They say defense decides championships? Does it also decide the difference between teams at the bottom of the standings?
That might be exactly what happens when 1-5 Kentucky comes to 2-4 Arkansas on Saturday night. Kickoff is at 6 p.m. at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. TV coverage is set for Fox Sports Net.
Kentucky gave up 32 to Louisiville, 32 to Western Kentucky, 38 to Florida, 38 to South Carolina before settling down to allow only 27 to Mississippi State.
The Hogs have given up 38 to Louisiana-Monroe, 52 to Alabama, 35 to Rutgers and 58 to Texas A&M.
The Hogs allowed just one touchdown last week at Auburn and seemed a bit improved on defense. But was that a mirage, or can the Hogs count on a defense that has gone through an entire set of linebackers? Can the Hogs track down a mobile quarterback for the first time this season? Do they have a handle on the turnover bug that plagued them until last week?
Actually, the difference in the game might not be so much between the two struggling defenses, but at quarterback. That the biggest key to victory for me. Arkansas has senior Tyler Wilson, who played his best game of the season last week against Auburn. Kentucky is scrambling at that spot with true freshman Jalen Whitlow, its fourth quarterback of the season.
Wilson didn't throw an interception last week at Auburn. He was effective with his checks. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, who moved to the box for the first time this year, said on Tuesday that Wilson missed only two checks on the day and was particularly good with his changes in the run game at the line of scrimmage.
Wilson has found Cobi Hamilton more and more. That's been as good a tandem as there has been in the SEC. That will likely be the key to this game, too, can they work the middle against a young UK secondary?
The Hogs, with Wilson pulling the triggers, committed only two turnovers and one of those was on special teams. The only lost fumble came in the last few minutes when the Hogs were trying to run out the clock. Freshman running back Jonathan Williams was spun around and stripped with about four minutes left.
The Arkansas defense got five takeways and also produced eight sacks. That group had produced a total of five all season. They got after Auburn quarterbacks Kielh Frazier and Clint Moseley with a good rush in the last three quarters.
Frazier and Moseley were standstill targets in the pocket for the most part. When they did try to scramble, they seem to retreat straight back to their own goal line and the lost yardage plays were staggering.
That brings up the difference between those two and Whitlow. Kentucky is probably going to move Whitlow on bootlegs, sprintouts and possibly give him some running lanes with zone read plays in an option package.
"We think they will expand on their read option with him this week," Arkansas coach John L. Smith said Thursday. "I know they are going to put him in motion when he throws. That's what we expect anyway. They've done that in the past few weeks when they've gone to him. He'll be moving."
Whitlow is an athlete. He's got speed and athleticism. But it's still the right strategy to blitz a young quarterback and defend against the veterans. Arkansas didn't want to blitz freshman Johnny Manziel two weeks ago at Texas A&M, but he might be the rare exception as far as youngsters at quarterback.
The key might be the development of the Arkansas secondary, especially where it comes to press coverage. The Hogs backed off of most of the wideouts the last few weeks, but they walked up their cornerbacks against Auburn. But there were still shaky signs. Auburn had deep passes open, but Frazier and Moseley didn't hit them.
Will they do the same against Kentucky? I'd think so, with Tevin Mitchel and Kaelon Kelleybrew both returning from injuries. Mitchel hasn't played since the second week when he sustained a concussion against Louisiana-Monroe. Smith said he'll likely start against Kentucky.
The Hogs have improved at cornerback as freshman Will Hines and Davyon McKinney have gotten more playing time. But they won't have to go every down this week. They'll be joined by Mitchel, Kelleybrew and probably Darius Winston, too, in what could be a five-man rotation outside.
Kelleybrew has also cross trained at star linebacker to give the Hogs another cornerback in nickel and dime looks. That could help Ross Rasner play more at safety and out of those matchups that have given up too much speed in the slot. He was beaten for Auburn's only touchdown last week.
This sounds like a lot about defense and not so much about offense. That's how it's been for Arkansas this year. But it's not like the Hogs have put up lots of points. Yards, yes. They've moved it between the 20-yard line. And they had to get their big touchdown for separation against Auburn when the game was at 10-7 in the fourth quarter with a tick play ... an end around pass from Brandon Mitchell.
The Hogs would like to get the running game going this week. Dennis Johnson and Williams gave them a little more there last week. Perhaps this is the week Knile Davis emerges from his funk after a year off because of injuries. Smith said this was a good week of practice for Davis, better than last week.
It usually does come down to who can run it and who can stop the run, along with hitting the quarterback. Smith said the Arkansas defense knows its going to have to stop the run first. No doubt, Kentucky will take a look at the inexperience and changes at inside linebacker the Hogs have faced the last month and start there with a game plan.
"You want to pressure the quarterback and we did a better job of that last week, but we have to make sure we get the run stopped first," John L. Smith said. "So that's where we'll focus on first. I think we are able to blitz a little more with our tighter coverage in the secondary."
Terrell Williams will get his first start at middle linebacker. He moved into the lineup at weakside linebacker three weeks ago, but with Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright both out for the season, Williams is now the mike linebacker. That puts true freshman A. J. Turner, Otha Peters and junior Jarrett Lake as the will linebackers.
"We've been spinning Turner, Peters and Lake around at mike, too," he said. "But we are depending on Terrell to lead those young guys."
Lake had been at the Star position, the hybrid safety/outside linebacker. The Hogs just had to find some more bodies with defenders who could tackle in space as inside linebackers were lost.
But tackling in space isn't what they'll have to do first. I'd bet that Kentucky goes straight at those inside linebackers.
"We just have to help those guys at linebacker," said defensive tackle Alfred Davis, the last defensive captain healthy. "We have to keep blockers off those guys and keep them free."
Kentucky has just as many problems with depth and inexperience. They are playing freshmen on both sides of the ball. UK has 55 freshmen or sophomores on the 80-man roster of scholarship players. They have played as many as 16 freshmen in games of late. The Hogs had nine true freshmen on the participation list last week at Auburn.
The Wildcats are a lot like the Hogs in that their is a youthful look in the secondary, but Petrino said he's sees talent and speed in the UK back end. He called that secondary "very athletic."
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