State of the Hogs: Top 10 (A&M)

Consistent play for four quarters is more the key than new wrinkles. Still, helicopters bother Bobby Petrino.

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino was in a playful mood when he walked away from the media session following Thursday's practice. He asked if the assembled sportswriters and sportswriters had their leather ready for the Bikes, Blues and Barbecue festival rolling around Fayetteville for the weekend.

"You can hear them," Petrino said. "But I thought it was Bikes, Blues and Barbecue, not Bikes, Blues and Helicopters."

Apparently, there were several helicopters flying around campus on Wednesday and Thursday. Were they A&M spies watching for any new wrinkles by Petrino? Wouldn't have mattered much if they were because Petrino had most of the work for the week inside Walker Pavilion since the Hogs play inside at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday.

Just for conversation, I asked Petrino what he would do if they were A&M spies. He brought out that dry smile and said, "Shoot them down, of course."

There is paranoia among coaches. They do worry about those sort of things. That's one of the reasons Petrino does not like the practice fields that are exposed to several vantage points nearby.

But it's not new wrinkles that will save the Hogs this week against A&M. They will have to do what they have been doing much better. With some inexperienced players in the O-line and a first-year starter at quarterback, this is probably not the week to put in a lot of different stuff. That might have to wait until after the Auburn game when there's an open date.

Willy Robinson said he'll have to cut back on some of his calls this week with inexperienced starters at defensive end in Chris Smith and Trey Flowers. This will be the first start for Flowers, a true freshman.

We'll start with that as we work into the Top 10 List of things to watch as the Hogs play the Aggies at 11 a.m. Saturday in Arlington.

It's doubtful there will be too many new things for this game. The Hogs need to do what they do and just do it better. They have to protect better and tackle better. Oldtimers call that the KISS system. That's Keep It Simple Stupid. But don't be totally surprised if there are a few new things. There's always a play or two that have been in the practice schedule that have not been used. So the polish should be there for at least one or two new wrinkles.

2. Green and Bequette
Petrino said senior fullback Broderick Green has been cleared to play by doctors. He's been practicing for three weeks. He's scored 14 touchdowns in his UA career and is a useful back in certain situations. He is also solid in pass protection sets. So he might be a good big back for more than short yardage. Green is coming off spring knee surgery and has made a faster than expected recovery. Petrino didn't say he would play this week, but he did say he was cleared for participation. Senior defensive end Jake Bequette is listed as a game-time decision after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury. He did practice this week. Petrino said he's encouraged just because there is a decision to be made on game day.

3. Tackling
There shouldn't be doubt if this team can tackle in week five with so many veterans in the defense. But they didn't tackle Trent Richardson very well last week. They were at his feet too often, something that defensive coordinator Willy Robinson noted after practice Wednesday. Linebacker Jerry Franklin said the Hogs got "their butt kicked" and no one argued. He had only two tackles in the game. He's the team's leader over the last three seasons. He'll have to tackle better against A&M's Cyrus Gray, another talented runner. Free safety Tramain Thomas had his worst game in several seasons. He's going back to his homestate and much step up for the Hogs to have a chance against the Aggies.

4. Running Game
The Hogs didn't look like they could run at all last week. Some have called for Dennis Johnson to replace Ronnie Wingo as the starter. Johnson has played well in the past, but he didn't do well in his three carries, finishing in minus yardage, against the Tide. Maybe he gets more chances this week. Either way, the Hogs have to hit some runs against the Aggie blitzes. That means more checks to the right plays by Tyler Wilson. The Hogs have to stop the A&M running game. That's an area where the Hogs thought they would do well. They are better up front on defense. As they say, if you don't stop the running game, you probably aren't going to stop anything.

5. Turnovers
The Hogs haven't committed huge numbers of turnovers, but they've gotten almost zero. They are among the bottom in NCAA stats in turnover ratio. That's got to change. Good teams limit their own turnovers and force some from the opposition. This may come back around to blocking and tackling. If you can block in the offensive line, you tend to have fewer turnovers. When you put running backs to the ground with swarming tackles, you tend to force more turnovers. It's a key stat to watch this week. Turnovers have played a key role in the last two games between the Hogs and Aggies. They will again Saturday.

6. Tyler Wilson
The junior quarterback has proven his toughness. No one questions whether or not he'll take a hit after the way he stood in with Alabama defenders bearing down as he delivered the ball. If coaches questioned anything, it was that he didn't make his decisions quick enough. He'll have to get the ball out of his hands faster this week to give the receivers more time. He has been asked to put more steam on his throws, too.

7. Special teams
In some ways, special teams has been the key to the season so far. The Hogs scored on special teams as the season started. But they gave up two touchdowns (on a fake field goal and a punt return) against Alabama. This game might turn on a special team mistake. There may be that much equality in the two squads. The Hogs have to make plays in this category to be successful.

8. Four quarters
How do the Hogs bounce back? Do they play four quarters? How about the Aggies? There were times Arkansas competed against Alabama. There were other times the UA coaches thought the upperclassmen lacked competitive spirit. The Aggies suffered a huge letdown in the third quarter when Oklahoma State scored three touchdowns to turn around the game. No doubt, the coaches of both sides are pushing pride and competitive spirit this week as both teams try to recover from a key conference loss.

9. Momentum
That seemed to be a factor last week for both teams. How have they learned to handle momentum swings and fight back? Petrino downplayed momentum after the Alabama loss. He said players have to keep making plays, but they didn't ever turn momentum back to the Arkansas sideline after Wilson's interception that was returned for a touchdown late in the second half.

10. Atmosphere
I am not sure that this is a key to the game, but it will surely be something fun to watch. There is not a finer facility in all of sports than Cowboys Stadium. It's a nice setting because of the 50-50 split in the crowd. It's a proper place for the Aggies to be welcomed into the SEC. There's not a better way to do it or a better place. And the way to do it is to set the atmosphere right, with an Arkansas victory.

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