State of the Hogs: Auburn Keys

There are always a lot of keys, but you might start with competitive fire and turnovers when you look at this week's Arkansas-Auburn football game. The Hogs have to get on the right side of the turnover battle.

There have been time this year that this space carried thoughts that sounded like a broken record. The weekly Top 10 list of keys to the game sounded similar.

Avoid turnovers. Create turnovers. Win the battle in the trenches. Avoid big plays. Create big plays.

I've written all of that. Obviously, there's been great detail within some of those sub headers. They are appropriate, too.

But as I write this week's Top 10 keys to victory, I'm reminded of what defensive end Chris Smith told reporters on Wednesday in our weekly media opportunity with the defensive players. A question was asked about the mindset of a defense that is ranked near the bottom of most national categories after giving up 716 yards against Texas A&M, Smith said, "I know it sounds like a broken record, but ..."

And, then Smith detailed how good the attitude was at practice and how hard the team is preparing after four straight losses, two by huge margins against Alabama and Texas A&M.

What Smith said is that there is competitive fire still left in this team. They are bonding tighter and developing chemistry as everyone outside the Broyles Center roasts their every move.

To be honest, they know they are on an island and have only themselves and family members left who have any belief at all in their chances. Oddsmakers have put the line in Auburn's favor by double digits. The Tigers have had one week off after playing LSU to a near draw, losing 12-10.

Auburn is 1-3, losing to Clemson and Mississippi State to open the season. The lone victory was 31-28 over Louisiana-Monroe, an overtime game that was remarkably similar to the Hogs' loss to the Warhawks, except the Tigers didn't lose their quarterback in the first half.

The matchups are decent on both sides of the ball. Arkansas is much better on offense, obviously. Auburn is better on defense. There was a good line by Bo Mattingly at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club.

"Who is the better doctor," he said. "Is the Arkansas defense the right doctor for Kiehl Frazier, the Auburn quarterback? Or is it Kiehl Frazier for the Arkansas defense? Both have struggled."

The key indicator of the struggles for both have been turnovers. That's the key this week, who gets on top in the turnover battle. Arkansas can't get a turnover on defense. Frazier throws more interceptions than touchdown passes. Frazier struggled with the pass last year in Fayetteville when the Hogs won in a rout.

Frazier will get to play against three freshmen in the UA secondary. The Hogs are likely to start Will Hines and Davyon McKinney at cornerback and Rohan Gaines at safety. Junior Eric Bennett may be back at the other safety spot after sitting out last week with a leg injury.

Bennett played corerback as a freshman before moving to safety as a starter last year. Could he help at cornerback this week?

"When someone is beat up, you probably aren't going to be moving him around," said Paul Haynes, Arkansas defensive coordinator. "And we don't have depth at safety, either. We are better off leaving Eric there."

Auburn has not made big plays in the passing game, but they have some talented wide receivers. Emory Blake and Trovon Reed have great speed for the vertical route. However, the most dangerous Tiger in the passing game is tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, a big 6-5 senior. The best wideout, Quon Bray, is suspended this week. He's been the best blocker in run packages on the perimeter.

The Hogs are without their big-play tight end. Chris Gragg didn't practice all week. He limped around with a deep leg bruise sustained against Rutgers and didn't play last week. John L. Smith said Wednsesday night he's still a week away and out this week. Gragg can't be replaced. Austin Tate is a solid blocker, but he can't provide mismatches in the passing game.

There are other doubtful Razorbacks. Cornerback Kaelon Kelleybrew was at practice, but not cleared for contact after sustaining a concussion against A&M. Cornerback Tevin Mitchel has returned to practice on a limited basis. He had a concussion against ULM and then underwent gall bladder surgery.

The most interesting matchup to watch when the Hogs have the ball would be in pass protection on the edge. The Arkansas tackles are Jason Peacock and David Hurd. They will have to block a pair of scorpions in Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford. Neither are bigger than 250, but both are cat quick.

The Hogs found a bit of a running game with some new draws last week against A&M. A big key will be whether or not that threat slows down the Auburn rush and gives Tyler Wilson more time and an easier load in protection for those offensive tackles.

Another key will be whether or not Haynes decides Frazier, a willing runner, is as much of a threat to scramble as Johnny Manziel was last week for A&M. The Hogs stayed in contain lanes and sacrificed pressure to try to box in Manziel. It didn't work.

"That was the plan last week, contain, contain, contain," Chris Smith said. "I think we will go after the quarterback a little more this week. I think we will try to mix in more pressures."

That's easier said than done. The Hogs played mainly zone with few blitzes against A&M, fearing the fade and those freshman cornerbacks. Haynes thinks both Hines and McKinney were more aggressive in their play this week in practice. Will it transfer onto the game field?

Then there is the mental freshness aspect. Auburn has had almost as many problems as the Hogs, but the Tigers did have a week to regroup after throwing everything at LSU two weeks ago. And, the Tigers are at home.

How much is in the tank for the Hogs. Body language suggested the tank went to empty pretty fast in the first half against Texas A&M despite fighting to an early 10-7 lead on a long pass and run by Knile Davis.

And it may just come down to turnovers. Davis has been prone to fumbles, although most of them have been recovered by the Hogs. Head coach John L. Smith said the emphasis on ball security has been so high that it might even be a case of paranoia. Davis said he knows how to avoid them, all of the key points of security and he hasn't been a fumbler in the past. Is it that simple that the switch just gets thrown and the turnovers go away? Probably not.

The real key might be on offense for the Hogs. They are supposed to be a juggernaut, but have failed to produce touchdowns like in the past. They came up empty in five different red zone chances against A&M. In each case, the drive stalled for a different reason. Can the kinks be worked out and the blocking comes together in the run game? That sounds simple, but it generally isn't that easy to fix at this point in the season.

In our predictions section of the print section, there were nine versions, only two picked the Hogs. Most suggested that Auburn's defense would be the most dominant unit of the four in the game. The Hogs do have a chance this week. They need to show more mental toughness. They might need to be a little more aggressive with the defensive scheme. And they need to get some injured players back.

It's hard to predict an upset -- and that's what an Arkansas victory would be -- at this point. You trust your eyes at this point in the season. But maybe we'll see something new.

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