Everyone loves an exciting game, but I’ll be honest and say that I’m growing more tired and scared every week that Arkansas allows an opponent to hang a few touchdowns on the defense before deciding how to play, and sometimes, luckily, win. The Texas A&M game was a fun comeback to watch. The Auburn game turned into a blowout. The Ole Miss game was head-scratching. And the latest game, against Vanderbilt, was the closest bullet Coach Petrino has dodged yet.
These slow offensive, and even slower defensive, starts must be turned around if the Hogs want to stay in the hunt for an SEC West Division title, much less a second straight BCS invite. The offense, for the most part, can find its stride after a few series. But the defense, well, that’s the part of Arkansas’ game that concerns me the most. Last week Vandy had our Hogs in a bad situation until Jerry Franklin was able to scoop up the fumble and return it 94 yards for a TD. That is not a play, or scheme, that Coach Robinson drew up in a huddle.
Robinson has shown to be very capable to make the necessary second half adjustments to put the Hogs in a place to win. Last weekend the Razorbacks’ defense tightened up in the second half, but not enough to take Vanderbilt out of the game completely. The Hogs ended up winning, but hopefully it was a wake-up call for the entire team. This is the SEC where each game, each week, is a battle. Teams can’t afford to sleepwalk on any given weekend.
After leaving Oxford with a win, the Hogs dropped in the BCS rankings. I thought surely it was going to happen again after narrowly escaping Nashville with a win. But this time, the Hogs jumped three spots to land at No. 7. This week’s opponent, South Carolina, comes to Fayetteville as the No. 10 ranked team in the BCS. And now, for the second straight year, there will be a Top 10 matchup hosted at Razorback Stadium.
If the Hogs can’t get going in a hurry against the Gamecocks, they might find themselves in a hole they’re unable to dig out of. While everyone has been talking non-stop about the defenses that No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 LSU field, Defensive Coordinator Ellis Johnson has the South Carolina defense playing extremely well. They currently rank 14th in the country in points allowed per game at 17.1. The Gamecocks are allowing 130 yards per game on the ground and 135 yards in the air. To make things worse, South Carolina leads the SEC with 26 forced turnovers and over their past five games have not allowed an opponent to score more than 16 points per outing.
However, digging a little deeper shows that the last five teams that South Carolina has played (Tennessee, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Auburn and Vanderbilt) only boasts a combined record of 20-21 (6-19 in SEC play). And of those teams, the best passing offense was Tennessee at 45th in the country with 247 yards per game (Note: Tennessee is currently playing without star quarterback Tyler Bray, so their ranking is probably dropping) and the best rushing offense was Auburn at 30th in the country with 191 yards per game. When looking at those top-line stats, one would hope that South Carolina wouldn’t be losing to teams like that.
What will the keys be for Arkansas to win on Saturday?
Offensively: The Hogs have got to come out with some sense of rhythm to start their game. South Carolina isn’t going to be afraid of Arkansas’ rushing attack and they’re confident that their defensive line can pressure Tyler Wilson. The Hogs will desperately need to establish the run in order to keep South Carolina honest in the secondary. Auburn’s Michael Dyer ran the ball 41 times (the team had a total of 67 carries) against the Gamecocks and Auburn escaped with a 16-13 win. Don’t expect Arkansas to run the ball 67 times unless it’s working. But if the Razorbacks can average 3-4 yards a carry, that could be enough to open up the passing attack. Wilson was very lucky last week to not have any of his passes intercepted. This week he’ll have to continue to play smart. We all know Arkansas can strike quickly, hopefully Wilson and the offense can be patient enough to take their shots when given the chance. Dennis Johnson was benched last week after fumbling the second time in as many weeks. I expect him to be the main ball carrier this week, with doses of Broderick Green, Ronnie Wingo, Jr. and Joe Adams providing some change of pace. Jarius Wright has been on a tear lately, so I think that South Carolina will cover him more tightly this game. Cobi Hamilton hasn’t been dominant this season, and with Greg Childs questionable and Marquel Wade suspended, this might be his chance to shine. South Carolina hasn’t given up a defensive play of more than 33 yards this year, so the Hogs have their work cut out for them.
Defensively: South Carolina is missing several of their usual suspects with running back Marcus Lattimore out for the season and quarterback Stephen Garcia no longer on the team. The Gamecocks still do have 6-4 wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw and Freshman running back Brandon Wilds are capable at running the ball effectively — which is something the Hogs haven’t been good at stopping. The Razorbacks will once again be without Tank Wright, who was hopeful to return this game after breaking his arm in the Alabama game. Shaw’s passing ability isn’t typical of a Steve Spurrier offense, so South Carolina will look to control the pace of the game on the ground and then take shots to Jeffery every so often. If the defensive line can’t get off their blocks and stop the run, or effectively put pressure on Shaw, this could be another nail biter. Everyone is sick of the slow defensive starts, so I’m willing to bet a whole dollar that the Hogs come out ready to shut South Carolina down early.
Special Teams: Last week Zach Hocker was essential to that win, it’s nice to know that the Razorbacks have a kicker they can count on. But, for the second straight game, the Hogs also botched a special teams play (and I’m not talking about the ridiculous hit by Wade). In close games, special teams can make the difference. If you don’t believe me, ask the Vandy kicker who missed his chance to send the game into overtime. The Hogs need to play smarter on special teams this week if they want to keep South Carolina from gaining any momentum.
It should be a wonderful November day in Fayetteville for some football. Both teams are playing for SEC title hopes and BCS possibilities. The team that comes out ready to play on both sides of the ball will win the game. South Carolina has a chance to upset the Hogs this year, but I don’t think it’s their time. I see the Hogs coming out and playing a much improved defensive game, but not perfect. The offense will sputter some while trying to find a running game, but eventually will make the plays needed to win. Arkansas Razorbacks 35, South Carolina Gamecocks 20.
Let us know what you think the final score will be. If you’re the closest (see rules below), you’ll get a free t-shirt from Bearstate Supply.
How to enter
Leave a comment with your game prediction. If you want to add anything else, please feel free.
What you’ll win
One t-shirt of your choice (design, color, size) from the Bearstate Supply online store. (Hoodies, ringers and tri-blend AA’s not included)
- You only may enter this specific contest once.
- Contests are open to anyone anywhere except staff of Fayetteville Flyer and their immediate family members.
- The winning entry must pick the winning team and have the smallest combined difference from each team’s final score. Example: If the Razorbacks win by a score of 21-7, and your prediction was Razorbacks 20-10, your difference would be 1 + 3 = 4. In the event of a tie, a winner will be selected by a random drawing.
- You must pick the score by 15 minutes before kickoff for each game.
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South Carolina at Arkansas
Date: Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011
Time: 6:15 p.m.
Location: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville, Ark.
TV: ESPN / ESPN3