State of the Hogs: Keys (Tulsa)

Arkansas makes its living with the pass, but the running game will be front and center as the Hogs try to fight past confident Tulsa. The keys to victory will be in short yardage situations.

Injuries happen to every team. And they come in all shape and sizes. But for Paul Petrino, the biggest injury to the Arkansas football team in 2012 was nothing small. It was Kiero Small.

That was Petrino's take this week when he met with the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club. There is probably something to it, too.

That comes to mind as I study what Tulsa brings to the table in the form of a solid running game when Arkansas entertains its old nearby rival Saturday for Homecoming. Kickoff in Reynolds Razorback Stadium is set for 11:21 a.m.

Tulsa has a short yardage offense with tank-like running back Alex Singleton, a 6-1, 260-pound senior with 15 touchdowns on a per-game average of 61.9 yards.

Tulsa lost its short-yardage and goal line component when Small was lost for the year during a non-contact drill in practice before the Louisiana-Monroe game. Small is the 5-10, 255-pound blocking back who routinely broke face masks in games and practice last season.

The Hogs have also missed other key players this season, but Petrino said none ache like Small's loss.

"We lost toughness when we lost Kiero," Petrino said. "He was also one of our biggest leaders. People looked to him for a lot of things on this football team."

Small is a junior college transfer who had not used his redshirt. He said earlier this season that he'll return for another try at a senior campaign after a medical hardship.

Small's absence has been tough for the Hogs to overcome all season. What's the short yardage play for the Hogs? There have been few answers in the running game until Dennis Johnson hit another gear last week with a 161 yards on 27 carries.

It's that threat of the run that might prove the difference when the Hogs try to stop Tulsa's seven-game winning streak. The Golden Hurricane has the most trouble with the pass (with a national ranking of 95 allowing 261.6 per game), but it might be Johnson that opens up the play-action against the TU safeties.

Conversely, it's that threat of the run will put the Arkansas safeties in a bind. Arkansas coach John L. Smith knows Eric Bennett, Ross Rasner and Rohan Gaines are going to be in the box a lot.

"Our corners will be playing the wideouts," Smith said. "The safeties will have to recognize run-pass in a hurry and get into the box to help with the ground game."

Smith said this will be more like an old-fashioned SEC game with eight in the box on more than a few plays. He said safeties that can play run are in high demand in recruiting because of that need.

"I saw a little bit of the San Francisco 49ers a few weeks ago and the way their safeties rolled down on the run," Smith said. "That's what you need in the SEC, those hybrid linebacker types that can play safety. That's what we are looking for in recruiting. We've got to find more safeties who can play the run. You need about four of them to make it through a season. We need more."

You need safeties who can handle a load like Singleton -- or Small.

"Exactly," Smith said. "That's going to be a big part of the game Saturday. When you find good safeties, you are also going to find good football teams -- like the 49ers."

Indeed, who plays smashmouth the best will be one of the big keys -- along with some one-on-one matchups with two 6-4 wideouts.

Arkansas wideout Cobi Hamilton and Tulsa's Keyarris Garrett both have the trust of their quarterbacks to go after jump ball passes.

Neither have been big touchdown makers. Hamilton has 58 catches, but only four touchdowns. Garrett has 28 catches (tops for TU), but just five touchdowns.

Smith was asked if Arkansas is trying to work in some young wideouts a little more this week after Hamilton dominated the catch list last week against Ole Miss.

"Hopefully, as time goes on, the young receivers are going to be a bigger part of the game plan," Smith said. "I think the young guys are doing a good job as a whole. I think D'Arthur Cowan is really coming on. I think MeKale McKay is doing a great job. And we keep kicking Keon Hatcher in the tail, and he's going to get going as well.

"But I do think a quarterback has certain favorites. There may be times that Cobi isn't number one in the progression, but Tyler knows where he is and goes to him first. That's just natural. He might go with the two instead of the one.

"I think you saw that last week with Chris Gragg, where he caught five passes in one quarter. He wasn't always number one in the progression, but Tyler felt comfortable and looked for him right away. Sometimes you aren't afraid to go to the number two progression right off the bat."

Those individual matchups and the comfort level of Wilson with his receivers are important, but the big picture this week might be the turnover battle. The Hogs have had had half of an SEC season to season their lines. Tulsa has played lesser competition, with perhaps the exception of Iowa State, the lone loss.

If the Hogs can control the line of scrimmage, maybe they can win the turnover battle for one of the few times this season. Arkansas has committed 19 turnovers, forcing nine. Tulsa has 13, while forcing 17.

"We got a couple last week and we want to force more," Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said. "I think that's where we have to grow. We'd like to be able to score a touchdown on defense and that's been a focus in practice. We haven't done that this year and that's an area that has to improve. It makes a big difference when you get defensive touchdowns, or special teams touchdowns. We talk about that and know that we have to make strides there."

Bennett, who hails from Tulsa Washington, had a shot an interception in the closing minutes against Ole Miss. He was able to produce those type of plays last year. In fact, he closed out a victory in Oxford last year.

"I thought I was going to get that one (in Little Rock)," he said. "We've got to make those type of plays. I'd like to be able to do that this week."

It would be sweet, since Tulsa didn't recruit Bennett, where his father played. He knows as many as 12 starters on the Tulsa team, some as far back as his elementary days. Bennett, perhaps finally healthy after struggling in camp and at other points this season, could play a big role in a big game for him.

"It's my home city school," Bennett said. "It's going to be a fun game. It means a lot to me. I think there are other guys on our team in the same situation."

Eric Bennett might be front and center when it's over. It may come down to whether or not he can stop the run when Tulsa loads up with Alex Singleton.

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