miss and Auburn scored points on their second drives.
In all, Arkansas has been outscored 38-21 in the first quarter, 83-52 in the first half in four games.
"It’s a matter of when you do get hit in the mouth, how do you respond?" Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said. "I think that’s something that’s been admirable, even though we’ve found ourselves in really bad situations. ... But against better football teams as this year goes on, it’s going to be something that you can’t get started that slow."
Robinson and the Razorbacks believe Vanderbilt is the type of team that can make Arkansas pay today.
The Commodores are gaining confidence under new coach James Franklin, whose team is trying to reach a bowl game for just the second time since 1982.
Vanderbilt beat Ole Miss 30-7 earlier this season and nearly pulled off an upset in its last SEC game against Georgia, falling 33-28. The Commodores host a ranked team for the first time this season and know a solid start could be key in knocking off the Hogs.
"We just want to go out and play well,’ Franklin said. "We want to start well. We want to overcome adversity when it hits because it’s going to hit like it does in every game. How you handle that is very, very important and then finding a way to finish the game and finding a way to come out with a ‘W.’"
So what can Arkansas do to solve the problems?
When asked how Arkansas can start faster, defensive end Jake Bequette said "that’s a great question."
"That really falls on the leaders of this team, including myself, to try to get the team, I guess, ready to play faster from the opening whistle," Bequette said. "We’ve been able to overcome some early deficits, but we’ve got to figure out why we’re starting slow, and we’ve got to correct it."
Petrino offered some ideas Monday. He believes the Razorbacks need to be more aggressive out of the gates, defensively. He said his offense has "stuttered" early, too, and must be sharp. He also said players must decide to compete right away.
If they’re successful at Vanderbilt today, the Razorbacks can show their slow starts are a thing of the past. But if the problems persist, Arkansas knows the Commodores are talented enough to make them pay.
"We can’t go on the road in SEC games and expect to get down 17 or 10 points and be able to come out like we did," Swanson said. "Eventually, if we don’t fix that, that’s going to bite us in the butt."