State of the Hogs: Third Down

Can the Hogs stop the run on first down this week at Starkville? If they can, they might collect on the money down.

The Arkansas defense is winning on third down. Actually, they are the best in the SEC as the Razorbacks head to the final two games of the regular season at just under 31 percent in defensive third down conversion rate.

Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson smiles about that, but it's not something he stays up late thinking about. But excuse him if he doesn't talk about that the next time he goes for a job interview.

"I lost a job one time when I didn't answer that question right in an interview," Robinson said. "I told George Seifert, the head coach of the Carolina Panthers, that you didn't win on third down, but on first and second. That was when he was talking about hiring me. He corrected me and said third down was the money down. I won't ever say that again."

Robinson still thinks he's right, but he understands third down is the key to getting off the field. You don't make a play on third down, you don't force a punt. Seifert's point was solid, especially since he held the keys to the building.

Robinson's point carries weight, too. He knows that third down becomes easy if you play well on first and then second down. If it's third and long, all defenses improve. They can dictate with pressure, instead of having to gang the line of scrimmage to stop the run. That's when the offense can dictate tempo. Obviously, it's easier to make 1 or 2 yards than it is to make 9 or 10 yards.

"I've always thought first down was the most important," Robinson said. "You make a play on first down, then have them in second and long, you probably have an idea of what they can do based on their tendencies. And, if you can't stop them on first and second down, it becomes third and 1 and I don't think you are going to stop them on that play too many times. The odds are against you pretty good.

"I think the reason for (our low percentage) is that we are winning on first down. We have executed really well in our scheme."

So what have the Hogs -- and Robinson -- been doing on the early downs to make it easier to win third down? Has he played it safe in base defense? Are the Hogs just fundamentally better so they can play technique and not rely on blitzes?

"Oh, I like a call as much as the next guy," Robinson said. "If we have a call that we think will help, we'll make it.

"But it's been something we've changed during the year. Sometimes we've come out pretty vanilla in the first series or two to find out what the other team might be wanting to do against us, check their personnel packages they've come up for us that might be different and don't just go on what they've done in other games.

"We find out what they have for us, then we might make some calls. What they do on that opening drive determines a lot. Sometimes that's a mistake on my part, playing too vanilla early.

"We've had some where we might have been too aggressive at the start. We came out pressuring Vanderbilt with some calls early and they burned us. So I took all of the pressures off and we just played them vanilla after the first two drives.

"We like pressures. If it works, we are going to keep giving them a steady diet. If it doesn't work, you better get out of it."

The Hogs have gotten pressure on the quarterback. They are second in the SEC in sacks with 28. They lead the SEC in pass percentage defense. Foes are just completing 52.1 percent against them.

The only teams to beat 50 percent on third down this year are Alabama and South Carolina, although Auburn didn't make it to third down too often. They were unbelievable on first and second down, often completing touchdown marches without facing third down. Auburn was two of seven for the game.

Robinson isn't a believer of the magical call. He wants sound gap control and attention to technique. It doesn't take many blitzes if the defense handles those two thoughts well. He said it's usually about pad level and technique, plus effort to the ball once the play unfolds than it is the right call.

"We've been fortunate this year because of the way our offense has played," Robinson said. "We've kept the ball. I think if you look, our total number of third downs are down. There have been fewer possessions for us on the field. That helps your numbers."

And that keeps your defense fresh. Linebacker Jerry Franklin mentioned that after the South Carolina game.

"Wow, time of possession was great," he said. "Our offense would take the ball and we just sat over there for a long time. We were always fresh. That makes a difference. If the offense makes a long drive, that's only going to help the defense."

That's what Mississippi State wants to flip Saturday in Starkville. The Bulldogs have a running game built around the option reads of big quarterback Chris Relf.

Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette recalls the quickness and light-on-his feet moves by Auburn's Cam Newton as something special. He said Relf is tough, too, but in the other direction. The 6-4, 240-pound Relf is more like a fullback.

"Relf is a true down-hill runner," Bequette said. "And what they do in the option is all three phases. They make you stay disciplined. You would like to penetrate and get up the field against most running games. Penetration really hurts a team. But you better make sure you stay in your gaps. They are good at getting you gapped, so to speak. You let the gaps get wide, they squirt through there."

That's easy enough to say, hard to do against the State offensive line. The Bulldogs come at you hard and low with one of the better units in the SEC. Robinson compared State's O-line to Auburn's in the way they block.

"They are physical and know how to block the run game," Robinson said. "They are hard nosed and play well in their scheme."

Bequette said, "They play with their pads low. They are in a run block stance. They fire off hard and aggressive. That means you better answer that with your pads low and drive into them. It will be a tough, physical aggressive game.

"If we can play them well on the early downs, get the run stopped, we will put them in the position they don't like, drop-back passing on third down. That's not what they do best. What they like to do is run the ball and then get it to third and short where they can run or use their play-action game. That's tough to stop.

"They were able to run it on us last year in Little Rock. They kept the ball and ran it right at us. We had to make some adjustments for the option and for the quarterback. We had prepared for their passer and they kind of threw a changup at us."

Bequette has a challenge in his lap. Arkansas flips its defensive ends so he'll see both State tackles, but he'll get plenty of shots at 6-6, 305-pound senior Derek Sherrod, possibly a first round draft pick and one of the best left tackles in college football.

"He's a Sunday guy, for sure," Bequette said. "There aren't any easy days in the SEC. Everyone has a good left tackle, but he's really good. This is one of those matchups you get to measure yourself. He's good in all areas. That's the reason he's so highly regarded.

"He's a cut above most that we see, even in this league. What it means is that you have to raise your intensity. You have to match what he brings and he does bring it.

"What I remember is that they pounded us in the second half last year. We eventually got control, but we know that's what they want to do, keep us on the field and keep pounding on us."

They would like for it to come down to third and long so that the pound falls out of the Mississippi State playbook and the Hogs collect on the money down.

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