Sep 8, 2012; Little Rock, AR, USA; Can Arkansas Razorbacks head coach John Smith reverse the Hogs fortunes in less than one week? Credit: Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIRE
Fayetteville, Ark. – A week in college football can seem like a lifetime for college football fans, players, and a given coaching staff. One week can change the entire complexion of a team’s season and the direction of said program along with dousing the hopes of a rabid fan base. This is especially true for the Arkansas Razorbacks and all due to one loss by three points.
Last week Arkansas (1-1) jumped two spots in the AP Top 25 Poll to No. 8 before facing an unranked Louisiana-Monroe team. After a heartbreaking 34-31 overtime loss in Little Rock the Arkansas Razorbacks 2012 college football season remains more of a mystery with an uncertain outcome than a team possibly destined for greatness, as many preseason college football experts had predicted.
Adding to the rush for the Arkansas coaching staff and players to figure everything out in one week’s time is the looming game with high national attention for the Hogs against SEC West foe and reining BCS national champs, No. 1 Alabama (2-0).
Just two weeks into the 2012 season Alabama appears to have overcome the loss of graduated talent to the NFL by simply reloading highly recruited players into key positions on offense and defense.
In 2011 Alabama finished ranked No. 1 in every major defensive category including scoring (8.2 ppg), rushing defense (72.2 ypg), passing defense (111.5 ypg), and total defense, only allowing teams to completely maneuver up one full length of the football field in a game’s time (183.6 yards per game).
With the losses of big-name college players like safety Mark Baron, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and defensive end Courtney Upshaw one would assume Alabama could experience some sort of drop off in defensive dominance. After two games against Michigan and Western Kentucky, the Tide’s defense led by defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is ranked No. 14 in total defense allowing 246 yards per game.
The Alabama defense is showing signs of another dominating season.
The one area Arkansas might be able to exploit in Alabama’s defense is their pass defense, especially their safeties. Against two teams not known for a high level passing attack, Alabama has given up 387 total passing yards, No. 37 overall in Division-I.
The only problem is who will be under center for Arkansas on Saturday; preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Tyler Wilson, redshirt freshman Brandon Allen, or former backup quarterback turned wide receiver Brandon Mitchell?
The ugly truth to Arkansas’ loss on Saturday was the absence of Tyler Wilson in the second half. Arkansas was up 21-7 at halftime with Wilson easily throwing for 197 yards with a couple of touchdowns.
Louisiana-Monroe effectively blitzed Wilson down after down getting to the star quarterback through Arkansas’ porous pass blocking offensive line. Wilson took hit after hit in the process, a couple of hits that one could argue were late and/or targeting Wilson’s head, before being knocked out of the game for the second half of their upset loss and perhaps longer with what is being called “an above the neck” injury.
Wilson’s second half replacement was Brandon Allen. Allen had a touchdown leading drive to start the second half and then the wheels completely came off the offense and defense for the Hogs.
Allen looked pressed and flustered over the Razorbacks’ six remaining possessions against the Warhawks going three and out in five of the six before end of regulation. Not taking any time off the clock the Arkansas defense had little time to make adjustments and simply wore out by the end of the game.
Wilson has not been cleared by team doctor’s to play. The decision to play Wilson could end up being a last second game time decision. Earlier in the week Arkansas head coach John L. Smith said he was optimistic that Wilson would play this weekend.
If Wilson is not the Hogs’ starter under center, even if he is, expect Alabama’s defensive line to blitz Arkansas’ quarterback every down until the Hogs prove they can make plays down field or the offensive line holds up the Tide’s blitzing efforts.
The blitzing Crimson Tide defense will open space for Arkansas receivers underneath if three step drop pass plays are called instead of 25-yard drag routes, 15-yard out routes, and crossing patterns from one side of the field to the other.
Alabama’s defense will be able to stuff some Arkansas runs but holes will be open for Razorback running backs if they can withstand the initial hit at the line of scrimmage. Aiding in Bama’s ability to stop Arkansas is the return of nose tackle Jesse Williams (concussion) and cornerback Dee Milliner (hip). Both players missed last week’s game against Western Kentucky.
Knile Davis has not returned to his late season form in 2010 that made him a first-team All-SEC pick for the Razorbacks before he missed the 2011 season with an ankle injury. Davis has shown bursts of speed but has not been aggressive hitting holes, or opponents for that matter, early in the season leaving fans to question if Davis is favoring his once injured ankle.
Backup running back Dennis Johnson, when given carries, has been Arkansas’ most productive runner. Johnson has always run the ball with a purpose but had fallen in the previous coaches’ dog house with fumble issues throughout his career.
With Alabama’s tough defensive line coming to town will Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino stick with the run throughout the game or abandon the run early if he does not get the results he desires?
Another big question for Arkansas is their pass blocking. One of the best mismatches the Hogs can put on the field against any team is tight end Chris Gragg. With Gragg running routes, that leaves an Arkansas line with serious questions without one more body to help pass protect.
Will Petrino use a two tight end set to help Gragg get into space and help the line pass block or will Gragg be kept in to help out taking away one of Arkansas’ best offensive weapons?
Arkansas fans cannot underestimate the loss of starting fullback Kiero Small. Small was a devastating lead blocker for the running backs and a really good pass protector for Wilson.
Without Small Arkansas has tinkered with offensive lineman Grady Ollison, and tight ends Alex Voelzke and Brett Weir at fullback or H-back. Each player has the size but do they have the quickness and mentality needed when taking on SEC linebackers to clear the hole?
On offense Alabama will rely on their emerging star, quarterback A.J. McCarron.
As odd as that may seem to read for an Alabama quarterback to be an emerging star, McCarron has come a long way since being the primary person to hand the ball off to running back Trent Richardson a season ago. McCarron sports the third best QB rating in college football (199.8), slightly better than No. 4 Tyler Wilson’s 195.3.
While not filling up the stat sheet on total passing yards, No. 7 in the SEC with 418 total yards, McCarron has been efficient with the ball throwing for six touchdowns with zero interceptions.
The one early season blemish on Alabama’s passing offense is taking care of the quarterback. McCarron has been sacked eight times in two games with six coming against Western Kentucky last week.
Whether McCarron is holding onto the ball too long, the receivers are not getting open, or the offensive line needs to be tweaked expect Alabama head coach Nick Saban to address the problem this week before entering SEC play.
Freshman running back T.J. Yeldon has been the biggest early season surprise for Alabama. Yeldon has a team-high 136 rushing yards on 17 carries for an 8.0 yard per carry average.
Running back/fullback Jalston Fowler is Alabama’s second leading rusher with 85 total yards. Fowler suffered a season ending leg injury which could be a cause for some concern in short-yardage and goal line plays for offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
Nussmeier may have a few restless nights knowing that his Alabama offensive line is supposed to be the best in the country and has had trouble pass protecting. Another possible concern is the Tide’s No. 9 overall rank in the SEC in total rushing yards. All stats that do not point to a normal Nick Saban coached team.
Out of 120 total BCS schools the Arkansas Razorbacks’ defense ranks No. 86. That ranking comes after playing Jacksonville State, a FCS program, and Louisiana-Monroe, a Sun Belt Conference team. While Nussmeier’s statistical problems maybe solved after a Saturday in Fayetteville, Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes has a lot to prove with his young defense.
Haynes will send a true freshman cornerback on the field as a starter against Bama. Will Hines (Waco, TX) will start in place of injured starter Tevin Mitchell. Mitchell was the Hogs’ best cover corner before taking an accidental helmet to helmet hit by his teammate Alonzo Highsmith that caused Mitchell to be carted off the field by medical personnel.
Mitchell had gallbladder surgery earlier this week, unrelated to the hit, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks if not longer before returning to the field. Expect Nussmeier to test Hines early and often with Mitchell gone.
The strength of Arkansas’ defense is their front four. The front four will have to make all the noise they can to take pressure off the Razorbacks secondary and linebackers.
Over the first two games of Arkansas’ season senior starting linebackers Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright have not played up to expectations. Highsmith was asked to “spy” ULM quarterback Kolton Browning last weekend and had difficulties doing so in the second half. As a result Browning diced the Razorback defense to the tune of 410 passing yards.
Wright has shown progress but with a lot of rust moving from his left end starting position in 2011 to middle linebacker in 2012. Wright has the size, 6’2”, 255 pounds, to be an every down SEC middle linebacker, but he appears to be over thinking each snap instead of reacting to plays. He has been caught out of position numerous times leading to some big plays for the opposition.
Both teams have holes entering Saturday’s game, as always the final outcome will be decided by which coach can exploit the other team’s weaknesses the best.
Alabama 31, 21… if Tyler Wilson is cleared to play.
While Alabama looked great against Michigan, the Big Blue may not be the team we thought they were entering the season making Alabama’s impressive win a little uncertain.
If Tyler Wilson does not play can Brandon Allen, a redshirt freshman handle the pressure of playing the No. 1 team in the nation in front of a national TV audience during a primetime football slot on CBS?
Or, will the Razorback coaching staff choose the older Brandon Mitchell with more game experience than Allen and time in the Arkansas offense to finally get a start as the Razorbacks QB?
If Wilson does play he is talented enough to make this a shootout which leans this game back closer to even.
The good news is Arkansas’ defense can only get better… right? The defensive front four is deep and talented which should be able to slow down the Tide’s running backs if the Hogs’ linebackers can make plays three yards within the line of scrimmage instead of five to nine yards off.
McCarron may have a career game against the Razorback secondary but then again there is talent back there for Arkansas.
Both teams have great special teams play in their kicking games and kick return games. The difference may be special teams play calling. Last year Bama ran a fake punt for a touchdown early in the game which helped swing the momentum in their direction. Arkansas’ special teams should be ready for anything on Saturday and John L. Smith may look to run a trick play here or there to help catch Alabama off guard if possible.
Will the Hogs be fired up after being embarrassed by ULM and having to hear about it all week? How far will emotion take the Razorbacks on Saturday?
Location: Fayetteville, Arkansas
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET