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Friday preview: Arkansas

You would so be riding the bench at Michigan right now.

Order up. One Friday Preview, hold the Jerry, extra me. Wait, that’s not what you ordered? Well, that’s all we got. Enjoy.

What’s at stake: Pole position in the race for the Wild Wild SEC West.

Supporters of the current BCS system (you won’t find too many of around these parts) say that we don’t need a playoff in college football because the regular season is already a “playoff”.

The problem with that reasoning is that, in most conferences, that’s not the case.

Well, in the SEC it is. And it’s especially true for the SEC West, whose teams are 8-2 against East teams so far this year. There’s not going to be any help from the outside. You’re going to have to win a lot of games this year to get to Atlanta. You’re probably going to have to win them all.

The eventual SEC West winner — whether it’s Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, or Alabama — is going to have to go through three Top 15 teams to get to the SEC Championship game.

For Auburn, that journey begins tomorrow.

Arkansas, after falling off the map for a few weeks by letting the Alabama game slip through their fingers in the waning moments, having a bye week, and then traveling to Dallas for an out-of-conference game, is right back in the thick of things following Alabama’s defeat at the hands of South Carolina.

It’s a battle of contenders. It’s a clash of titans.

And on top of all that, it’s everything a #7 vs #12 matchup could mean for a program.

It’s an SEC football game. It’s a big deal.

When Arkansas has the ball

The game is going to come down to this side of the ball. And it’s going to come down to the guy pictured above.

Ryan Mallett, as Hog fans well know, has been known to win games for Arkansas, and he has also been known to lose games for Arkansas.

On Saturday, Auburn has a good chance to force the latter.

It starts with stopping his deep stable of runningbacks, spearheaded by sophomore back Knile Davis. He leads the team with 203 yards on the year, with 6.8 yards a carry. He reminds me a lot of a guy I’d rather not be reminded of. He’s built a lot like him, and he runs a lot like him. Let’s just hope he doesn’t play against Auburn a lot like him.

Alongside Davis is junior Broderick Green, the bruiser of the bunch, who transferred back home from USC a couple years ago, and was the number one back for Arkansas early in the year before Davis recently stepped up to split carries with him. Behind them is speedy sophomore Ronnie Wingo Jr., who we will see some of as well.

They’re very deep and very talented at runningback, but, of course, with Arkansas, it begins and ends with the passing game. And the passing game begins and ends with Ryan Mallett.

Mallett likes to spread the ball around. Last week, against Texas A&M, 10 different receivers caught passes. The notables are junior wide receivers Joe Adams and Greg Childs, who have combined for six touchdowns so far this year.

They also like to spread the ball to their tight ends; tight end DJ Williams is the team’s third leading receiver. They have several packages where two, sometimes three tight ends stack one side of the line of scrimmage before all going out for passes. So look out for that. And Mallett has been known to get the ball to his runningbacks, too – Wingo has more receiving yards than rushing yards this year.

Mallett is a very potent passer and he has some playmakers all over the field. That said, he can be stopped.

Unlike last week, where Kentucky’s passing attack posed a matchup problem to the Auburn defense, Auburn actually matches up pretty well against Mallett and the Hogs’ offense.

Arkansas runs a very sophisticated pro-style passing game, where Mallett sits in the pocket, goes through his progressions, and finds the open receiver. The best way to stop him from doing that is getting pressure on him. When you do that, he falls apart, frankly, and either eats the ball or throws it right in the chest of your defensive back.

And there’s nothing that tells me that Auburn can’t get in his face early, and get in his face often. Auburn has recorded 15 sacks this season, with 13 of them coming against teams not named Clemson and Kentucky — i.e., Auburn gets a lot of pressure on everybody that doesn’t just throw three-step-drop swing routes all day.

Obviously, Arkansas could make adjustments this week and attack the Auburn defense where it is weakest. They do a lot of quick five-yard timing routes that will work, and Mallett could always check down to Wingo or his other backs when he is in trouble. But there aren’t too many different things they could do because, honestly, Mallett can barely complete a screen pass. When someone gets in his face — and they do on screen plays — he throws it four feet over the receiver’s head.

I’m telling you — this is a good matchup for Auburn.

Auburn has the run defense to stop the Hogs stable of backs, they have the pass rush to get pressure on Mallett, and when Mallett lobs it up there in the middle for his receivers, Etheridge and Savage will be ready to lower a shoulder and jar the ball loose.

It’s definitely not going to be a shutout, that’s for sure. But as long as the Auburn defense doesn’t allow Arkansas to make too many big plays throughout the game, and doesn’t give up anything easy, Auburn has a very good shot at winning the game.

Like I said, the game is going to come down to this side of the ball.

When Auburn has the ball

This Arkansas defense is unlike any Auburn has seen so far this year.

For one, they’re fast. Real fast. In part because they run a 4-2-5 base defense.

It poses a problem for Newton and his scrambling ability, because their closing speed will have them on him in a hurry. Also, the quick outs to Blake and Zachary, and the end-arounds to McCalebb, won’t be as effective as they are against other defenses.

But what they have in speed, they lack in size. Literally no one in their secondary is over six feet tall, and you can just imagine Kodi Burns and company pushing them around as a run breaks into the second level. Beyond that, it’s just plain obvious that a 4-2-5 is not the defense you want to be in against the four headed rushing monster.

That fifth defensive back is hard-hitting safety/linebacker hybrid Jerico Nelson. He can, and will, appear anywhere on the field, from blitzing off the edge to breaking up deep balls. He had a huge day against Auburn last year, with 10 tackles, 3 for loss. He will be instrumental for Arkansas as they try to slow down the Auburn offense.

Another one of Arkansas’ playmakers on defense is junior linebacker Jerry Franklin, who led the team in tackles for the past two years, and is doing it again so far this year. Playing opposite him at the other linebacker position is first year starter Anthony Leon, a transfer from Florida State. Defensive end Jake Bequette leads the Hogs in sacks.

But while the Arkansas defense plays in a 4-2-5 formation, it may not be as good against the pass as you might expect. They rank high nationally in pass defense statistically, but they have yet to play an above average quarterback. Last week, Texas A&M hit on a quite a few big plays through the passing game, and their quarterback Jarrod Johnson finished with roughly 15 yards per completion, so it might just be deep ball city for Cam Newton again as the defense comes up to stop the run.

But the bread and butter for the offense, as it has been all year, will be with the running game. The Arkansas rush defense hasn’t been too bad this year, but they were trampled for 227 against Alabama in their only real game against a competent backfield. Auburn is going to need to continue its hot streak on the ground if it wants to put up points in this game.

The biggest challenge for the Auburn offense will be countering Arkansas’ blitzes. Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson is just as much a risk-taker as Bobby Petrino is on the other side, and will dial up blitzes from practically every position on the field. It will be interesting, because no one Auburn has faced has been near as blitz-happy as Arkansas is, and we have yet to really see Cam make any adjustments himself at the line. Mario Fannin should get some serious time this week, if only for his pass blocking ability.

But, all in all, Auburn has faced better defenses this year, and did well enough against them.

When special teams is on the field

Returning kicks has been an adventure for Arkansas so far this year, after primary kick returner Dennis Johnson was injured early in the year, and secondary man Maudrecus Humphrey sat out last week after getting a little dinged up. Last week, wide receiver Joe Adams returned kicks and punts.

Arkansas’ kicker is true freshman Zach Hocker, who came in as a punter and kickoff man, but won the placekicking job in fall camp. He’s only missed one field goal so far this year, but he’s only had 6 attempts.

Intangible reason for worry: We’re playing Arkansas. During the day. Need I say more?

I’m talking about the Hawg Hex, of course.

Intangible reason for confidence: The second half.

Arkansas has melted down in the second half of games this year. We all remember their abomination of a fourth quarter against Alabama, and last week Arkansas scored just three points in the second half against Texas A&M.

Meanwhile, most of Auburn’s wins have come in the second half and by finishing strong.

Even if we’re down 35 at halftime, I’d still feel confident that we could come back and win the game.

Three wishes

1. The hurry-up no-huddle. Against a fast defense like Arkansas, this is key. When you wear down a defense, the first thing to go is the legs. When the Arkansas defense doesn’t have their legs, they aren’t much of a defense at all.

2. Big play on special teams. A kick return, a blocked field goal, anything. We’re due for a big play on special teams, right?

3. No interceptions. Honestly, as long as Cam is smart with the football, the offense will be just fine.

Success is / failure is: A head start in the race for the SEC West / a setback that will make the rest of the season an uphill climb. A win / a loss.

Your bottom line

This game is about as big as they come. Everyone has had this one circled on their calendars since the spring. To the winner goes the inside track and the early leg up on the road to Atlanta. To the loser, dashed hopes and dreams, and an uphill struggle for the rest of the year.

The good news is, as long as Auburn plays the way they have been playing all year, Auburn should win going away.

Maybe if the game were in Arkansas I’d feel a bit different, but the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare certainly give the Tigers an advantage.

All Auburn needs to do on defense is pressure the quarterback, keep a lid on their running game, and bend but not break. On offense, they just need to keep doing what they’ve been doing. And there’s nothing I’ve seen that says Auburn isn’t going to be able to do these things.

Meanwhile, Arkansas has yet to prove they’re really any better than the Arkansas that won the Liberty Bowl in overtime last year.

It should be pretty high-scoring, and it should be a heck of a lot of fun. But most importantly, it should be a win.

And so, in one final attempt to imitate Jerry and put up a picture of Johnny Carson followed by a score prediction of tomorrow’s game …

Auburn 33, Arkansas 20

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