Run fits and gap control. That's the two common phrases for playing defense as far as the battles that go on in the trenches up front.
But I'll forever remember what retired Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride told me once. It was affirmed by a couple of other defensive coaches through the years. It goes something like this:
When you aren't quite good enough, you spend all of your time trying to get the gaps to fit right with the different layers of your defense. When you are good enough, a couple of guys along your front blow up the blockers and the gaps all melt away. There are no gaps to fit.
Right now, Arkansas isn't good enough to blow up any gaps. That means the Hogs will be required run fits and tackling to be perfect.
Don't get me wrong. I see improvement in many areas with this defense. They do fit the gaps better. They are better at tackle. But I didn't see any individual victories last week at Auburn. I saw a bunch of stalemates across the front. Stalemates will get you beat on defense no matter how good you fit the gaps.
Offensive linemen are going to block you on almost every play. You just can't let them block you for very long. Arkansas didn't get off blocks. When the Hogs did, they failed to tackle.
I've felt for some weeks that the Arkansas defensive front was improved, specifically the ends with Jake Bequette, Damario Ambrose and Tenarius Wright. Those three hardly made a play against Cam Newton. Mostly, Newton ran between the tackles, making it difficult for the ends.
The tackles -- Byran Jones, Dede Jones, Lavunce Askew, Alfred Davis and Zach Stadther -- got taken out of the play with effective trap and pulling blocks. Auburn's cross blocks were extremely effective. Cam Newton slow played his reads while waiting for the blocking to set up for his middle runs.
You can attack that with blitzes. Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson did that the last two years against Gus Malzahn's offense and it worked. It didn't work as well this time against a great running quarterback. Newton is a great player. There were multiple blitzes again this time. The bad news about a blitz -- you don't get there or you miss a tackle, it's going to be a big play.
I asked Robinson if the problem against Auburn was tackling or getting blocked? I thought it might be some of both. He thought it was clearly a matter of poor tackling and explained that after practice Wednesday. I still left that interview thinking the Hogs didn't get off blocks enough to help their linebackers.
The Arkansas ends were moving up the field, not crashing inside. I don't think they could have gotten to Newton there if there were crashing. He paused just long enough to setup his blocks before picking a gap between the tackles.
You can spend a lot of time worrying about the Auburn game, but the truth is Cam Newton is better than all of the quarterbacks Arkansas will see from this point forward. Ole Miss has Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback. He's a good one, but he's not Newton. He doesn't give you both the power and the speed. Masoli is more slippery than powerful.
The one matchup I've worried about the rest of the season is with South Carolina where they have freshman phenom Marcus Lattimore. He's injured now and finding out what life is like as an inside runner in the SEC. He doesn't play quarterback like Newton, but he's a game changer in how he can run through arms similar to Newton.
There should be improvement at the point of attack this week for the Arkansas defense. The Ole Miss offensive line has been battered with nagging injuries. There are also a lot of new faces up front. The Hogs can't have a lot of stalemates this week. They'll have to get off blocks to have more clean shots at Masoli and the Ole Miss running backs.
The defense was ineffective against Auburn, but not any worse than special teams. That's how Auburn scored so many points. The Tigers took advantage of three nice kickoff returns, a blocked punt. Then, the offense helped with three turnovers in the fourth quarter.
Auburn would have piled up more yards if not for all of those field position breaks, but likely not scored as many points.
What's going to happen the rest of the way? It starts this week with Ole Miss. It's a bigger game than the Alabama game, the last Arkansas home game. There is some real pressure here, where there wasn't for the Alabama game. That was a free shot. This is a must win for the Hogs, the favorite playing at home against a hated rivalry. Actually, I'm not sure the team is so much hated as the coach, Houston Nutt.
Arkansas fans worry that their players don't hate Nutt as much as they do. I do believe there is some of that hidden within the Arkansas team. Ramon Broadway has let some of that slip out this fall. Others have hinted it, too, but know that's not the public approach that their head coach wants. Bobby Petrino prefers that his players walk softly, but carry the big stick.
Arkansas fans want their team to hit Nutt with a club, not a stick. Or, more to the point, they want a big number on the scoreboard opposite a little number for Ole Miss. The Arkansas players understand. Trust me. Petrino understands. Trust me.
Now whether or not you trust me that this Arkansas defense is better than the last two eyars is open for debate. For most, they'll need to see that improved nature of the front return this week and the last five weeks of the season. I want to see some defenders dominate their man so that the gap fits melt away.
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