State of the Hogs: Top 10 (USM)

It's the weekly Top 10 keys to victory, as picked by HI.com publisher Clay Henry. Arkansas plays host to Southern Miss at 11:21 a.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Which Arkansas teams shows, the one from the opener or last week's team that Samford threatened to upset?

What do you make of this Arkansas team? Going forward will it be more like the one that avoided turnovers and penalties in the spring and the season opener, or like the one that sputtered in the second game because of a multitude of mistakes?

Bret Bielema's track record suggests the opener was closer to form, but it will help if he has all of his bullets this week for Southern Miss. I'm thinking these Razorbacks will play closer to the form of the opener against the winless Golden Eagles.

That's winless over two seasons. It's hard to imagine, but for all of the trouble Arkansas had last year under John L. Smith, the one-year tenure of Ellis Johnson was worse at Southern Miss.

Todd Monken is the new coach at Hattiesburg, Miss., and with him comes a new quarterback, California transfer Allan Bridgford. The 6-3, 210-pound senior signal caller was considered a blue chipper when he landed at Berkley. He got his degree at Cal and took advantage of the NCAA loophole that allows for immediate eligibility to play for Monken.

Bridgeford has had flashes in the first two games, but in both directions. He's thrown too many interceptions and been at the helm of a leaky ship. As smooth as Brandon Allen has been at quarterback in reads, checks and throws, Bridgeford has been just as up and down.

The good news for Arkansas is that it will have more defensive weapons for this week's 11:21 a.m. game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, especially on defense where defensive end Trey Flowers (knee injury), outside linebacker Jarrett Lake (suspension) and linebacker Otha Peters (broken arm) all return. Safety Rohan Gaines (knee) is still doubtful, but will be a game-time decision.

No doubt, Flowers is the big return. He had three sacks in the opener and the junior team captain is an impact player at end, especially against a passing team. He's more of a pass rush specialist than his replacement, freshman Brandon Lewis, was last week.

Flowers wants the Hogs to put together four quarters against USM, not the two they did last week against Samford when he watched in agony from the sideline as the game turned badly in the third quarter. He said it was a case of the Hogs slipping to the level of the competition.

"We are doing pretty well overall because the goal was to win those games and we did," Flowers said. "But I think what we have to remember is to stay hungry every quarter. No doubt, we have a lot of work left, but the mental attitude has to stay consistent.

"No matter how much we win, we can't afford lapses like we did last week. We were doing pretty well, then we slipped. We had a stretch where we forgot we need to dominate.

"We still have to get to that point where we dominate the other team and don't play down to their level. We have to play Razorback football."

That leads us to the number one key to victory this week, don't beat yourself against an underdog.

1, CLEAN MACHINE -- Obviously, Arkansas came close to doing just that last week against Samford. Eliminate three big penalties, two fumbles and a dropped pass on third down, the Hogs might have had the cakewalk that many figured. The two fumbles – Javontee Herndon on a punt return and Jonathan Williams on a sweep – were both the result of nice hits by linebacker Justin Shade. But that's not what Bielema said afterwards or during any other media opportunity this week. He said ball security – even on a couple of plays that didn't result in a fumble – were going to be emphasized in practice this week. Southern Miss has had more giveaways than a game show host so far this season. Many were not the result of big hits. It might be tougher for USM to clean up its act, but if it does, this might not be an easy game for the Hogs.

2, FULL DECK – Arkansas still has a few missing links going into week three, but it's as close to a full deck as its been in awhile. Trey Flowers, Otha Peters and Jarrett Lake are all back, it appears. It may not be as good for tight end Austin Tate (shoulder) and safety Rohan Gaines (knee). Wide receiver Keon Hatcher (knee) also appears close to full speed and may play this week. Hatcher's return and the possibility of D'Arthur Cowan, another injured wideout, coming back next week allowed ture freshman Melvinson Hartfield to stay on the redshirt list. Hartfield was ruled eligible until the second week of fall camp and is still behind.

3, RUN AT WILL – That's an old joke. The Hogs have been able to run, but maybe not at will, unless you look closely. Who is will? That's a term for weakside linebacker in football lingo. In this case, the Hogs have been a weakside running team, going opposite when it's loaded the offensive line one way with an unbalanced look. When the weakside has been to the boundary, the Hogs have been terrors with the toss sweep. This week, the weakside linebacker for USM is talented Dylan Reda. He recorded 55 stops last year and is an experienced player for the Golden Eagles. The Hogs love to move their tight end around to get mismatches on the weakside, normally an open field player kept away from tight ends. But late movement with multiple tight ends makes it hard for defenses to maintain their strong-weak balance.

4, OUTSIDE PULL – Arkansas has been powerful with pulling plays, mostly with center Travis Swanson. If you want to see a play develop, follow No. 64 until the ball shows up. It normally does follow Swanson. And, on Swanson's hip will probably be fullback Kiero Small, No. 36 in your program. Those two are probably the best player on the offensive side of the ball. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has used them to their greatest abilities so far this season. Chaney and Sam Pittman, the veteran UA line coach, wants better results on pulling plays from guards Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers this week. How well they've developed this week might be a key, especially with USM defensive tackles Khyri Thornton and Rakeem Nunez-Roches trying to disrupt play. Pittman lauded both of those down linemen in the USM 3-4 front earlier this week, noting their strength and quickness.

5, BALANCE – It's been a point of emphasis since Bielema arrived. Everyone realizes that the run is coming, but Bielema thinks balance is – well, equally important. It's hard to argue when there is big plays in the passing game to go along with the tough, downhill running that he preaches. But the Hogs didn't look interested in the pass while plowing through Samford in the fourth quarter last week with zero pass attempts. Some have suggested this would be a good week to open up the playbook before going on the road next week at Rutgers. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney didn't seem to hint in that direction this week as he discussed the development of the offense. He said a young offense – with the quarterback and most prominent ball carriers all sophomores and freshmen – sometimes gets out of kilter when you add too many new plays in a week. Some suggested the Hogs have kept it vanilla in the first two weeks, saving some things for deeper in the season. If that is the case, Chaney didn't bite or provide any hints. Chaney seems to be more interested in keeping the balance between Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams as far as carries. So far this season, Collins has 45 with a 6.7 average and Williams has 35 with a 7.9 average.

6, TACKLES – When it's not about the money, it's about the money. Yes, we know that. When it's not about the tackles, it's about the tackles. It always is with football. The team with the most dominant tackles – when quarterback play is relatively equal – will dominate. Can Arkansas dominate Southern Miss with its tackles? And, is this the week that Bielema gets Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland more involved? Bielema hinted this week on his radio show that there is perhaps something special coming from these freshman tackles. There can be only seven men on the line, but I've always wondered if Kirkland had good enough feet to do some things as an extra blocker at tight end. Chaney, Pittman and Bielema seem to love to scheme things with the front. Watch for some tricks. Robert Thomas may have played his best football last week against USM. Byran Jones was tricked into following pulling guards on the influence play last week that accounted for Samford's best plays. Line coach Charlie Partridge said those plays were emphasized this week because once something like that shows up on tape, it's going to show up in the game plan for every team the rest of the season. To the credit of Jones, he recognized it when Samford came back to it in the fourth quarter.

7, THE SMALL FACTOR – It's really quite big, this Arkansas fullback. Kiero Small has been a factor in almost everything the offense has done. Is this the week that he gets a few more carries? I've wondered if anyone can find him if the Hogs trot out a line with all of those tall blockers, especially with Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle, both around 6-7, in the game as double tight ends. I did like the power formation last week that featured both Small and Patrick Arinze as fullbacks in front of a scatback. Small has nine carries for 32 yards and three catches for another 25. Bielema said there was a comfort zone with Small in the game as the Hogs ran off the last seven minutes of the clock. There may be a time when Small is featured in the first quarter, not just the fourth.

8, SECRET WEAPON – There is fascination with what the Hogs have in the kicking game with Zach Hocker, now the school's all-time leading scorer, and Australian Sam Irwin-Hill. Bielema noted that the game officials always check in pre-game for two things, which hand does your quarterback throw with (because it makes a difference where the referee (white hat) stands and the dominant foot of the punter. Bielema loves to tow with them as he circles right and left for Irwin-Hill. He's kicked with both feet already this year. But Bielema admits that there was a time last week when he called for Hocker to punt just because of the power of his leg. He said Hocker caught a 78-yarder this week in practice. He said it's an amazing thing when he catches one right and the spiral turns over. It never seems to stop. If you want a treat, get to your seat early and watch the Hogs' secret weapons, those punters.

9, IMPROVEMENT – It goes back to the early thoughts in this commentary, what is this team? I think there will be improvement, possibly more than in the second week. I also think the dominance of a downhill running team will take its toll on Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles have faced their own passing offense for most of preseason and there is an adjustment when a smash-mouth team pops up on the schedule. We'll see if that holds true this week and also how much the Hogs improve. It went so smooth in the opener and again it looked like things were clicking in the fourth quarter against Samford.

10, ATMOSPHERE – So much was made of the attendance last week, just 47,358 in War Memorial Stadium. Cooler temperatures arrive in the Ozarks for the weekend. The forecast is for 80 as a Saturday high and it'll be more comfortable than that at kickoff. How will the Fayetteville crowd compare to Little Rock? Like last week, the visitor will bring very few fans. A team that has lost 14 straight doesn't travel so great. So the visitor's section will be empty, meaning it will be a long way from a sellout. Just what will the atmosphere be like? Will fans remember the Bielema pleas in preseason for a difference making cheer when the Golden Eagles are trying to change plays on third down? I'm also wondering what it will sound like in the stadium when linebacker Martrell Spaight brings his first big hit of the season. We heard about that the final two weeks of camp when the juco transfer made his move. Will a Golden Eagle be the first to be "Spaighted" in a game? I can only imagine what the atmosphere will be like when that hit comes.

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