When the quarterback play is fairly equal, I tend to make my predictions based on the tackles, or just the line play in general. The more experience there is in those linemen, the better I feel towards that football squad.
I don't know what to make of the quarterback situation this week for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs played three last week against Alabama, perhaps the reason they only scored one touchdown despite dominating the turnover margin. Generally, gifts are the recipe for an upset, but even four takeaways didn't help the Bulldogs do anything but keep it close against the No. 1 Tide.
It's probably that quarterback issue that has kept the line fairly close this week as Arkansas plays host to Mississippi State in Little Rock. Kickoff is at 11:21 a.m. Saturday in War Memorial Stadium. The Bulldogs have been more competitive despite beating only Kentucky in SEC play this season. But who knows what Dan Mullen's team is going to put on the field at quarterback against the Hogs.
Is it senior Tyler Russell, the best passer? Or is it Dak Prescott, a sophomore with some running skills? Both of those have injured shoulders and are less than full speed for the trip to Little Rock. True freshman Damien Williams, a 230-pounder with a live arm and strong legs, is also in the picture.
If it gets down to Williams, the Hogs have a decent chance to end their seven-game losing streak and join Mississippi State with one SEC victory. The Bulldogs have beaten only Kentucky, one of the two teams the Hogs beat in SEC play last year. The other was Auburn.
Arkansas has been more competitive in SEC play of late. The Hogs fought hard against Ole Miss before losing a 34-24 decision that included a dubious call on a pass interception return that could have made it really interesting in the final seconds.
Part of that UA improvement is quarterback play -- gradual improvement by a more healthy Brandon Allen -- and part of that is just getting used to a new system with new coaches. It hit me this week that some of these Arkansas players are with their third position coach in three years. The defensive system is the third system in three years, dating back to Willy Robinson as defensive coordinator in 2011 and Paul Haynes as DC in 2012.
"That's some of what is going on with our team, without question," said Charlie Partridge, UA defensive line coach. "I have talked to our players. I think it's three different sets of calls and terminology. That's one area that will be much easier as we go to spring and next season.
"When it's new, you process it slower. They will play much faster next year. I see some of our young players starting to grasp it in our developmental practices. Some of them haven't gotten much work with the varsity. They have been with the scout team, but they were starting to get it the last two weeks. We didn't give them a lot. We just got them lined up and let them play.
"One of the things that will happen more often as our team begins to play faster, the collisions will become more violent and we'll get more takeaways."
The Hogs have not gotten many this season. They have ranked in the bottom of the SEC stats and near the bottom of national stats all year. It's an area that coach Bret Bielema's teams have always excelled. It's a cornerstone of the head coaches' program.
"Turnover margin, that's something we have to get fixed," Bielema said. "Turnovers and mistakes in the red zone, they must be eradicated."
Eradicate. That's a word he's used a lot over the last six to eight weeks as the Hogs have stumbled along in their losing streak.
Allen threw only one interception against Ole Miss. But it was that lone interception that Bielema pointed to this week.
"He was going for Alex Collins on the wheel route in the corner of the end zone," Bielema said. "It was a big play. That's the kind of play that must be eradicated. He's getting better. He didn't throw into coverage this week in practice."
Back to the line play for this week, it's an area that looks good for State because of experience. There is not a starter in the line on either side of the ball that is not a junior or senior. There are two seniors and three juniors in the MSU offensive line. In the defensive front, MSU starts one senior and three juniors.
It's those linemen that make for a tough day against State. Left guard Gabe Jackson is one of those seniors. He'll probably play at the next level and is to State what center Travis Swanson is to Arkansas.
We'll get into the line play more with the start of our top 10 keys to victory for the Razorbacks:
1. PULLING LINEMEN -- Who can be effective at scheming the edge on the outside? It's a big key to who establishes the running game in what could be a ground and pound type game in Little Rock. State's quarterbacks are banged up so the running game will be important for the Bulldogs and might be a bit of a break for the Hogs. Guards Gabe Jackson and Ben Beckwith are both used as pullers to kick out the ends and outside linebackers in the load options that Dan Mullen favors in his offense. The Hogs like to pull center Travis Swanson and move guards Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper. They've had two weeks to put in some more plays for that trio of dynamite blockers, the best in the UA offensive front.
2. TURNOVER MARGIN -- In SEC games only, Arkansas is minus 11 in turnovers. State is a plus two. Both teams had a plus in their last outings, a rare break in that department for the Hogs this season in Bielema's first year. Who plays clean Saturday? It probably is as big a factor in the game as anything. Rolling quarterbacks isn't a good way to avoid turnovers. That's what State may be faced with to try to get a passer on the field.
3. COMPLETION PERCENTAGE -- Most times, it's who runs the ball that wins in an Arkansas-Mississippi State game. But Arkansas has been vulnerable to the pass. The Hogs have given up 72.8 pass completions on defense in league games. MSU is not very good, either. The Bulldog secondary allows 66.1 percent completions in SEC games.
4. TACKLING -- It sounds simple, but it might just come down to making a few tackles in space after completions. The Hogs have been terrible at consistently tackling the catch, especially at cornerback. Tevin Mitchel has been guilty of a few mistakes in that regard and had to battle for his starting position this past two weeks. Neither Bielema or coordinator Chris Ash would say whether Mitchel is still in the lineup, but he will likely play some at cornerback in a battle with D. J. Dean for one CB spot. Jared Collins will start on the other side with Will Hines (back from a broken arm) and Carroll Washington (heel injury) also in the mix for playing time. Those corners must tackle well for the Hogs to improve on defense.
5. MOTIVATION -- What is more precious, the motivation to go to a bowl game or the thought of losing eight straight games? Both head coaches have different pre-game speeches. Playing hard is the ultimate result of good coaching. Who gets effort Saturday and who gets it the longest? Bielema is coaching with the word pride high in his first sentence. State's Dan Mullen is talking about winning out to go to a bowl game. Either way, the key to victory may be who is still playing hard to start the third quarter. Bielema talks about amazing resiliency and fight within this Arkansas senior class that has been kicked around the last two seasons. Do they bring the fight against the Bulldogs? Obviously, the Hogs are coming off an open date, State off of a heartbreaking loss to Alabama. The Bulldogs also have a key game next week against in-state rival Ole Miss. Who is sharper mentally? Who has the drive to play through to the end? It might be Arkansas.
6. BRANDON ALLEN -- How does the Arkansas quarterback play after getting two open dates over the last four weeks to finally get a beat-up shoulder well? He may be the key to the game because he may be the healthiest of the top quarterbacks in this game. He's been making slight improvement. The Bulldogs defend at a 35 percent clip on third down in SEC games, much better than what the Hogs have done this year, 39.7 percent on third down offense. The Hogs are allowing 50.7 third down percentage in SEC games. MSU converts at 38.8 percent in league contests. Allen might be the key in all of this. If he can move the chains, the Hogs might end their losing streak. He might have to do it some with his feet, something the Hogs try for each week. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has a goal of two first downs with quarterback runs each week. Allen might finally be healthy enough that he feels confident trying a little more with his feet. That's a big part of MSU's offense, called QB runs. Can Allen match State's quarterback running plays?
7. RED ZONE -- Neither team has exactly set the world afire in the red zone. These two teams are among the SEC's worst offensively. Arkansas is at 77.4 percent, State 82.1. Arkansas allows 89.5 percent in the red zone, State 90.9. This stat alone suggests that there might be some points scored. It will probably come down to who can force a turnover.
8. KICKING GAME -- This covers a lot. Arkansas easily has the better field goal kicker. Zach Hocker has made 10 of 12 field goals and is perfect on extra points. State's Devon Bell has made only 5 of 11 and missed an extra point. The Bulldogs have been even worse than Arkansas on punt returns. Both teams are solid in the punt game. But the field goal department is one areas where the Hogs might own an advantage in crunch time.
9. TRICK PLAYS -- Both teams have reached into the trickery department this season. The Bulldogs have hit some wide receiver passes. The Hogs have hit on some fake punts, halfback passes and also tried some onside kick (with no luck). It's probably an admission of inadequacy when there is too much trickery in the game plan. It could play a part. For sure, Bielema said the Hogs have looked at a variety of wide receiver plays on defense this week.
10. PAD LEVEL -- This has been a source of pride -- or at least heavy emphasis -- for both programs, playing low and physical. Neither team has great skill on offense, but they do work hard on a physical nature and good pad level. Sam Pittman, the UA offensive line coach, said he sees it in the State defense. Charlie Partridge, the UA defensive line coach, sees it in the State offense. Who plays with better pad level from start to finish might determine who controls the scoreboard. The Arkansas-Mississippi State games have always been slug fests as far as good old fashioned football games. This one shapes up the same way. The Hogs are healthier than the Bulldogs, thanks to the open date and State's game with Alabama last week.
State of the Hogs: Top 10 (Miss. State)
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