This one writes itself because of the way Arkansas has started the last three weeks, despite winning its way into the Top 10. Remember, the Hogs were not in the Top 10 after losing at Alabama.
But there is consternation as Arkansas heads to Vanderbilt for an 11:21 a.m. kickoff Saturday. Was it the early kickoff last week at Ole Miss and against Texas A&M that confounded the Hogs? Or was it just destined to happen as they went on the road?
Everyone from fans to players to coordinators to the head coach has noted the slow start problem with the Hogs this week. As Bobby Petrino said, "We all know it." But why? That's the question. And how do you eliminate it?
I have heard a lot of suggestions. I've seen everything from some caffeine loading to an attacking style on defense and better utilization of the running game early. I have a simpler answer and it's the lead item in this week's pre-game list of the Top 10 things to watch as the Hogs tee it up against the Commodores on the SEC television network in Nashville.
1. Outhit the Commodores
This is the basis for everything that happens in football. It's been the key item for as long as the game's been played. We tend to love strategy issues. We like to know if it's a 4-2-5 front, a 4-3 or a 5-2. And those do sometimes provide an answer. But it still comes down to hitting and that can lead to success on both sides of the ball. Hit the other man, gain an advantage. On offense, that leads to blockers who can sustain the stalemate necessary to get space for a back. And that goes for wideouts as well as offensive tackles. Defensively, you hit the other man and shed him so you can go make a play. That's what I saw happen in Arkansas' favor as both the A&M and Ole Miss games progressed. The Hogs were the hitters and not the hittee. That's the number one thing to watch. You'll know early if the pile is moving one way or another. Don't make it complicated. If you see two and three defenders get to the ball -- for either team -- you'll know that team is outhitting the other side. Don't minimize the importance of what is happening to cause that. It's hunger and aggressive play. If the Hogs want to start fast, the way to do it is to hit the Commodores in the mouth early and often.
2. Blitz pickup
Vandy is a blitz team on defensive. The Commodores blitzed Georgia 63 percent of the time. They blitzed Alabama 42 percent. They will probably come after Tyler Wilson. That isn't a scary thing for the Hogs. They've seen it before and actually took advantage of that style. Wilson passed for a school record against Texas A&M's constant blitzes. The Hogs also showed they can be effective with draws against a blitz. That is where Dennis Johnson has to hurt the Commodores, just like he did Ole Miss. Of course, the key will be how well Johnson, not a big back, does in blitz pickup. The Hogs made things simple in the second half of the A&M game and played a couple of blitz protections very well. How much has this offensive line grown in blitz protections? I think it's come a long way, especially at tackle where Jason Peacock has settled in on the weakside. Watch for big plays against the blitz. It could be the key to this game for the Hogs.
Vandy has speed at tailback, if not shiftiness. Can the Hogs contain the running game? They haven't done that often this season. Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said most teams have attacked the ends, most notably true freshman Trey Flowers. But he wasn't blaming containment problems on his ends. He said cornerbacks and safeties have to read run and come downhill to shut off the outside running game. There are times in the run fit game that it's not the end in outside containment, but a D-back. That means the Hogs have to get their secondary involved outside and that means getting off blockers. See item number one. They have to be physical and win that hitting game outside.
4. Tyler Wilson
As long as Bobby Petrino is head coach at Arkansas, everything with the offense starts with the quarterback. He's given a lot and asked to perform in a big way in this Arkansas offense. There are so many things that Tyler Wilson has to do right on each play that if he makes a mistake here or there, everyone sees it. It's the most fun position to play in college football for a quarterback with a gifted arm. But it's also the spot that gets critiqued the hardest. Wilson didn't light it up early in the Ole Miss game. It got to a point in the second half that coaches went to the no-huddle and helped Wilson with checks at the line of scrimmage. Watch to see if there is more of that this week, or Wilson is calling his own checks at the line of scrimmage.
5. Greg Childs
The big, physical wideout has been battling back from knee surgery all year. It's an injury that was suffered to start the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt. Is this a breakout game for Childs? Is this the week that everything clicks for the senior bellcow? One of his strengths his first three seasons was the ability to beat one-on-one tight coverage when the defense came with a blitz. He's done nice things with his physical blocks to spring several touchdown plays this season and he's made a few nice catches. But he hasn't been the go-to man. Perhaps he's forced to be the man this year. Vandy will decide with the way they cover Joe Adams and Jarius Wright. That might mean Wilson has to find Childs this week. Childs has the want to because this was the game that knocked him out last year. I'm sure he remembers. He aches to be the one everyone watches. Maybe it's this week.
6. Jerry Franklin
The toughest test for a middle linebacker is a team that has a good tailback and a quarterback who can run. It's hard to key both. Franklin will have to key the tailback. But he has to know when to hunt down the scrambling quarterback and make a play. Franklin had one of his best performances last week against Ole Miss, especially in the second half. Along with a tackle for a safety, he got into the action on some wide stuff as the game progressed. This is a better offense this week. Can Franklin continue to sparkle? I think he can.
It's a dog eat world in the SEC. You always need to have the attitude of the hunter. When you aren't hungry, it probably means the other team is. The Hogs have to have a sense of urgency, a sense of hunger when they go to Nashville. That seemed to be what was missing the last few weeks at least at the outset. I saw a different mindset, a different body language in the second half of the last three games. They Hogs probably thought they were in danger of actually losing and it kicked in that sense of urgency. They have to be hungry at the start this time.
This is an area that has gotten better of late. The Hogs have had only two in the last three games. There was only one against Auburn and one against Ole Miss. Vandy has picked off a bunch of passes, but five came against a poor Ole Miss passer early in the season, a player who disappeared to the end of the Rebel bench at that point. Can the Commodores force any Tyler Wilson mistakes with its blitz?
There are some interesting situations here as far as matchups. The number one item to watch is the Arkansas wideouts against the Vandy secondary. Petrino said there are two NFL prospects in the Vandy secondary. Arkansas may have four to five NFL prospects at receiver, maybe more when you look at underclassmen. Can the Hogs make plays against this Vandy secondary after the catch? Will the Vandy DBs jump routes and make picks? Those are key elements this week. The other key matchup is the UA offensive line against the Vandy front. Can the Hogs get Dennis Johnson into the secondary? They did that against Ole Miss. I think the Hogs will hit some running plays against the Vandy blitz.
Historically, Vandy has not been able to match the top teams in the SEC as far as depth. How will that play out this week? Can the Commodores stop Joe Adams/Marquel Wade on punt returns and Johnson/Wade on kickoffs? Can the Hogs use their depth to make plays in special teams? That's where depth shows up first. The Hogs want to hold the ball on offense and make Vandy play more defensive linemen. They want to wear down the other team and hope to play with a fast tempo to do that. They are going to rotate receivers to gain an edge against the Vandy secondary, too. The Hogs are healthier in the defensive front than in a few weeks. That edge in depth at the inside tackle spots should help, too.
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