Arkansas has some ground to make up if it's to beat Nevada-Las Vegas in Little Rock on Thursday night. Yes, that might happen. And, if you look at the odds, there are plenty of folks who think the Hogs will win. They are favored by five points.
Many have speculated that Arkansas will win because it has the revenge factor, it's playing in its home stadium and it has some players healthy that were not available last December in Sam Boyd Stadium when the Rebels pulled away in the last 20 minutes for a convincing triumph.
But, it's not that simple. A few things must happen if Arkansas is to turn things around on UNLV. And, that won't happen just because the Hogs are really motivated or if it takes place in front of Arkansas' fans.
Here are some of the things that must happen if Arkansas is to beat UNLV:
1, Arkansas must find enough of a passing game to keep UNLV from crowding the line. The Rebels will blitz Zak Clark, the Hogs' inexperienced sophomore quarterback. They are going to come after Clark with their quick outside linebackers and safeties. Just as speed is a strength for the Arkansas defense, the Rebels will come after Clark with speed. For the Hogs to move the ball, Clark will have to recognize those blitzes and get the offensive line and backs in the right combinations of pass protections. That may mean some dump passes to the backs and tight ends, something the Hogs didn't do well last year. How well Clark is able to utilize his tight end against UNLV is a huge key Thursday night.
2, Arkansas must figure out a way to stop UNLV's counter running plays. The Hogs should do better on the post routes that burned their outside linebackers, particularly Derrick Johnson. It appears the Hogs will utilize an alignment with five defensive backs, putting Batman Carroll on the field along with true corners Eddie Jackson and Lawrence Richardson with safeties Ken Hamlin and Corey Harris. Most suspect the Hogs will blitz and change defenses more in this rematch than they did in the bowl game. But, the plays that really baffled defensive coordinator John Thompson had to be those counter runs that ripped the heart of the UA defense. The Hogs must stop those long gainers on counter runs. That will be a key worth watching.
3, The third key, and it is a key in every game, will be the kicking game and turnover ratio. If the Hogs can eliminate turnovers, they have a chance to utilize their kicking game with punter Richie Butler, placekicker Brennan O'Donohoe and kickoff man David Carlton to earn field position. The return specialists -- Marvin Jackson, Lawrence Richardson, Batman Carroll and Cedric Cobbs -- are outstanding. The key will be to keep the ball of the War Memorial Stadium turf and that goes for the offensive backs and the return men. It will be another strong key.
4, The fourth key will be the Hogs' offensive and defensive lines. They should be solid this year. However, it's been hard to tell in preseason since they worked against each other. Many days it was a stalemate. Was it a stalemate because both were below average, average or better than average. It's hard to imagine that these two units are above average. With the speed and skill that the Hogs have added in both backfields, it could be that they can win with better than average play in the trenches. The Hogs can't be average.
5, The fifth key, and it could be a winner, will be the Hogs' conditioning. They have practiced during what has been an unusual August. There have been plenty of days where the heat just wasn't present, and several days when storms sent them inside. It appears that this team is in superb physical condition. They are lighter, faster and healthier. There have not been a rash of injuries like last season when the Hogs were pretty much decimated by the third or fourth game. If the Hogs are in great condition as it seems, a hot humid night in Little Rock could be another key.
6, Another key will be how our coaches adjust to the new wrinkles established at UNLV since last season. There will be some surprises. Will John Thompson be able to spot them, and cover them up? Will we be able to do that while applying pressure to Jason Thomas, the flamboyant UNLV quarterback? After the bowl game, Thompson admits that he might have become conservative in the way he called our defense because of Thomas was playing so well. Thompson wants to keep Thomas out of sync in the rematch and that suggest the Hogs will have an aggressive game plan. On the other side of the ball, what new wrinkles will the Hogs trot out against the Rebels? Because David Lee, the new QB coach, has an option background, there is reason to expect some new wrinkles in the running game, with the mid-line option, Lee's specialty. Will the Hogs be able to utilize Brandon Holmes at fullback in the mid-line option, and will option specialist Gerald Howard be effective in short-yardage situations. These will be important keys.
If you have some keys to the game, please post them on our Hawgs Illustrated message boards, either the Hawg Lounge or the Insider Board. I'll check them later tonight and see if we agree.
Clay Henry, Publisher, Hawgs Illustrated.com