The strangest of football seasons is coming to an end Friday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The clear questions, will it be another strange game or will form stand as No. 8 LSU travels to Arkansas to put to bed a disappointing regular season for really both.
Game time is 1:30 p.m. CBS-TV will have the national telecast.
When the season opened, LSU was No. 1 and supposedly headed to its second straight BCS title game. They went 13-0 in the regular season last year before losing to LSU in a rematch. The only real question concerned redshirt junior Zach Mettenberger. Could he provided the vertical passing game that smashmouth LSU had been missing?
Mettenberger started his college career at Georgia, then bounced to a junior college. He sat out last year because LSU had two senior caretakers he could not beat out. Mettenberger is the man now because of default, not because he played well early.
But the 6-5, 230-pounder with the golden arm has caught fire of late. He outplayed Alabama's A. J. McCarron for most of the game as he's found the touch on the swing passes and dumps and that's opened up other things in the offense.
"They've always been able to run the ball," said Paul Haynes, Arkansas defensive coordinator. "What you've seen lately with their quarterback is that he's operating the offense now. He gets the underneath stuff right now. And then that puts enough pressure on you to stop those two things -- the run and underneath routes -- that now they are getting the vertical routes, too.
"They've just gotten better all season. The quarterback is been pretty good lately. And you know what they have around him, great athletes. They are good up front, as good as anyone. And they have all those running backs. The receivers give them great athleticism on the perimeter, too. They really have it all and are tough to stop."
The underneath stuff in combination with the smashmouth running with backs Spencer Ware, Jeremy Hill, Michael Ford and Kenny Hilliard gives the Hogs the most worries. That's mainly because the Hogs counter with two true freshman at inside linebackers in A. J. Turner and Otha Peters.
The Hogs are solid in the defensive front, but LSU can isolate those linebackers with double teams. They've done that with success against veteran linebacker groups all season. It should be a tough battle for Tuner and Peters.
Haynes is proud of those two. He sees bright futures for both. They are talented, play hard and have the work ethic and study habits to develop into fine players. He said they have the instincts of inside linebackers.
"They just make mistakes at time," he said. "You show it to them. You give it to them, but you still has to see it at game speed and understand. It just takes a while for it all to come smoothly and in a hurry. And it's in a hurry in the SEC.
"I couldn't be more proud of two freshmen for what they've done and how they've gone at it. They are liked by their teammates."
But they are still freshmen. Haynes doesn't remember ever going through anything like it at inside linebacker where Alonzo Highsmith, Tenarius Wright, Kiero Small and Terrell Williams have all been knocked out be either leg surgeries or suspension. Williams is back this week in a limited role, but will not start.
"When you talk about this many freshmen playing this much ... and you have to add in Will Hines (at corner) and Rohan Gaines (at safety) as freshmen in playmaker spots," Haynes said. "It's really nothing I've dealt with.
"There have been instances where we had to play a true freshman at Ohio State, but generally it's been only one and we might have an all-conference player on either side of him. That doesn't hurt you too much. But three, four or five at the same time -- and we've been there some -- there are just going to be too many errors.
"But it's part of the game and you keep coaching them. What it does is put you further down the line for the next year and these guys all are talented and will be good players in time when you get them experienced and consistent."
The real blow has been at middle linebacker. That's why the Hogs were so quick to move Wright there in the spring when Highsmith was injured lifting weights. They also wanted to get a quick look at Kiero Small at middle linebacker.
"The two positions in this defense that are critical are the Star and the Mike," Haynes said. "That's where you want your best players. Ross has done well at the Star. He's been everything we'd want there. He's made plays, he's lined up right. He's made the adjustments in the formation changes. He's really been good. I'm so proud of him. So we had that part good.
"The Mike, well, it's been someone different all year. You just want to get a dude in there that's going to be a difference maker. Everything kinda plays off that guy in this defense. We get one guy in there, something happens to him. It's just been hard for the entire defense because of that.
"You want to have a guy that understands it and gives you consistency. Every guy in that defense plays off that guy in the middle. We just have never had that. We've worked to keep guys cross trained for both Will and Mike, then, we lose a Mike and it starts over again, moving everyone one spot over. It's just been a constant situation where it's learning the Mike."
Rasner sees that. He praises the freshmen, but knows it's an almost impossible task.
"We've known from the start what the keys were to playing the defense," Rasner said. "It's designed for the Star and Mike to make plays. We've gotten that done at times. I know there are other times, and I'm talking about me, that I haven't gotten it done.
"But Coach Haynes has given us the preparation to play this defense. He knows every part of it. He can draw it up and coach it. We just haven't had the experience to do all of it. You look at all of the freshmen, there are things we just can't do with them right now. They are going to be good and they'll be able to handle more of it in the future. But it's tough on them right now.
"I'm not saying they are to blame. I'm just saying that no freshmen can do it like a veteran guy. You need experience in this league. You see each week that the other team is going to go after your young guys. They are making more plays each week. But you know they are going to see a new style of offense each week and it's tough to pick it all up in one week. They've done about as well as you are going to expect from young players. You definitely see the growth and knowledge."
So if you want to start with the biggest key this week, it has to be there when LSU has the ball. LSU's got a slobberknocker for a fullback in junior J. C. Copeland, 6-1, 272 pounder who likes to wipe out undersized inside linebackers. He'll probably get some shots at the 216-pound Turner and the 228-pound Peters.
The right side of the LSU line is massive. Tackle Vadal Alexander is 6-6, 350. Guard Josh Williford measures 6-7, 334. Center P. J. Lonergan is 6-4, 305. Those guys will be trying to split the UA tackles to get a shot at the linebackers. It could be an ugly day.
Conversely, the Hogs have to get some stalemates on the outside when quarterback Tyler Wilson drops back. They couldn't last year. Wilson was running for his life in Baton Rouge. UA tackles David Hurd and Jason Peacock may need some chip help to contain ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, perhaps the best set in the SEC. The Tigers are good at linebacker, too, with junior Kevin Minter in the middle.
If there is an LSU weakness, it might be on the edge in the secondary. Cornerbacks Tharold Simon and Jalen Mills are talented, but they are not near in the category of past LSU corners, many starting in the NFL. That's where the Hogs will attack.
"Teams have had some success throwing down the field," Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. "They've have gone after the cornerbacks."
That's always going to be the UA plan anyway, find out if the opposition has an answer for school record holder Cobi Hamilton on the edge. The Hogs will likely try to get Hamilton paired in the slot against LSU nickel back Micah Eugene, not nearly what the Tigers they were going to have this year with the now departed Honey Badger.
The wild card in this game is emotion. The Hogs have given effort this year, especially early. But they've also been quick to slide when adversity hits. They've had some awesome first quarters and some equally horrendous second quarters. They went quietly the last two weeks on the road at South Carolina and Mississippi State to fall to 4-7 and out of the bowl race.
The thought is that they might give one last fanatical effort as seniors like Wilson, Hamilton and Rasner play their last time for the Hogs. Alfred Davis, Dylan Breeding, Dennis Johnson, Jason Peacock, Brandon Mitchell, Tyler Deacon, Ronnie Wingo, Colton Miles-Nash, Jared Green, Kaelon Kelleybrew, DeQuinta Jones, Darius Winston and Terrell Williams are others who have played this year going out on senior day.
There's also the John L. Smith factor. He's making his last appearance after taking over from the fired Bobby Petrino on a 10-month contract. No one carries their emotions on their sleeve as much as Smith. He's cracked up in tears several times this week and players genuinely love him. How much will that matter this week? Of course, most of these assistant coaches are probably gone after this game, too. Most said their good byes to media after practices this week.
Of course, the biggest key may not be how hard or excited the Hogs are to play for their seniors and coaches. It will come down to efficiency and mistakes. The Hogs have created a mess themselves with execution. They've often moved the ball only to turn the ball over, give up a sack or a penalty. Can they clean that up? And, can they avoid busts by young defenders that limit LSU's big plays? If that happens, LSU, favored by 12.5, may have a hard time covering.
But if Arkansas resembles recent form, there might be a blowout last the last two weeks. The Hogs are 1-9 against the spread this year and most pickers we use in the Hawgs Illustrated weekly column think LSU will romp. That may play into the mindset of these Razorbacks.
"I know not many give us a chance," Hamilton said. "But it's just one game and it's our last one. We want to go out having fun. We want this game to be the one everyone remembers us for. I know so many bad things have happened it's hard to forget them all, but as players this is the one that we want to show what we can do.
"We've been excited and having fun at practice. We have enjoyed ourselves this week because there are going to be so many that we don't see again. I want to have some memories from this week of all of these guys, the coaches."
Obviously, it's the last time for Wilson, praised by Petrino for the way he's worked all year.
"If you are a fan, you have to love Tyler Wilson," he said. "How could you not love him. He's gone out there no matter what and given it his best. Some things are not his fault. Don't blame him. I probably should have done a better job calling plays. But Tyler has been good all year. He's been good in our checks. He's been accurate. We've had to throw too much and that's had him going into coverages when we couldn't run it. So he's had a good year. It's just been tough on him and I just want to say how proud I am of the way he's handled it.
"He's gotten hit and banged around, but he has never backed down. He's gone out there and tried again, just kept swinging. He's a great player and a great Razorback, what a leader for this team and this state.
"I love him. We've been close all year. I mean really close. You get close to your players, but I don't know that I can remember one like this. I'll always remember him and treasure what we had this year. No, it wasn't what we thought or what we wanted. But he gave it everything he had and never stopped working. He was the same the first day of spring practice as he was in this practice (Tuesday). He's the same Tyler Wilson. He's really something special."
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