Strong LSU squad looms over Razorbacks’ senior night

Arkansas junior wide receiver Jared Cornelius /

More than 20 Razorbacks will play their final game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium when Arkansas plays host to No. 19 LSU at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Razorbacks’ final home game of the season.

It no doubt will be an emotional night for those seniors, who will be introduced before kickoff and take the field along with members of their family where they receive a framed Razorback jersey with their number.

Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, who is never one to hold back his emotions, will likely shed a few tears as he honors the players who worked so diligently to set a foundation for the program that he is still in the process of building at Arkansas.

The fact that it’s an early end to the Hogs’ home schedule might take some of the initial sting away. With road contests at Mississippi State on No. 19 and at Missouri on Nov. 25 still left in the regular-season and a bowl trip following that, there is still a lot of football left for the Hogs to play.

But it still will be the last time such notable Razorbacks as receivers Drew Morgan and Keon Hatcher, tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, offensive tackle Dan Skipper, linebacker Brooks Ellis, defensive ends Jeremiah Ledbetter, Deatrich Wise, and JaMichael Winston; defensive tackle Taiwan Johnson, cornerbacks D.J. Dean and Jared Collins, and punter Toby Baker play on their home field and in front of their home crowd.

It’s a big night and a big game for a group that’s had their fair share of struggles and triumphs, individually and as a team as they worked to establish a football program in which they and the state of Arkansas can take pride.

Sitting at 6-3 overall and 2-3 in SEC play, the Razorbacks have had a solid season despite their struggles. The Hogs are playing their fifth consecutive game against a top-25 opponent and their seventh of the season. Right now the Hogs are 3-3 against those squads. They would dearly love to make it 4-3.

However, that will be difficult. The Tigers (5-3. 3-2) are generally regarded as the second most talented team in the SEC behind Alabama, which whipped LSU, 10-0, in a titanic defensive struggle that turned on the fleet feet of Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter.

LSU played conservatively and kept Alabama backed up in poor field position most of the night, but the Tigers’ own offensive struggles, reaching their end of the field just twice in the ballgame, did the Tigers in.

If the Hogs are to win Saturday, their quarterback Austin Allen will likely have to be a key factor in the game, but unlike Hurts, he’ll need to do his damage with his arm rather than his feet.

Allen, a junior, is having a fine season, completing 170 of 275 passes for 2,291 yards and 19 touchdowns with eight interceptions. When given time he is accurate and can make throws that will test LSU’s talented secondary. But time is something his offensive line has not been able to guarantee against top defenses this season.

Sophomore linebacker Arden Key, 6-6, 238, is one of the best defenders in the SEC. He has 8 sacks this season, which ranks third in the SEC, and has 9.5 tackles behind the line-of-scrimmage.

“He can impact the game in a different way, so you hope you don’t let him get off and start impacting the game that way,” Austin said of Key.

Allen liked LSU’s defensive talent to that of Alabama, Auburn, and Texas A&M.

“They fly around, make a lot of plays,” he said. ‘They’ve got guys on the outside who have played a lot of football and are really good football players.”

Allen said the Tigers’ size and length make it difficult on a quarterback, attempting to pass against them.

“They are just big on the inside and their linebackers are long,” Allen said. “I could go on and on with how good they are, but we’ve got to get on our game plan and get all their tendencies like always and try to play well on Saturday.”

A big part of the Hogs’ game plan will be attempting to run the football against the Tigers. Hog running backs Rawleigh Williams and Devwah Whaley continue to get better and better this season, working in tandem.

Williams, named SEC offensive player of the week after rushing 26 times for 148 yards and 2 touchdowns against Florida, currently ranks second in the SEC in rushing with 106.1 yards per game. He has 955 yards on 179 carries (5.3 yards per carry) and 7 touchdowns this season.

T.J. Hammonds also showed exceptional speed against Florida, and is a player both Bielema and running back coach Reggie Mitchell said needed to get more touches in the right opportunities.

The Razorbacks played their best overall game against Florida, a much more physical brand of football. Allen compared the intensity of this week’s practices to their preparation for the Gators.

“We’ve had the same intensity we did in the bye week and the preparation for Florida this week. I like where we’re headed,” Allen said. “It’s always a little bit more intensity out there when we get to go in the stadium, especially the seniors being their last game.”

When LSU interim coach Ed Ogeron took over from Les Miles, he placed a bigger emphasis on stretching the field offensively with their downfield passing game to loosen up the congestion around the line of scrimmage.

Quarterback Danny Etling has completed 100 of 171 passes for 1,221, seven touchdowns and four interceptions since taking over the job from Brandon Harris.

“They are going to take their shot down field on play action,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “We have to be sound and read our keys. That tough with the talent they have in their backfield.”

Leonard Fournette has 705 yards and 5 TDs on 100 carries for the season with an average of 7.1 yards per carry, but his backup Derrius Guice (629 yards and 7 touchdowns on 80 carries) has been even more efficient, averaging 7.9 yards per carry.

The Tigers boast one of the best offensive lines in the SEC to complement the considerable talents of Fournette and Guice.

On paper, LSU is the favorite in the game, but the “Battle for the Boot” seems to mean more to the Razorbacks. The Hogs have won the last two games in the series, and two of Arkansas’ worst teams in recent memory played the Tigers off their feet in 2012 and 2013 despite close losses.

Bielema’s squad played their best game of the season last week in a 31-10 victory over Florida, while LSU was frustrated by a physical Alabama squad. It’s hard to know whether the Tigers will be physically and mentally ready for another physical game. But, it’s also difficult to tell if the Razorbacks’ domination of Florida was more about the Gators’ relative weakness or the Hogs’ improved play.

The easy call would be to go with LSU’s defense and Fournette and Guice’s power and speed, but I’ll go with Bielema’s November track record and pick Arkansas 27, LSU 24.