State of the Hogs: Sharp Edge

The Arkansas offense has a reputation for being good with the pass, but the outside running game is improving each week. In the words of offensive tackle DeMarcus Love, the Hogs captured the edge against South Carolina.

If you look at the averages, sometimes you don't get a good picture. You'd be wrong to take the 100.1-yard mean rushing yield for the South Carolina defense heading into last week.

Throw out Auburn's 334 yards on 57 carries and it becomes clear that only Cam Newton had made a dent in the Carolina front seven. Look at some of the other rushing numbers produced by SEC foes:

• Alabama, 29 rushes, 36 yards.
• Georgia, 26 rushes, 62 yards.
• Kentucky, 33 rushes, 52 yards.
• Tennessee, 27 rushes, 92 yards.

Some of those numbers are skewed by the large number of sacks recorded by the Gamecocks. Lost yardage plays via a sack go against the rushing totals in the NCAA stat book, not against passing yardage like they do in the NFL.

Arkansas punished the Gamecocks with solid running from start to finish, perhaps the key to the 41-20 victory in Columbia. The Hogs blocked and schemed defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's defense for 162 rushing yards (140 net, after two sacks for 22 yards are subtracted), taking advantage of a size advantage on the perimeter.

The Hogs noticed the Gamecocks were built for speed at linebacker and at one of the end spots. Devin Taylor is one of the SEC's fastest defensive ends, but at 6-8, 244, he's missing bulk. USC's linebackers are 225, 201 and 205. There were stretches the Gamecocks were blitzing 90 percent of the time and all were solved by the UA front.

"They aren't made to stop the run," offensive guard Wade Grayson said. "They are pass rush guys. All week we talked about dominating them on the edge. We saw on film that most teams went right after their secondary. We wanted to work them over in the run game with our offensive line."

And the tight ends. The group of D. J. Williams, Ben Cleveland, Austin Tate, Chris Gragg and Van Stumon -- collectively known as the Dog Pound -- were used effectively in bunches, sometimes with three to the same side.

They outnumbered, outflanked and outplayed the Carolina ends and linebackers, with some help from pulling guards like Grayson and Alvin Bailey.

"We thought we could pull and get to those linebackers," Grayson said. "It worked about like we thought it could."

Cleveland said, "We saw that their backers were little. We are used to seeing linebackers in the 240 range. I think we used our size in our tight end group to our advantage. Our goal was 200 yards rushing, double their average. We didn't get that, but we did enough. Our guys pounded them."

Offensive tackle DeMarcus Love called it "capturing the edge." He said it's a big part of what this offense does.

"I think the more reps we get, the better we block it," Love said. "You've seen that as the year has progressed. Now you are seeing bigger and bigger plays. We are getting better."

Williams said, "It's a nice combination we've got right now. You've got a very good O-line, a great back in No. 7 and I think you can tell that the tight ends like to block, too. We take pride in what we can do to seal the edge. Our tight end group has some size, but what we did in the offseason is concentrate on our quickness and speed. We were bigger than those Carolina linebackers and we could run with them, too."

Of course, No. 7 is running back Knile Davis.

"No one outworks him," Williams said. "He stays two hours after practice to study video, get in the cold tub and get his body right for the next day. All of his work is paying off."

Some of it is scheme. It's tough to play the running game with what Arkansas can do with the pass. The mix is lethal. As complex as the Hogs are in the passing game, they are just as sophisticated with their motion and mix of formations to help the run.

It seemed the Hogs had one more blocker than Carolina had defenders at the point of attack all night. Sometimes, they had a two-player edge.

"Sometimes it's a matter of just hitting some calls," said Garrick McGee, offensive coordinator. "We spend a lot of time in this building trying to find an advantage. But it also comes down to execution by our guys. We really executed against South Carolina. There were a lot of times when we had all 11 playing their technique at a high level."

Translation, the Hogs won the battles up front.

Head coach Bobby Petrino praised the offensive line afterwards. He said one of the keys is that the Hogs have had the same group all season. While injuries have piled up at skilled positions, the offensive line has been healthy for virtually every snap of the season.

"You stay together and get better," Petrino said. "They've been healthy, knock on wood. They have gotten better. To be honest, we've seen it coming."

The Hogs are solid in the O-line. They are running the ball better, but they have consistently protected their quarterbacks as the season has progressed. Mallett was sacked only once for minus 6 yards against Carolina, the top sack unit in the SEC. There was also the bootleg sack of Tyler Wilson in the closing minutes for minus 14.

"We've gotten better," Grayson said. "We take pride in keeping our quarterbacks clean."

They'd like to give their quarterbacks time against the zone blitz packages utilized by Texas-El Paso this weekend. The Miners will mix their coverages behind their zone blitzes, playing a man-to-man behind the zone pressures. McGee said the Hogs will have to stay sharp in their reads.

It will likely come down to protection. UTEP has only 11 sacks on the season, but has given up only 11 in a pass-first scheme. The Hogs have better size and speed on the edge than the Miners have seen in Conference USA. And the Hogs have seen better pass rush ability. This might be the week UTEP sees that balance in protection/sacks go away.

However, when the Miners see the way the Hogs ran the ball on the perimeter against the South Carolina blitzes, they might back off. One of the axioms in sports: Make them beat you left-handed. It's hard to tell what's left-handed about this offense. At this point in the season, it's all good.

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