This is the time of year that you find out if you can handle a few injuries. That's life in the SEC in November. Everyone gets there shares of bumps, bruises and a few torn ACLs and concussions. There's even a few suspensions scattered around the league.
It's not an excuse for not playing well. It's just the reality of big-time college football. Good teams are going to get beat up, but the great ones can absorb a little of that.
That's the key Saturday when Arkansas visits South Carolina for an 11 .m. kickoff at Columbia. CBS will carry the game as part of an SEC doubleheader.
Arkansas is without tight end Chris Gragg (knee), wide receiver Brandon Mitchell (suspension), linebacker Terrell Williams (suspension) and perhaps running back Knile Davis (hamstring). Davis is probable, but has been out since the first half of the Ole Miss game.
South Carolina is without running back Marcus Lattimore (knee) with quarterback Connor Shaw (foot) and end Jadeveon Clowney (foot) both probable. Shaw and Clowney have missed some practice time in the last two weeks while the Gamecocks mended during an open date.
The key outage for the Hogs is at linebacker where Williams had settled the picture at mike over the last four weeks after the Hogs lost Tenarius Wright, Alonzo Highsmith and Kiero Small at one position. Small, the starter at fullback, was thought to be a short-yardage helper at middle linebacker and his loss on defense might not be labeled as huge. But he would have been an option after those first two were injured. He was already out by then.
So the Hogs are now down to true freshman A. J. Turner and Otha Peters as the starters at inside linebacker. Peters is listed at mike, Turner at will. Sophomore Braylon Mitchell is the backup at mike. Junior Jarrett Lake is behind Turner at will.
How many plays can Turner and Peters go without a break? Could they play 70 to 75 snaps without a break? Head coach John L. Smith and defensive coordinator Paul Haynes were both given a crack at that question during the week. It might be one of the keys to the game.
"I think it just depends on how the game goes," Smith said. "You'd hope that we could get off the field and give them some breaks, but we might have to rest them somewhere along the way. I think they are far enough along (in conditioning) that they could go 70. But we are getting guys ready to help them."
Haynes said, "I think they can play quite a bit at this point. But we were able to rest (Williams and Turner) last week with Lake and Peters. We did rotate the inside linebackers quite a bit in each half. We'd like to do that again, but the game dictates what you can do."
Carolina will do its best to run right at the linebackers early in the game to test those freshmen. But it may be that the way to hurt them most is play-action and screens where the Gamecocks show run or dropback pass and then hit them with a twist. Young linebackers are often better against the run than the pass. Learning sets and recognizing pass routes usually has to come with experience and time at the college level.
Without question, the Hogs are growing confident in these young linebackers. As Darrell Royal made famous, if a pup is going to bite, he'll bit as a pup. This might fit what's going on with Turner and Peters now. Defensive captain Alfred Davis, a starter at tackle, likes what he sees from both. He said he was grabbed by a Tulsa player after the game to ask about Turner.
"Where is that linebacker that made that hit in the whole?" the Golden Hurricane player said. "Well, he's right there. He's not very big, but he'll hit you. And, he's just a freshman. The guy said, 'Freshman! Man!'
"He isn't very big right now, but he's going to make a lot of plays before he's done here over the next four years and he's probably going to be a lot bigger soon. We've got confidence in these guys. They are smart, they work hard and they play like linebackers with instincts."
South Carolina has been a sack machine this season, despite dialing back the blitzes. Ellis Johnson, the previous defensive coordinator, liked to bring an assortment of blitzes. Lorenzo Ward, who coached at Arkansas one season at the start of the Bobby Petrino era, has taken over the defense with fewer blitzes.
"They aren't blitz crazy," said Paul Petrino, UA offensive coordinator. "But they are able to get pressure with a four-man rush."
Smith added, "No, they aren't the blitz kings anymore. But you still have to do a great job with your protections."
Both agreed that the Hogs can't give the Gamecocks a steady diet of dropback passing. They'll get to quarterback Tyler Wilson if they can get in a racer's stance every play. The Hogs want to make Clowney and the other SC end, senior Devin Taylor, play run first.
"That's how to help your protections, run the football," Smith said. "I think if we run the ball, then it sets up the play-action and it makes them stay at home. We want to run the ball."
And stop the run. That's as big a key as there is in the game. Carolina has a young offensive line with two sophomores and a freshman. It's a talented group, but the Hogs have to use their veteran defensive front to take pressure off of the linebackers by forcing the Gamecocks to double team the front.
The UA ends have some experience on the Carolina tackles. SC's Corey Robinson (6-8, 337) is a sophomore playing his first season. Brandon Shell (6-6, 331) is a redshirt freshman. Can Trey Flowers and Chris Smith, the Hogs ends, along with backups Austin Flynn and Colton Miles-Nash complicate things for Shaw?
"We'd like to get after Connor Shaw the way Jake Bequette did last year in our game here," Smth said. "We haven't had a game like that. I think a lot of what we will have to do this week is stop the run, but if we can do that and make them one-dimensional, maybe we can get after him with our ends."
Perhaps Smith and Miles-Nash can help the young linebackers. Both were lined up in stand-up positions last week and they are likely to get a chance to do that again, especially with the depth at linebacker becoming an issue.
"I think we can move them around some," John L. Smith said. "But that probably has more to do with the formations we see than just trying them at linebacker."
Outside linebacker Ross Rasner said he'll probably get to help at linebacker, too. He's a hybrid safety, but Carolina relies on a tight end more than some of the other offenses the Hogs have seen so it's likely he'll play some in the base front.
"They want to run it first, so we have to get that stopped," he said. "I was more in the box last week against Tulsa and I suspect I'll be in the box a good number of plays this week. They can throw, but I think what they really want to do is run it."
Flowers said it will come down "to getting turnovers and sacks." He said that was the key to last year's South Carolina victory.
"We got turnovers against them last year," Flowers said. "We haven't done that much this year, but we did at the end of the Tulsa game. That's what we have to do to turn this game. We have to sack the quarterback.
"I know they are pretty much like most teams in the SEC. You better stop the run against South Carolina, like others we play. Then you can get after the quarterback. They have enough balance to do both, but if you don't stop the run, they'll just keep running it. That's what their coach likes to do."
"Their coach" would be veteran Steve Spurrier. Is Flowers aware of the coach on the sideline pulling the trigger on the calls?
"Not really," he said. "I don't look over there. You may know it's Coach Spurrier, but really once the game starts, you don't pay attention. You just play ball. That's pretty much all I ever do, just concentrate on playing football. He's not on the field. I probably wouldn't pay attention even if it was Bill Belichick."
While the UA matchup between Smith/Flowers and Carolina tackles Robinson/Shell are key, so is the matchup between UA offensive tackles David Hurd and Jason Peacock and Carolina's Clowney and Taylor. Peacock is expected to start, but Brey Cook has also played at strong tackle.
"We'll have to do things by formation to give our tackles help," Petrino said. "We can use the tight ends, H-back and the backs to chip on those guys. But there will be times that we are one-on-one with them and have to get the job done."
The Hogs hurt Carolina with the outside run last year. They gashed the Gamecocks on the outside two years ago at Columbia, but that was with Knile Davis rolling and tackles DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez along with tight end D. J. Williams playing awesome in the end of their senior campaigns. It's doubtful the Hogs can crush the Gamecocks on the perimeter this time. It's more likely that the holes are inside where Travis Swanson and Alvin Bailey are the dominant UA blockers.
Carolina is ranked eighth in the BCS. But the Hogs have taken down highly rated Gamecock teams in November before. They've won five of the last six meetings, including three straight.
"We have confidence, but those results don't mean a lot when you go out there," Rasner said. "If we can get something going and we wins some battles, maybe that comes into play then. If we can prove that we are doing it again, it might mean something to them then."
It might be about want to. The Hogs seemed to be in a better fame of mind to compete the last two years. They lowered the boom two years ago, knocking Lattimore out of the game and the Gamecocks went quietly. They talked about looking forward to other games in the post-game apologies.
Will the Gamecocks be looking for some revenge this time, out to prove something after taking it on the chin from the Hogs? They did have a week to prepare and mend their injuries. Like I said, sometimes it comes down to how many bullets are left in the chamber when November rolls around.
I picked Carolina early in the week. The Gamecocks are favored by over two touchdowns. But the closer I get to the game, the more I think this is an improved Arkansas defense facing a beat-up Carolina team. If that proves to be the case, I like the Arkansas chances with Tyler Wilson in a close one.
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