State of the Hogs: Keys to Victory (LSU)

Bret Bielema wants Razorbacks to play with an edge, but will that be enough to catch a Tiger by the tail in Death Valley? Here's a commentary from publisher Clay Henry.

Who is the meanest man? Could that be the key to victory Saturday when Arkansas plays at LSU on Friday afternoon?

That's a twist from an old line in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. But it's semi appropriate as Razorbacks and Tigers try to decide who is the toughest -- if not meanest -- players in Death Valley on Friday to end the regular season.

Arkansas defensive line coach Charlie Partridge didn't put it exactly that way Monday when he met with media. But Partridge did say that the Hogs are wondering how they stack up against what is one of the SEC's most physical teams year in and year out.

In fact, Partridge said players know that the toughness part of the equation is part of the battle between Arkansas and LSU for this CBS-TV matchup. Kickoff is 1:30 p.m.

"I'm anxious to see how we match with LSU in that part of the game," Partridge said. "Our players are excited about. For every player in our program, we know that the way LSU plays is the way we want to play. Can we play that way this week?

"We are committed to this style. We are committed to playing this way. That's the way we played (at Wisconsin) the last three to five years. That's the way we think football should be played."

Partridge loved what he saw on tape of the LSU offense as far as style.

"It does remind me of what we had at Wisconsin," he said. "They have three backs that are like what we saw in the (Big Ten). Three pro styled back, big guys with breakaway speed. It's much different than what we've seen in the last three weeks, more scatback types. Guys like Jeremy Hill is big, strong and fast."

Hill leads the Tigers with 1,040 yards and 13 touchdowns. That compares to the Arkansas tandem of Alex Collins (998, 4 TDs) and Jonathan Williams (842, 4 TDs).

The difference between the Hogs and Tigers is that there is a passing game waiting in Baton Rouge. LSU senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger leads the SEC in pass efficiency at 176.1, just ahead of Johnny Manziel's 174.9. Mettenberger averages 266 yards per game, third in the SEC. He completes 65 percent of his passes.

LSU has a great junior tandem at wide receiver in Odell Beckham (56 catches, 1,101 yards) and Jarvis Landry (67-1,059).

Beckham has been slowed in practice this week with what coach Les Miles called a "quality" bruise. Beckham first injured his back against Ole Miss, then aggravated it again last week against Texas A&M.

In some ways, LSU is rebuilding. The Tigers are 4-3 in the SEC after returning just 14 starters, only five on defense. The leader of the defense is linebacker Lamin Barrow, one of few seniors seeing significant minutes on that side of the ball. LSU's offense is young, too, with the exception of Mettenberger at quarterback, a senior and returning starter playing his best football.

The Hogs know how to stay with LSU. It's change things in the turnover ratio. The Hogs are last in the SEC at minus nine. LSU is just a hair better at minus two.

LSU leads the league in third down conversions at 58.6 percent. The Arkansas defense is 12th in the league at 42.1. The Arkansas offense converts at 42.1 percent while LSU allows 38.9, seventh best in the SEC.

It's senior day for LSU, although there aren't a lot in key spots. Meanwhile, there are some real stalwarts playing their last game for the Hogs. Center Travis Swanson will be making his 50th straight start. Head coach Bret Bielema shakes his head when he thinks about what the Houston product has meant for leadership, especially with true freshman Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland playing on either side of him at guard.

"You can't put a price tag, what those two freshman have learned from Travis," Bielema said. "One thing I've sen, people hate to play against Dan. He plays through to the whistle. That rubs off on everyone. I think guys like Brey Cook -- who had a pseudo benching -- has continued to play to the whistle now. If he continues his current progress, he's going to be very happy in two years.

"We are not dirty. We do play with a little edge (in the offensive line). It's the way I want them to play. If it pisses off other teams, so what."

Bielema handled another question that I generally take 2,000 words to summarize in this space the day before the game: What are the keys to victory for the Hogs against LSU?

"On offense, we have to do what we do," he said. "We ran for 225 last week against Mississippi State, but we didn't run efficiently at critical times. After Jeremey Sprinkle ran the drag (for 44 yards to the 12), we didn't run efficiently in the red zone. Alex Collins had the ball ripped away, like a man taking something from a child. We have to be efficient there.

"We have to keep the ball in our hands. We can give them no freebies, no big plays on defense. We can't give up free yards. We have to create turnovers and we have to tackle well. We can't flop around like a dead fish."

Yes, if the Hogs want to end a school record losing streak at eight games and finish the season at 4-8, they have to win the turnover margin decisively. They were ahead in that department last week and on the way to taking the lead in the closing minutes when Collins lost that fumble at the 9-yard line. Then, in overtime, Brandon Allen was intercepted on the last play. So the Hogs went from plus one to minus one in a blink.

The Hogs need to play clean in other areas, too. They've been eliminating penalties to the point that they have taken the SEC lead in that category. They have only 47 penalties over 11 games. LSU is in the middle of the pack with 77. But, Arkansas seems to play in games where not many penalties are called. Opponents have been penalized just 48 times in games against the Hogs.

It may come down to the UA defense against the pass. LSU will try to control the ball on the ground, but what it does best is in the air. Arkansas is better against the run than the pass and it's not close.

LSU averages 268 yards per game while the Hogs allow 235.3, 12th best in the SEC. The good news is that Arkansas seems to have improved slightly in that area with D. J. Dean and Jared Collins starting at cornerback last week. Tevin Mitchel, out last week after his mother had a stroke, returned to the team this week and should play. Will Hines also returned last week after missing six weeks with a broken arm.

The Hogs will need all the help they can get against Beckham and Landry. Those two speedsters have abused cornerbacks all year and Mettenberger knows how to find them on slants and posts to utilize their speed.

If the Hogs can slow down those wideouts, then they'll get a chance to see how that physical matchup works and if playing with an edge is enough to end that losing streak and bring back the Golden Boot.

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