Razorbacks' gadgetry catching defenses off guard

Wednesday, September 27th 2006, 8:46 am
By: News On 6

LITTLE ROCK (AP) _ Two new guidelines for watching Arkansas football:

1. Don't blink.

2. Bring a rulebook.

The Razorbacks have struggled at times on offense this season, but not because they're afraid to flout convention. Arkansas brought out the old swinging gate in last weekend's 24-23 double overtime win over Alabama. The previous week at Vanderbilt, the Razorbacks scored with a tackle-eligible play out of a spread formation.

``I've always looked at those special plays as just a part of your offense to try to put as much pressure on the defense as possible,'' new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said Tuesday.

Arkansas has used trick plays in the past under coach Houston Nutt. For example, wide receiver Cedric Washington completed a 45-yard pass in last year's season-ending loss to LSU.

But this season, Arkansas has gone a step further, running plays so odd-looking they appear illegal at first. But they're completely within the rules _ and they've caught opposing defenses by surprise.

With 1:35 left in regulation against Alabama, Arkansas had the ball on its own 37-yard line with score tied at 17. Facing third-and-4, the Razorbacks called a timeout.

After the officials spotted the ball, the Razorbacks stayed near the Arkansas sideline as if they were receiving final instructions. What they were really doing was setting up at the line of scrimmage in a legal formation.

As the Crimson Tide jogged out to where the ball was, Razorbacks quarterback Mitch Mustain quickly ran to the ball and flipped it to Felix Jones near the sideline. Jones ran behind a wall of blockers for 10 yards before the Alabama defense made it over to stop him.

The formation is called the swinging gate. Malzahn, one of Arkansas' most successful high school coaches before joining the Razorbacks, said his teams have used it before.

The play Arkansas ran is legal because the rules don't require the ball to be snapped through a player's legs. A player is allowed to turn and flip it to another player _ like Mustain did _ to start a play. It doesn't matter where the rest of the players are lined up as long as enough are on the line of scrimmage _ the players just have to hold still for at least a second while they wait for the snap to avoid a false start.

Nutt tipped off officials before the play to make sure they wouldn't be caught off guard. The Razorbacks were hoping for a big gain, and it appeared Jones could have run farther if he'd cut back to the inside.

``Any time you run a play like that, you'd like to get as many yards as possible,'' Malzahn said. ``Ideally, we were hoping we'd get more, but it did get us a first down.''

That was crucial, because although Arkansas' drive eventually stalled, Alabama didn't have time for a winning drive in regulation.

Malzahn has written a book on the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, but Arkansas hasn't fully implemented it. Instead, the Razorbacks are trying to preserve their impressive power running while also using more spread formations.

In a 21-19 win over Vanderbilt two weekends ago, Arkansas had the ball at the Commodores' 15. The Razorbacks came to the line of scrimmage, then quickly shifted to a formation that appeared to have five wide receivers. Mustain threw a touchdown pass over the middle to tight end Ben Cleveland, who had lined up as the left tackle.

The rules require that seven offensive players be on the line of scrimmage _ and only those on each end can go out for a pass. Cleveland was eligible because the two wide receivers outside of him were behind the line of scrimmage.

To compensate, two of Arkansas' three wide receivers on the other side of the formation set up at the line of scrimmage, meaning one of them was ineligible and had to just stand there throughout the play. But Vanderbilt didn't notice what was happening until too late, and Cleveland was open in the middle of the field.

The play gave Arkansas a 21-13 lead in the third quarter and proved Malzahn and the Razorbacks are willing to use any sort of trickery _ at any time _ to gain an edge.

``You strategically try to run those in times that you need them,'' Malzahn said. ``Not just to run them to run them, but at times that it can help you win.''