State of the Hogs: Top 10 (A&M)

Arkansas will have its hands full with the Texas A&M offensive line, but this may be among the key matchups. publisher Clay Henry looks at his top 10 keys of the week.

It's the biggest scoreboard in the world, but it may break Saturday afternoon when Arkansas meets Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium. That big hanging replay board that mesmerizes everyone in what is commonly called Jerry's World may not can handle the points that A&M and Arkansas total.

A&M averages 55.3 points, Arkansas 48.8. That's the top two scoring teams in the SEC and second and third nationally.

Yes, a lot of those points have been scored against non-conference have-nots. Arkansas landed a 73-point haymaker on Nicholls State. A&M hung 73 on Lamar.

But it stands to reason that both will have some success against the others defense, probably not the strength of the respective teams as the 2:30 p.m. kickoff looms at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. CBS-TV had the coverage.

So let's factor that in as we say that the over-under looks more like 90 than 100. Either way, it sets up as an explosive day with A&M rolling into the neutral site venue with a passing offense that averages 405 yards per game. Conversely, Arkansas averages 324.5 rushing yards.

The common denominator in strength is the offensive line. Both teams are talented up front in their respective contrasting offenses.

A&M has allowed only three sacks in their quick-strike passing game featuring sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill. The Hogs don't pass as much, but Brandon Allen has been sacked only once. Both quarterbacks have shown ability to make plays with their feet and the game might come down to that aspect if a shootout develops.

The left side of the Aggie offensive line features three seniors in left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and rotating left guards Jarvis Harrison and Garrett Gramling. The leader is junior center Mike Matthews. Four of the starters are returnees from one of the SEC's best offensive lines as far as pass protection.

“They are really good up front,” said Robb Smith, Arkansas defensive coordinator. “They protect well in their scheme. No one has gotten much pressure on the quarterback. And, they are a better running team than most think.”

The Arkansas offensive line isn't as experienced with just one senior, right tackle Brey Cook, and two juniors. One of those juniors is juco transfer Sebastian Tretola, with just two starts under his belt. But the two sophomores, left tackle Dan Skipper and right guard Denver Kirkland, may be the best the Hogs have in the line.

Those tackles will be assigned to contain A&M true freshman phenom Myles Garrett, a 6-5, 255-pounder UA offensive coordinator Jim Chaney calls “greasy” for the way he gets off blockers. Offensive line coach Sam Pittman said Garrett has a “club” move that does the trick.

If you are not a believer that it's what happens up front that counts, perhaps your keys start in the back end of both defenses.

Arkansas was torched by the Auburn passing game in the opener, but has been steady since then. Safety Rohan Gaines has improved and the corners got a boost when Tevin Mitchel came off the injury list for the trip to Lubbock. He had two pass breakups in the game's opening series.

A&M has been inconsistent in the secondary. The Aggies turned loose some receivers in the blowout victory at South Carolina. That's not surprising since three true freshmen play, including starting free safety Armani Watts.

It's interesting that both teams list 12 starting positions on both sides of the ball.

The Hogs list two tight end spots, two running backs (with a fullback now added with improvement from Kody Walker and Patrick Arinze) and two wide receivers. There are lots of “heavy” looks as far as formation where all 11 players are tight with tight ends and wide receivers massing on one side. The Hogs want to pack you in and then pound on you with open spaces outside the hash marks for wideout and tight end routes.

The Aggies list four starting wideouts. While Malcome Kennedy is the only returning starter in the group, it's as formidable as any you'll see in the SEC eight deep. Kennedy has 30 catches, a tough matchup in the slot at 6-0, 205. But the real load is wideout Ricky Seals-Jones, a 6-5, 235-pounder.

Smith said he'll likely play a lot of nickel coverage. Mitchel, a field corner previously, has played a lot in the slot where he likes to mix it up with physical, tight coverage. He'll get a physical challenge from the Aggies.

Arkansas cornerback D.J. Dean, who also handles punt returns, said his group looks forward to the matchups.

“We are physical as a cornerback group,” Dean said. “We know they think they are physical. I hope they bring that to the game.”

Smith chuckled when he was asked about that brashness.

“You like confidence,” Smith said. “We've worked hard to build some confidence. But I will agree with one part of his statement. A&M is very physical. He was right.”

Dean said he just hopes he gets plenty of work as the punt returner.

“That's our goal, get some stops and force punts,” Dean said.

That hasn't happened much with either offense. A&M has punted just eight times, Arkansas only 11.

If the Hogs can force a few punts, maybe they can keep the scoreboard from exploding.

The Top 10 Keys

1. Physicality – That's where it starts with a Bret Bielema-coached team, every time. Can the Hogs assert their will over the Aggies with a physical brand of football. That was obvious on the trip to Lubbock, but A&M is much better than Texas Tech in that regard. The Aggies were physical with their offensive line in the second half of last year's game in Fayetteville, perhaps the key to the game. Quarterback Johnny Manziel had only to handoff for much of the second half as the Hogs had a hard time staying in their lane, perhaps pulling the trigger on a dash up the field hoping for a shot a Manziel too often. Can the Arkansas corners make physical plays as the Aggie receivers break for the ball? They've reached across the back side to deflect passes the last three weeks, contesting almost every throw. That physical presence will be key as the wideouts and corners battle for 50-50 balls.

2. Making Plays at WR – This has been A&M's forte. The Aggies make big-time catches high and away from the body after a physical move at the line of scrimmage. They make plays. Arkansas has been spotty at best in this area. Keon Hatcher and Demetrius Wilson have had key drops already this season. But they have the ability to challenge the young A&M defensive backs. Cody Hollister seems to be making a move as third-down target for Brandon Allen. The UA quarterback also likes to go to his deep group of tight ends, led by 6-6 Hunter Henry.

3. Pressure – Who can pressure the quarterback? Kenny Hill has been sacked three times and that's against 172 passes attempted. Brandon Allen has been sacked once against 70 throws. The A&M defense leads the SEC with 17 sacks. The Hogs have eight on defense. Of course, not many lay their ears back against the UA passing attack, but it's more a play-action offense. The run fakes seem to hold the ends and there is generally help against the best pass rushers with tight end or running back chips. Allen has made plays on third down, but he hasn't faced a lot of third and longs. The Aggies are really good on first down, too, rarely putting Hill in pure passing situations. So if either defense is going to pressure the quarterback, it's going to come down to having a little success on first down.

4. Penalties and Mistakes – The Aggies – with 24 -- have been more penalized. The Hogs have just 17 and seem to win that battle each week. The key may be if there are turnovers. A&M has lost only two fumbles and has only one fumble recovery. The Hogs have lost two and recovered three. A&M is minus 2 on turnover ratio. Arkansas is plus three. A win in this overall category could be big if the Hogs are to score an upset.

5. Space the Cadets – Well, this may not be what you think. The Aggies are the cadets in some ways of thinking. But the Hogs need to be the space cadets in this game. Arkansas is going to pound in tight quarters, trying to out muscle you at the point of attack with big guards Denver Kirkland and Sebastian Tretola. The Aggies will want to make the Hogs play in space. One of the keys might be the play of true freshman linebacker Randy Ramsey. Robb Smith says he's the lone strongside linebacker with enough athletic ability to handle that assignment. Is the day Ramsey gets major action?

6. Depth on Defense – This is a category that's important on both sides. The Aggies go fast on offense, trying to cram as many snaps into a game as possible. Robb Smith said he'll have to be quick to pull the trigger on subs to keep the Hogs fresh on defense. The UA depth chart only lists four ends, but Smith played six early in the game the last two weeks. He said, “We've got to keep rolling guys and that's up front and in the secondary. We are going to play a lot of guys. Our depth is improving and we have to use it this week.” Arkansas will rotate players on the offensive line. Frank Ragnow is making a move at center and was almost even with starter Mitch Smothers on total snaps last week.

7. Brandon Allen – The junior quarterback has to avoid the big mistake. He's done that the last three weeks after giving up a pick six (when a blitz got him just as he turned to throw for an open deep ball) against Auburn for the deflating play in the opener. He gave up a pick six last year against the Aggies when it looked like the Hogs might be in a dogfight. He's taken care of the ball most of the time this season and made plays on third down. Can he do it against an SEC defense away from home? Nothing is easy for an SEC quarterback when the speed of a blitz is a flash. He'll have to make note of the A&M blitz packages and get the Hogs in the proper checks.

8. Maturity – The Hogs have blossomed in this area in year two under Bret Bielema. They seem to have locked in to a four-quarter mindset, but it's one thing to do it against Texas Tech and Northern Illinois and another to do it on such a big stage as AT&T Stadium in Arlington. There are distractions. They have handled the distractions of late, especially Allen. There is no place there are more distractions than in this stadium. How will the key freshmen like Henre' Toliver, Jared Cornelius, Randy Ramsey, Bijohn Jackson, Frank Ragnow Dwayne Eugene and Josh Liddell perform? Can the Hogs snap back when something goes against them. They were good at that at Tech. Hopefully, this is not a fragile bunch of Razorbacks any more.

9. Tackling – This seems like such a simple area, but it's as important as anything at the top of this list. The Hogs didn't tackle well at Auburn. They've improved. But the Aggies have better speed at the running back position than what the Hogs have seen since the opener. Tra Carson is a 6-1, 235-pounder with speed. Brandon Williams and Trey Williams can turn the corner and break tackles. Can the Hogs tackle the great SEC backs? The same goes for the Aggies. They have not seen running backs like Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams behind a top quality offensive line. It may come down to simple tackling.

10. Adjustments – The Hogs were good at this the last two weeks, owning the third quarter. That seems to be a matter of growth in knowledge of the system, so coaches have an easy time in communication. They did not do well in this area at Auburn. So, who wins the third quarter? Does Jim Chaney save some tricks for the Aggies in the third quarter? Can Robb Smith adjust to what the Aggies hit his unit with in the first half and get the bleeding stopped? It seems there is growth in this area over last year, the sign of an improved team. If the Hogs can settle in on the proper adjustments, this might the day the long SEC losing streak comes to an end and the Hogs make a case for top 15 status as they stamp themselves as one of college football's most physical teams. Or, they could be regrouping during an open date with thoughts of Alabama looming large.

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