The phrase that has been tossed around the most concerning the Northern Illinois trip to the Ozarks this week is simple. It comes down to this: 17 in a row on the road.
That's what the NIU Huskies will be working on as they travel to play Arkansas , suddenly going for a three-game winning streak. It's been so dry for the Razorbacks the last two seasons that they don't separate road from home. They stack victories anyway they can to make a streak.
It's such a meager Arkansas streak that it's hard to fathom that anyone in the Fred W. Smith Center would overlook anyone, much less a team with 49 victories since 2010, second only to Oregon.
“I don't think it will be a problem,” said Trey Flowers, senior captain. “We are still hungry. It's like I told the guys before last season, our mindset has to be that we are at the buffet and can never get full. I think that's how we feel. We gotta eat. We gotta eat this week.”
Translation, the energy should be there for the Hogs despite spanking Texas Tech, 49-28, last week in Lubbock. They should have energy for the Huskies, never mind that Texas A&M awaits next week in the promised land of Cowboys AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said it's about playing like you practice and making sure the practices are solid. Preparation was impressive ahead of the Tech trip. All who have visited with the media this week say the Hogs have practiced well again this week.
“We say you win on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” Bielema said Thursday night. “We've practiced well. I like what I see as far as the preparation. We talk about the 1-0 mentality and we'll see Saturday if that's how we play.”
Both teams feature a wonderful offensive line and a physical presence that was lacking from the Red Raiders last week. The Hogs will not be able to just smash through the Huskies. The NIU defense has the benefit of going against a physical line in practice, something that Bielema thinks serves the Razorabacks well, too.
“You get what you pay for,” said UA offensive coordinator Jim Chaney on Sunday night after reviewing the Tech tape. “I think the way you practice and how we go about it helps both sides of the ball.”
So we'll start our keys to victory with the offensive line. Who can dominate the line of scrimmage? The pile moved forward for the Hogs against Tech. Will it this week against a short, but powerful NIU defensive front. By the same token, can the speedy UA defensive front led by Flowers hold their own against NIU's offensive line, a group that has 111 starts?
Game time is 6 p.m. in Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. Coverage will be on ESPNU.
Top 10 Keys
1, Physicality – It was THE only thing that seemed to matter in Lubbock. Arkansas had it, Tech did not. The Huskies brag about the way they play on the line of scrimmage. Whether or not it's an SEC West team doesn't matter. They know they've been successful playing their style on the road and won't be intimidated by the Hogs. One of the things that could be interesting, is this a week that the Hogs really look like an SEC West team as far as physical presence. They couldn't do that last year for four quarters in a loss at Rutgers. Can they now? Are the Hogs now beast-like and a full-fledged SEC West bully?
2, The Eyes Have It – Arkansas safeties were not on the right page in the opener at Auburn when they lost their keys, putting their eyes in the wrong place. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith said the NIU offense, a spread similar to Auburn's, will test their eyes. He thinks the Hogs will have their eyes in the right place, following their keys a little better this week. He's praised safety Rohan Gaines for improved play. It was Gaines who struggled to tackle and follow his keys in the opener. Can Gaines, along with fellow safeties Alan Turner and Josh Liddell, know when to play run and pass this week against a balanced NIU attack? It might be as big a key as there is in the game.
3, Can the Hogs Pass? – Some don't know if the Hogs can pass because they really haven't tried much the last couple of weeks. Quarterback Brandon Allen completed four of five against Nicholls, all four of the completions going for touchdowns. The Hogs finished the Tech game with 30 straight runs. Some suggest that they should have practiced the pass some in that finish, never mind that they didn't need it. Bielema said this week that the Hogs' ability to pass is the best-kept secret in Fayetteville. It's likely that it won't stay a secret this week because NIU seems to be decent against the run.
4, Third Down – It generally comes down to what you do on the early downs to make it easy on third downs. But that's been an exciting play in all three NIU games. Interestingly, the Huskies convert at a 62 percent clip on the season. The NIU defense also allows 62 percent success on third down. There may not be many punts if those numbers hold true. Bielema said the key stat to watch is first down for the Hogs. He said every member of his team knows the goal on first down, to gain at least four yards. The Hogs have done that most of the time – with the only exception the second half against Auburn – to make it easy for playcaller Jim Chaney.
5, Pass Protection – There have not been many sacks so far this season for either team. Arkansas didn't get a lot of pressure against Tech's Davis Webb last week, although they hit him a couple of times and did bat down two of his passes. The Hogs have given up only one sack in three games, at Auburn. There was also big-time pressure when Allen was intercepted on his pick six at Auburn. Can the Hogs give Allen time to let his receivers work deep on play action? Can the Hogs get after NIU's Drew Hare, equipped with some mobility but not nearly as strong as last year's quarterback, Jordan Lynch? This one will probably come down to both teams running play action passing games. UA defensive coordinator Robb Smith wants to limit what the Huskies do on first down so the Hogs can get them in some third-and-6 situations. He said, “If we do that, we'll have some fun.” But that's not what anyone has been able to do with regularity.
6, Allen's Running – Jim Chaney puts some goals on the board each week. One of them is for the quarterback to make some plays with his feet. He wants two first downs a week on quarterback scrambles. Allen's running was wonderful last week at Tech. He scored on a 5-yard scramble when a screen pass blew up. He also bought some time with his feet for a completion on a roll outside the pocket. There was also a long run in the first half to ignite a drive. The Hogs rely on bootlegs in their passing game, but Allen might take off if there is room. It's hard enough to stop the Arkansas ground game when Allen is handing off, but he might surprise the Huskies with a few dashes.
7, A Sprinkle of the Tight End – The last two weeks, the tight end plays were highlighted only because Cameron Jefferson switched to an eligible number (89) and moved from tackle to tight end in a jumbo package. That might happen again, but it would be my guess that the other tight ends will be more in the picture than Jefferson. Hunter Henry, AJ Derby and Jeremy Sprinkle will get some plays. They've been mainly blockers, but the play action might spring them back into the passing game this week.
8, Contesting the Pass – A wonderful thing happened to the Arkansas secondary in the last couple of weeks, it seemed to understand the pass can be contested by the defense. This seems like a simple thing, but it's been a big deal for the corners, safeties and linebackers. They batted away 11 passes last week. Oh, some of those came from defensive linemen, too. Flowers said, “We think we should be getting our hands on the passes, too. We see what's going on with our defensive backs. They've worked so hard at getting to the ball at it's highest point. They have been getting interceptions in practice.” Linebackers coach Randy Shannon saw Brooks Ellis, the middle backer, knock down four. “We've told him over and over to capitalize on those chances,” Shannon said. “You can turn a game on one of those.” Perhaps that's what Martrell Spaight did just before halftime when he returned an interception 30 yards to set up a score against Tech. That was a three-play sequence in which the Hogs had a hand on three straight Tech passes.
9, Wrinkle Free – Last week on his radio show, Bielema seemed to enjoy telling Arkansas fans (and maybe Tech) that there would be some wrinkles unleashed in Lubbock. The Hogs did miss an open flea flicker pass when Allen didn't put enough air under the ball on an open bomb to Keon Hatcher. And, there was a lost fumble on a reverse on the goal line when Alex Collins tried to flip the ball to a receiver. Maybe the Hogs will try to be wrinkle free this week, but something tells me that Chaney will have some new variations in the running game based off the jumbo package. The Hogs have overloaded the boundary side a couple of times to free a receiver coming to the open side on a sweep. There seems to be a new variation in that package each week. That's enough wrinkles for me. Just iron out that flea flicker first!
10, Young Linebackers – Pace of play may be interesting with NIU trying to get off a snap every 16-17 seconds. That may require the Hogs to rotate a few more defenders. The Huskies also may play formations with two backs and a tight end, meaning the Hogs might be in a base defense more than in any of their first three games. No one has seen much of starting strong linebacker Braylon Mitchell since the Hogs have played so much nickel. But now that Randy Ramsey is healthy, Mitchell will likely not get as many snaps in the base anyway, especially if NIU rolls fast. Ramsey is a true freshman with length and speed. He's finally healthy and has had a good week of practice. He may get some snaps at strong linebacker, along with Mitchell, Daunte Carr and Dwayne Eugene, another true freshman making a move. Ramsey, Eugene and Khalia Hackett will likely see plenty of action on special teams. Juco transfer Josh Williams could spell Ellis in the middle. The Hogs didn't have many second-half snaps last week when Tech had only about six minutes of possession time. The Hogs may need all of those young linebackers this week if possession time isn't so lopsided.
Extras -- Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Arkansas has not completely eliminated its turnover issues. The Hogs are starting to get a few, but they lost two fumbles last week, including a punt that hit an up back. That's something the Hogs want to clean up, although they do seem to be limiting penalties. NIU quarterback Drew Hare has thrown only one interception, so producing takeaways may be tough... The Hogs seem to be healthy with no injuries out of the Tech victory. It may be that Randy Ramsey, Davyon McKinney and De'Andre Coley return to help the defense... The best line of the week came from redshirt freshman Kevin Richardson, who acted like an old hand when he came to the interview room on Wednesday. Asked why he hasn't been able to get any heavier than 160, Richardson said that strength coach Ben Herbert "thinks I might have tapeworms."...
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