Bret Bielema called it the muck earlier in the year, meaning Arkansas was stuck in it as it tried to move out of the John L. Smith days and into some stability with a new coaching staff. He's also referenced a fog that hangs over the football program.
Is there finally traction for the Hogs? Is the fog lifting?
That wasn't the exact question Thursday to Bielema, the first-year Arkansas coach, after the final practice of the week, but it might as well have been. Bielema noted that he "feels close" and most assumed the coach was talking about ending a six-game losing streak. That would for sure lift the fog.
But there is a little road block at Ole Miss, another solid SEC foe, that won't be so easy. The Rebels are 5-3 with victories over Texas and LSU. There have been three TV thrillers, a 39-35 victory over Vandy to open the season, a 27-24 triumph over LSU and a heart breaker of a loss, 41-38 to Texas A&M.
What jumps out at anyone about the Hugh Freeze-coached Rebels is that they can score, but they also can be scored upon. I'm not sure what that does for an Arkansas team that hasn't been stellar on defense, but it could provide for an interesting matchup, perhaps like last year's 30-27 shootout in Little Rock. Ole Miss won on a field goal to end the game after the Hogs battled back all day, thanks to some tough running by Dennis Johnson down the stretch.
Freeze looked like he wanted to protect quarterback Bo Wallace for most of the day, but turned him loose to pass the Rebels to victory in the stretch. Wallace is an accurate passer and might be a bad matchup for a UA secondary that has trouble stopping the pass.
We'll start there with the keys to victory for the Hogs trying to extend their series lead to five games. They come in leading, 31-27-1.
1. WIDE RECEIVERS, Part I -- Ole Miss has a clear edge here and this will be a big of a key for the Hogs on defense. Can they matchup with Donte Moncrief, Laquon Treadwell and Ja-Mes Logan. It was an interesting discussion with strongside linebacker Braylon Mitchell this week. Asked about helping out on the outside in the short passing game, Mitchell said, "They have great wide receivers, but we have to leave them to the corners and safeties." The Hogs will have their hands full there because the linebackers are going to be concentrating on chasing the Ole Miss running backs. Can UA corners Tevin Mitchel, Carroll Washington, D. J. Dean and Jared Collins handle the Rebel receivers? That's been a tough match-up for everyone.
2. WIDE RECEIVERS, Part II -- Can Arkansas make some plays with its wide receivers? They stepped up a bit last week against Auburn. Keon Hatcher appears to be the best bet to have a big day. But Javontee Herndon, caught in the muck a bit for the last month, seemed to be playing better, too. It might be interesting to see if D'Arthur Cowan is a factor. The Olive Branch, Miss., product was penciled in the game play during the open week, but then slipped back during game week ahead of Auburn. He wasn't much of a factor. Can he step up playing close to home this week?
3. BRANDON ALLEN -- There has been little doubt that fans have been tough on Allen over the last month. Never mind that he was having a tough time with a sore passing shoulder. Never mind that he wasn't practicing much even though he was taking the field as a starter. He was 10 of 22 last week, but seemed to be more in rhythm when protection held up. I'm guessing that former Arkansas assistant Dave Wommack, the Ole Miss defensive coordinator, sends some blitzes at Allen. That's been Wommack's style, to blitz when protections are suspect. Allen should be able to make some plays against the Rebels and this could lead to an interesting game.
4. RUNNING GAME -- The styles are different, but the desire is the same. Both Freeze and Bielema want to run the ball. Freeze will do it in up tempo. Bielema wants to pound on a team to take the will out of them by the fourth quarter. It was a little more effective against Auburn. Ole Miss may get back defensive linemen Robert Nkemdiche this week. He's been slowed by a hamstring injury. He's a beast and will be a load for tackles David Hurd and Brey Cook, perhaps with some help from the tight ends. Alex Collins sustained an injury late in the Auburn game, but is said to be fine. A key might be to check out Collins early to see if he's able to roll. No one has mentioned otherwise this week, but the Hogs need both Collins and Jonathan Williams against the Rebels.
5. TURNOVERS -- It's been an ugly stat for the last two seasons. The Hogs have lost nine fumbles. They've come from kick returners (Herndon, Hatcher), quarterback (Allen, Derby), running back (Williams, Collins), wide receiver (Herndon) and tight end (Henry). Allen eliminated the pick six over the last two games. The Hogs have to win the turnover battle if they are going to score an upset in Oxford and it would be an upset. The Rebels return 59 lettermen and 21 starters.
6. PLAY CLEAN -- This sounds like an obvious key, but it's important because the Hogs have been far from clean most of the year. Two pass interference penalties on tight ends wiped out third down completions last week. Those have to be cleaned up. It's clear that if the Hogs run another onside kick play (and they have several more), Bielema wants the unit to be onside. Penalties are on the decline, but overall clean play hasn't surfaced in all areas. That's needed to pull an upset.
7. KICKING MAD -- Bielema was upset that Zach Hocker was left off the Groza Award finalists list. His only missed field goal was the one Alabama blocked. Otherwise, he's perfect. Hopefully, Hocker is kicking mad and can provide a difference against Ole Miss. That's one of the problems, Hocker hasn't been able to be showcased in a winning situation because of the way the offense has slumped overall.
8. FIELD POSITION -- It's been horrible most of the year, a product of losing the turnover battle and mistakes in special teams. The lack of a punt return game has been a factor, too. Arkansas has started only three possessions across the 50-yard line in the six-game losing streak. The opposition has gotten 13 starts in Arkansas territory in that same time. The idea with playing smashmouth is to win the field position battle with defense, strong kicking and a punishing running game. The Hogs have been a long way from that this past six games.
9. LINEBACKER PLAY -- Why I waited this deep for this one is anyone's guess? It's been a major problem all year with lots of shuffling of players. Perhaps the Hogs have settled on a good fit with Brooks Ellis in the middle, Jarrett Lake at weakside and Braylon Mitchell at strongside. The Hogs were able to play a lot of base last week with three linebackers since Auburn was primarily a run team. But with the Ole Miss version of the spread, it's more about getting the ball to the wideouts. The nickel might be the primary alignment this week.
10. INTENSITY and PHYSICALITY -- It would reason that the Hogs would play hard trying to snap the losing streak. Another loss will match the longest in a single season, in 1990 during the Jack Crowe era. But how will they bounce back from a big effort on senior day after an open date. Ole Miss is coming off its bye week. Sometimes those two factors don't match well for a road team. The Hogs have been working to play with even effort from week to week. This will be a good indicator on how far they've come with a young team. How much do the seniors have in the tank? How is Allen's play on the road. He didn't fare well in the last two road games, at Florida and at Alabama. But perhaps Oxford is a little bit more friendly for the Hogs. They'll need top effort from seniors, the large cast of freshmen now in the lineup. Bielema seemed to be preaching effort, belief and hard work this week as he mentioned that the travel roster for SEC games is 70. He said he'd take only 40 if that was the number who believed they could win. He seems to understand the deal. Physicality has to be the primary focus. The Hogs have worked all year on lowering the pad level. Perhaps Stanford's smashmouth play against a spread team in Oregon earlier this week will help that physicality and belief this week for the Hogs.
State of the Hogs: Top 10 (Ole Miss)
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