State of the Hogs: Closing Speed

Arkansas didn't always close the deal in the fourth quarter in a fine 2011 season. The goal this year is to get it done in the end.

Arkansas had a good season last year. But it missed a chance at greatness because of the fourth quarter.

Oh, there were good stretches in the fourth quarter. The Hogs were awesome down the stretch against LSU. There was a fantastic drive in the final seconds at Georgia, too. There was also a nice overtime finish at Mississippi State.

But the fourth quarter wasn't so great to the Razorbacks against Alabama and Auburn. The Hogs held leads, but couldn't close. And there was the failed scoop and score that kept Bourbon Street from exploding after the Sugar Bowl.

The worst of the bunch was last year's missed opportunity against Alabama. That one was there for the taking. I'm not sure Alabama could have beaten the Hogs without some help. Two penalties and two interceptions doomed the Hogs in the fourth quarter in that 24-20 loss.

The Razorbacks had the lead in the fourth quarter at Auburn, but that one doesn't sting like losing to the Tide at home. The Tide didn't have Cam Newton. I didn't think Alabama's offense was good enough to score many touchdowns if the Hogs hadn't done a Captain Dynamite act.

That's the key again this year, don't blow yourself up with turnovers, penalties or mistakes in the kicking game. The Hogs have enough talent to win at Bryant-Denny Stadium if they limit mistakes -- the kind they made in the second half against Troy. The best Razorbacks have to play well. Tyler Wilson and Joe Adams had three turnovers against the Trojans. They can't do that against the Tide. And the Hogs must play with their great speed.

Did you notice I said "play well" in the last paragraph. I didn't say play "great." The Hogs are good enough to win when they play well. They don't have to be superman to win on the road in the SEC anymore.

The good news is that they know that. They believe they are good. They believe that hitting their form will be good enough.

That wasn't the case the last time the Hogs went to Tuscaloosa. They didn't believe, as was pointed out by head coach Bobby Petrino afterwards.

What's the key matchup for this week? All of them. That's the fun part about great games. There are so many ways to break down the keys. It was suggested to me that the battle between the fine set of Arkansas wideouts against an equally good Alabama secondary is the key. It is if Wilson has time and hits his keys just right.

But there will be key battles everywhere you'll look Saturday. It might be as simple as who hits the other quarterback the most. Or it might be who makes the other offense play left-handed and then can it.

Can Alabama make Arkansas try to run by putting too much pressure on Wilson, or take away the soft underneath routes, if that's possible? Can Arkansas make Alabama throw and can A.J. McCarron keep the ball away from Tramain Thomas, the best ball hawk in the Hogs' secondary?

There are other keys. There is the sordid side of SEC football. We've talked about it before. What will the SEC refs decide on possible pass interference? Alabama does grab and make contact before the ball arrives with a physical secondary. They've grabbed Arkansas tight ends the last several years, with few calls. How will holding be called in pass protection? Both teams like to move their wideouts and tight ends a bunch. Sometimes early in the season the SEC refs decide it's the week to start nitpicking on formation faults. Will it be this week?

Hopefully, Arkansas has all of its bullets. Jarius Wright, Jake Bequette, Greg Childs and Dennis Johnson have missed a lot of snaps the last three weeks. It would seem that all but Bequette are safe bets to play this week. But will they be full speed. Wright might be the fastest player on the field Saturday. He's one of Wilson's favorite deep targets. The Hogs will need him at his fastest to push Alabama's secondary past its limits.

Can they? Absolutely.

But what I will be watching for will center around the Arkansas running game checks. Sometimes you never know if that's happening. But there is a clue. If the Hogs are ripping off big runs in passing situations or on first down, likely Wilson is making the right checks. Alabama is going to blitz the Hogs. The best answer to that is a good running game check. That will end the blitz and make the play-action fakes brutal for the Tide safeties.

One of my reliable Alabama sources thinks it's going to be an outstanding game, almost too close to call. He said Arkansas is a great defensive matchup for the Tide's obvious strength. The Hogs are good against the run with a talented defensive front. And he thinks Alabama's lack of a pass rush (only four sacks in three starts) bodes well for Wilson and the Arkansas passing game.

Alabama is good, but isn't nearly what it will be later this season when a young quarterback becomes seasoned. This is the right time to play Alabama. It's time to close the deal.

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