State of the Hogs: Play Action

Expect a wild ride Saturday. Is this the day No. 1 falls in the Ozarks again?

I've got a theory on how the Alabama-Arkansas game will turn out. It will hinge on play-action fakes. The team that is able to play pass when the quarterback fakes to his running back is going to win.

Despite what some might believe, Arkansas has had a strong enough running game to allow for play-action passing to be effective. The Hogs got their biggest plays last year after faking a running play.

After the way the Hogs were lambasted for not running it well enough the last three weeks, most would find that surprising. Some are waiting for The Pistol running plays to burst out of the playbook this year after the addition of Chris Klenakis as offensive line coach. But it's the play-action fakes out of The Pistol formation that have been real weapons both last year and early in this season.

It's clear that opposing defenders are honoring run fakes. They are geared to stop the run. I was surprised at how much all three foes the first three weeks set their safeties to stop the run.

What will Alabama do? They are good on defense, but they've not blitzed as much this year as the last two seasons when their safeties, cornerbacks and linebackers were NFL caliber. Perhaps head coach Nick Saban isn't comfortable exposing the back end of his defense just yet? Maybe this is the week, though?

Some have wondered if this is the week Arkansas really puts Brandon Mitchell and some option running out of The Pistol (the Hogs call it The Shot) into the middle parts of the game. Could the Hogs have been saving it for Alabama? That would surprise me, but I wouldn't completely rule it out.

I don't think that's what the Hogs have been tinkering with this week. The real issue is probably getting the running backs to mesh with the offensive line. What they need is for the backs to hit the creases, hit the angles just right or sprint to the boundary. They didn't do that last week at Georgia. No, the O-line didn't block everything perfectly, but they weren't bad, either.

I think the running game will be a little better this week, if Ronnie Wingo, Knile Davis and Broderick Green step up. I think they will be able to run it enough to make those play-action fakes hold the linebackers and safeties. That's all Ryan Mallett needs, is a little time.

Mallett didn't have a lot of time last year, but this Alabama defense hasn't done a great job of attacking a quarterback. The Tide has been last in the SEC in sacks through the first three weeks. Some of it might be fewer blitzes. Saban might know that his offense is going to score plenty and there's no use giving up anything cheap to make things too tight.

The key for the Arkansas offense is probably the wide receivers and tight ends. I didn't think they stepped up in Tuscaloosa last year. They didn't fight and compete the way they did at home. They got knocked around by the Tide linebackers and safeties and coughed up some nice passes by Mallett. There was a critical third down pass that D. J. Williams didn't hold right in front of Petrino. Williams got whacked on that play, but it's a catch he should make.

Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright have to play well for the Hogs to win. They must play better than they did on the road last season. If they really are one of the top sets of wideouts in the country, they have to produce this week.

Conversely, the Hogs must figure out some way to slow this Alabama offense. They can't fall to trickery. They can't rely on selling out in the secondary to stop the run, or they will give up big plays in the passing game.

There is some trickery in the Alabama scheme. They'll run the reverses and the wide receiver sweeps in counter situations. The Tide will also jump in the Wildcat with one of those great tailbacks in an old single wing set. They'll throw out of that set, too. Ask the Hogs. They got burned last year.

This is the week where we see how far the Arkansas safeties have come. Can they tackle these great backs? How will Tramain Thomas and Rudell Crim hold up against big, fast, quick backs? Both Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson have the spin move down to an art form. They will hit a safety, then rip free of their arms with as strong and sure a spin as you'll see at the college level.

Likewise, this is also the week we see if Isaac Madison and Ramon Broadway can go toe to toe with big-time talents at wide receiver. Alabama's set of Julio Jones and Marquis Maze is extremely talented.

The last time I saw such a wonderful collection of backs together it was either Auburn (Ronnie Brown and Cadilac Williams) or Arkansas (Darren McFadden and Felix Jones). If I really go back in years, there was a time when the Hogs had Ben Cowins, Michael Forrest and Jerry Eckwood. Ingram and Richardson are as good as any of those combos.

I'm not sure the Hogs can consistently stop Alabama. I know this is an improved Arkansas defense over the one that stayed in the fight for better than two quarters at Tuscaloosa. But it's a vastly improved Alabama offense.

If Arkansas is to win, one of two things has to happen: 1, Alabama would have to help with turnovers and penalties, something that this Tide offense hasn't done; or, 2, Arkansas has to score a bunch, perhaps in the high 30s or 40s. It's hard to imagine either happening.

The wild card in the matchup is the kicking game. Arkansas appears to be much improved in special teams, including a punt and punt return game that is finally up to SEC standards. Punter Dylan Breeding and returner Joe Adams are big upgrades in that area.

Alabama's placekicker, holder and punter are all freshmen. But the return men (Jones and Richardson) are standouts. The Tide lists three kickoff return specialists: Jones, Richardson and Ingram. If the Hogs score a lot, Alex Tejada needs a good day on kickoffs to keep the ball away from those talents.

If you like trench battles, I'll give you two keys. Arkansas starts a freshman at center, Travis Swanson. How will he do against Bama's Josh Chapman and Kerry Murphy, likely to rotate at nose guard. When Bama has the ball, watch freshman right tackle D. J. Fluker. How does he do against Arkansas ends Jake Bequette, Damario Ambrose and Tenarius Wright?

I took Alabama when I made the magazine predictions on Sunday morning, but I'm starting to head the other direction. I like the grounded nature of this Arkansas team. The maturity I've seen over the last two weeks will serve the Hogs well Saturday afternoon. This is a game the Hogs can win. Alabama is the best team on paper, but the best team doesn't always win.

It's going to be a wild afternoon. When it's over, Dickson Street may be closed to vehicles. They may have to shut down school on Monday. That's what happens when No. 1 falls in the Ozarks.

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