State of the Hogs: Run, Run, Run?

What's the right way to do it? If you win, you can do it anyway you want.

Most of my beliefs on football come from coaches. When I began covering college football on a large scale in 1978, the coaches I saw on a rotating basis were Oklahoma's Barry Switzer, Oklahoma State's Jimmy Johnson, Tulsa's John Cooper and Arkansas' Lou Holtz.

They had a common mantra. To be good, you had to run the ball. Much of practice was used to work on the run and against it. I saw that every week.

All of those teams were hard nosed with their approach, with the possible exception of O-State. The Cowboys shot for more balance than the others. So I asked Johnson about his reasons.

"You have to run it enough for your play-action to be effective, but we know that there are teams in our league that have better players," he said. "We can't run against them for a living. But the tough part is how to balance your time with your offensive line. If you are going to pass some, or a lot, it takes an incredible amount of time to perfect your protections.

"There just isn't practice time to give both what you need to do them both well against top teams."

And there lies the rub. It also takes a lot of time to perfect all of the work needed to be good in run blocking.

When I watch Arkansas play offense, I always think back on those words from Johnson. Until you are decidedly better than the opposition in the offensive line, you better be good at pass protection. That's going to be your ticket.

I'm convinced that Bobby Petrino will make sure his teams are good at throwing. And he'll develop the running game as he moves along. As continuity is built in the offensive line, there may be a time when that group is outstanding at both areas just because of experience and familiarity.

Offensive line is the toughest position in football to play. It requires infinite knowledge of defensive fronts, styles and technique, along with the huge numbers of plays in the offensive playbook. In most cases, the athletes are better on defense. So the O-line is playing an uphill battle from the start. The offensive linemen must be better in their techniques, steps and knowledge so they can read what is happening and make adjustments on the fly.

And they must know and trust the man beside them so that they have the advantage in the all important battle for chemistry. None of that happens over night. It can happen over the course of a season.

There are plenty of ways to win. The issue is to make sure you win and you don't have to listen to any of the critics that don't like your style. I discussed that several times with Nolan Riachardson. He knew sometimes he did unorthodox things built around his core beliefs. The key is to have core beliefs and then trust them. I know Petrino falls into that category. There is nothing that happens by accident with this Arkansas football coach.

So what does this have to do with the Auburn-Arkansas game Saturday? Everything. I think what you will see is two offensive lines trying to master their techniques and catch up with the speed of modern football.

Except I don't think Auburn is terribly modern. Gus Malzahn's beliefs are more closely akin to what Switzer was doing at Oklahoma. He's given credit for being new school by some because what he does as offensive coordinator is in a no-huddle or hurry-up mode. But what it is falls into the single wing category, as old as the hills.

Petrino is more new school. His passing game is as intricate as any in the nation. What he teaches is complex and gee whiz for both the quarterback and the offensive line. It's a pro scheme in every way.

I have noticed some similarities between Petrino and Malzahn. They both do things with their offensive line that give them advantages. There are times that the splits for both get wider and wider. Petrino pointed out on his coaches TV show this week how they used wide splits in the offensive line to spread out A&M's pass rush and find matchups, or to help the running game. There are games within the games that are so complex that they just slip past us non coaches.

But there are simple issues that will decide this week's game with Auburn. Will Arkansas get representative play from its best defensive players? Part of that equation would center on some injuries. Can Jake Bequette be effective after missing three games? Can Tramain Thomas and Jerico Nelson tackle Michael Dyer.

Nelson told me Wednesday that he was "horrible" against A&M. He bounced off running backs, missing tackles. He said that two specific plays when he came up with only air haunted him the most, but he also noticed times when he missed assignments because his eyes left his man when he peeked at the quarterback, a no-no.

What I wondered while watching the last two weeks -- missed tackles against Alabama and A&M -- was if I was watching a team that spends most of its time working on and against the passing game. Holtz told me that teams that run the ball are better against the run.

Johnson told me the reverse can be true, too. If you don't see the pass much in practice, there are times you will struggle when you see a really good team that can throw and catch. That would be Arkansas.

I don't argue with Petrino's system. It has strong merits. He wants to be able to recruit great quarterbacks and great wide receivers. They want to play in this system. I listened to Rick Jones, the highly successful high school coach at Greenwood, explain why he wants to throw the ball.

"I once ran the wishbone," he said. "When I was at Broken Arrow (Okla.), I spent a lot of time going to Norman to study the wishbone. It is a good offense. But what I eventually found out is that most players like to throw the ball.

"You have to get the best players out for football. I'm talking about the best athletes. Those 6-2, 6-3 kids who can really run. Are they going to pick basketball or are they going to come play football for you in high school. I think those are the ones that can make a difference for your football team and they like to play wide receiver and go catch the ball."

Yes, it does come down to recruiting. Where can you get an edge? It's in the passing game.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier talks a good game about the passing game. He once had the best combination of passers and receivers in the nation at Florida. He's got a fine running back and good receivers. But he doesn't have a quarterback.

Why doesn't he have a quarterback now? That is a real head scratcher. It is the missing link for the Gamecocks, that's obvious.

Maybe he's run it too much of late? Maybe he doesn't throw enough?

If you are a running team, you better be just good enough at the pass to keep the defense honest. If you are a passing team, the opposite is true.

What I think you see at Arkansas now is a system that develops certain things as the season goes along. The running game gets better as they go. Defensively, this team seems to stop the run better as it goes. We'll see if this holds true. If it does, this season will have a good finish, much as I expected two months ago.

As we know, it's all about expectations. In most instances, what we expect defines whether or not we are happy with what we get.

The trouble sometimes comes in football where there are too many quarters in a row that don't meet expectations. There were two that didn't to end the Troy game. There were two or three more at Alabama, then two more against A&M. Those last two at Cowboys Stadium were pretty good, more along the lines of what was expected.

Auburn is better than expected. The Tigers can run the ball. But can they stop the pass? The better question might be can they stop the run while they try to stop the pass?

Some want it to play out perfectly each week. They want it to look exactly as expected.

It's often not like that. The only thing that is required this week is to get to 5-1.

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