FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash doesn’t sugarcoat anything about his defense.
So it was no surprise Ash had plenty to say when the Razorbacks’ penalty problems were mentioned after Wednesday’s practice.
"It’s ridiculous," Ash said. "They’re foolish penalties. Good football teams, winning football teams don’t do that. We take pride in trying to be one of the least penalized teams in America. Where we were before (Wisconsin) we were that.
"It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process just like anything else. But they’re unacceptable and if we want to get to where we need to get it it’s got to stop."
Arkansas has paid special attention to the careless mistakes that plagued it on both sides of the ball during the 28-24 loss at Rutgers on Saturday. Eliminating penalties has been an emphasis of the week as the Razorbacks (3-1) prepare for Saturday night’s Southeastern Conference opener against 10th-ranked Texas A&M (3-1).
It’s no secret Arkansas endured a penalty problem during its first loss, although the number of mistakes wasn’t the issue (six penalties). The timing of the penalties and the yardage they cost the Razorbacks (66) caused most of their frustration.
The most costly came when Arkansas linebacker Jarrett Lake hit Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova out of bounds. The personal foul set up the Scarlet Knights’ first touchdown, which helped them cut Arkansas’ lead to 10-7 at halftime.
"The ones on Saturday were just critical, and you can directly relate that to how we win or lose games," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. "That’s the teaching point I had to maximize and let (it) be known, you know, you will make the difference.
"You will make an effort to change and if you don’t, we’ll move on without you."
Last Saturday’s problems were part of a four-game stretch in which Arkansas has been flagged 20 times for 210 yards. Once again, the number hasn’t been cause for concern (Arkansas ranks four in the Southeastern Conference and 32nd in the NCAA in penalties a game). But the timing and the yardage have caused problems (Arkansas is 10th in the SEC and 70th in the NCAA in penalty yards a game).
It’s a deviation from the norm for Bielema. His Wisconsin teams were disciplined, refusing to beat themselves with careless mistakes. They regularly finished among the least penalized in the country and Arkansas hopes to get there, too.
"Any time you get a penalty it’s at the wrong time," running back Jonathan Williams said. "We’re coached by a coach that doesn’t like penalties and he preaches not having pre-snap penalties and dumb penalties like that. So any penalty is too much."
Said fullback Kiero Small: "It’s just discipline. Five a game might not seem like a lot to a lot of people, but to us it’s a lot. We want to get down to zero."
Arkansas’ biggest flaw has been personal foul penalties. The defense has been flagged for seven in four games. Three of them came in the Rutgers loss.
In addition to Lake, cornerback Tevin Mitchel was caught pulling on Rutgers running back Paul James’ facemask during a 10-yard run. Defensive end Brandon Lewis also was penalized for a personal foul on Mitchel’s interception return for a touchdown and the 15 yards was marked off on the ensuing kickoff.
Mitchel has been flagged for four 15-yard penalties alone in four games. The sophomore’s tally includes three facemasks. Bielema was referring to Mitchel when he said Arkansas would "set a world record for face masks at the corner position if we don’t learn how to knife our opponents or do a better job of wrapping up."
Mitchel took responsibility for his mistakes and knows they must be corrected.
"We’ve been having a lot of penalties. That’s one thing that we cannot have," Mitchel said. "Especially coming from me. I’ve had plenty. … We just have to eliminate that."
Breaking the bad habits isn’t always easy in what Bielema described as a "process," but it’s something Arkansas’ staff has emphasized since arriving on campus. Punishments were doled out to players who committed penalties in practice and Arkansas also made sure referees monitored scrimmage sessions with careful eyes.
"We had the refs come in and I told them to call it as close as possible," Bielema said. "I wanted every flag to be thrown. And it had really been a good learning process."
But Bielema has been forced to make his point again this week.
"That’s one of Coach B’s biggest things that he likes to preach on is no unnecessary personal foul type penalties because that’s just giving them the free yards," Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. "Obviously we had a few this past game and Coach B made it clear to kind of everyone as a team what he thinks about that."
Lake said the message has been loud and clear this week.
The senior said his personal foul penalty last Saturday was frustrating, but didn’t realize how close he was to being out of bounds when he tried to stop Nova. Once he did, it was too late. Now, Lake wants the mistake to serve as an important lesson.
"Coach B did a great job of getting my mind off of it and pulling me aside at halftime and telling me we’re going to have to put that behind us and go out and have a great second half," Lake said. "That’s all I tried to do."