Just when you think the fog is about to clear, there's another thick bank of clouds rolling in. For Arkansas, it came during the second quarter of the Georgia game, perhaps the result of getting close enough to taste victory the previous two games against Texas A&M and Alabama.
Those losses came down to just a couple of plays, perhaps one in each game, a penalty or a fumble. There were too many bad plays to count against Georgia, although offensive coordinator Jim Chaney came up with a long list of winning plays in his review of tape.
“We were around 70 percent wins,” Chaney said. “That's what makes it tough. We did so many good things. It's just when there are turnovers and some of them lead directly to points or take points away, it's going to wipe away a lot of good plays.”
That's why Chaney doesn't think the Hogs have to go all the way back to the drawing board as they head down the stretch of the 2014 season. Eliminating some of the bad details will do wonders for this team starting with this week against Alabama-Birmingham. The Hogs play host to UAB at 11 a.m. Saturday in Homecoming.
There are specifics in a lot of areas, including quarterback play. Chaney, the quarterbacks coach, wants Brandon Allen to get to his release point quicker and “not hold the ball as long.” That will help one of this team's fundamental issues, pass protection. Allen was hit 11 times against Georgia and there were two fumbles on sacks, one that led for a scoop and score for the Bulldogs.
There were loose areas of the pass protection, too. The team spent a large amount of time in that area improving technical aspects of the protection this week leading up to the UAB game.
But as much as anything, the Hogs went back to what should be their strength, physical run blocking. It was perfect timing since the defense needs that work as UAB comes to town, featuring a heavy dose of two-back with tight ends in the set. The Blazers are going to run the ball with a strong tailback.
Safety Alan Turner knows physicality is part of it, but fighting through the mental fog of losing is just as key.
“Really, physicality part, we need that. but at the same time, I feel like it’s a big mental thing,” Turner said. “Guys messing up mentally. Missed assignments. Maybe fitting the blocks wrong. We know that for all four quarters we need to be mentally focused and we can’t have no mishaps.”
The Hogs have not won the special teams in recent weeks, something that has to improve. We'll start with that in our weekly Top 10 keys. A lot is covered in our first topic since sp[ecial teams need so much work.
Top 10 (UAB)
1, Special teams – Can the Hogs win a close game with their kicking game? That answer was no against Texas A&M and Alabama. They had an extra point blocked against Alabama and Georgia, although the latter was a small thing in the larger issue of giving up 38 straight points. Still, the Hogs must improve all areas of the kicking game. Turner said all areas have been addressed, including kickoff and punt return units, where the senior safety is going back on those units after a minor injury took him off that area. On kickoff returns, there's been minimal yards. Turner said, “It’s guys really getting back fast enough so they can flip their hips so guys won’t run by them. And just stay squared up with guys. We saw that on film and we’ve been working on it.” Sam Irwin-Hill is trying to battle off a surge from Toby Baker for the punting job. Irwin-Hill will go back to rugby kicks after hitting too many short punts in the conventional style. Adam McFain will handle extra points and field goals, taking the job from John Henson. The Hogs have made only two field goals all season, both by John Henson and they were nothing more than chip shots. McFain gets quicker lift on his kicks and that should make it easier to protect him on extra points. And, he has some distance in his leg. It would be good to get him some work and build some confidence this week because the Hogs may need him to win a close one in November. Can Erik Hawkins make some plays a kickoff return man with Korliss Marshall on suspension? He's got as much if not more speed than Marshall. Can D. J. Dean keep the punts from hitting the ground as a return specialist? There's something in all of the special teams to clean up before the Hogs make the trip to Starkville.
2, Turnovers – Seven turnovers in two games makes this an area that could make this an easy victory – possibly covering the point spread of 26 – or keep UAB in the game. UAB is a minus six on the season. The Hogs were minus four last week. That was supposed to be a strength under Bielema, winning the turnover ratio. It hasn't happened yet. Alex Collins has lost a fumble the last two weeks and both led to key touchdowns for Alabama and Georgia. Brandon Allen has to keep the Hogs playing clean. And, the Hogs have to get some turnovers.
3, Quarterback play – UAB is without regular Cody Clements. The junior signal caller didn't practice until Thursday, with an arm in a sling. The Blazers will likely go with redshirt freshman Jeremiah Briscoe 11 of 19 for 299 yards in five games. He's thrown three interceptions and two touchdowns. His top target will likely be former Arkansas wideout Maudrecus Humphrey. The top receiver in the Blazers offense is tight end Kennard Backman with 25 catches. JJ Nelson, bothered by an injury, is next with 20. Humphrey, dismissed at Arkansas for off-the-field issues, has 18 catches and an average of 13.7. Allen has been challenged by UA offensive coordinator Robb Smith to get the ball out of his hand quicker to help the pass protection. Who is cleaner in the passing game? Can Allen find the open man and deliver it quickly?
4, Dan Skipper – Does the 6-10 left tackle find his stinger for the Hogs again. Skipper played on the edge last year and has been involved in more than his share of chippy battles, several resulting in 15-yard penalties. He changed his jersey number from 76 to 63 two games ago. Still, nothing has really gone great for the Denver, Colo., product. Last week, he had a strange call for a chop block when there was no one else around. Maybe the old Dan Skipper is better than the one that the Hogs have had of late, a scaled back version. Offensive line coach Sam Pittman has tried to get that emotional, charge-through-the wall guy back this week. Can Dan Skipper sneak up to the edge again without going over the cliff?
5, Smashmouth – That's really the style that both like. The Hogs have also added some new wrinkles this week, perhaps to trot out again in coming weeks. Bret Bielema said the Hogs have dabbled in the Wild Hog formation, with a running back in the backfield. It could be a way to get Alex Collins going after two off games. Either way, it's going to be smashmouth from both sides. Jonathan Williams (677) has passed Collins (655) as the top UA rusher. UAB's Jordan Howard is third in Conference USA with 752 yards and seven touchdowns. He's called a downhill runner by UA coaches and tough with yards after contact. UAB backup D.J. VInson has rushed for 440 yards and seven scores on 112 attempts. Both sides will try to setup the pass with the run. UAB will max protect with just two receivers out.
6, State tape – The Hogs got to watch a heavy dose of Mississippi State tape this week. That's their opponent for next week. But it wasn't to look at the No. 1 Bulldogs. The Blazers were probably at their best this year in Starkville, pushing State in a 47-34 loss in the second week of the season. “That got our guys attention pretty quickly,” said Robb Smith, UA defensive coordinator. “We saw what they could do.” Just for comparisons, State rushed for 292 yards against UAB and added 224 in the pass for 516 total. UAB put up 548 total yards, 435 via the pass. The Blazers had touchdown passes of 88, 81 and 75 yards in that game. UAB has moved it against almost everyone this season, the low water mark of 288 yards in a 41-14 victory over Alabama A&M.
7, Linebacker play – Georgia ran right out Josh Williams last week. He responded with 14 tackles in place of injured Brooks Ellis. But there were times that he didn't get to Nick Chubb. The Blazers are going to run at that spot again this week. Will Brooks Ellis be back to help, or will the Hogs hold him out another week to be fully prepared for State? Robb Smith said he'll play if he can go. Bielema, on his Thursday radio show, said Ellis is closer, but still isn't sure he'll play this week. Smith will likely get to see his base defense a lot this week and that brings Braylon Mitchell and Randy Ramsey into the mix. Ramsey has been highly advertised as a difference maker, but hasn't gotten many snaps because of the need to play nickel and some ankle injuries in the first month of the season. Smith said this could be the week Ramsey gets a big dose of the base.
8, Lefty domination – That's what UAB has tried to do with a huge left side. The Blazers tip the field on the left side with 324-pound Victor Salko at tackle and 325-pound Roscoe Byrd at guard. Linebackers coach Randy Shannon said the Hogs have noticed that they go left a lot. The Hogs liked the left side early in the season with Dan Skipper and Sebastian Tretola. It might be that both teams try to play lefty this week. It's a trend that could be worth watching as the game develops. That would be a good sign for the Razorbacks, if their left side becomes dominant again.
9, Steady as you go – Can the Hogs find the right mentality after the way Georgia exploded for 38 points? They lost their way in that second quarter, as pointed out by Chaney. Bielema thought they steadied in the second half. If something unexpected happens, are the Hogs able to steady the ship a little quicker this week? After so many losses over the last three seasons, it would be easy to have a fragile mindset. That's what Bielema is fighting as the Hogs try to get their first October victory.
10, Just win – There just hasn't been much of that lately and this team sorely needs something to get them going before the November stretch of Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri. Can they get to six wins and a bowl trip? That's the ultimate question, but they just need to get past the Blazers first. The Hogs are a big favorite and should be able to handle a Conference USA team. But so many bad things have happened to the Hogs in the last three years, the mental state of these Hogs could still be fragile and a win is never just something that you can automatically chalk up in a nonconference outing. The atmosphere has been good all season and this is Homecoming. The Hogs can do themselves some good if they take care of the Blazers early and get some youngesters some playing time. But, they need to get
State of the Hogs: Top 10 (UAB)
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