Arkansas makes it lone 2015 trip to Little Rock this week. It's bitter sweet for me to see fewer games every year in Little Rock since I grew up within walking distance of War Memorial Stadium.
The house I remember most is at 1821 Fair Park and there were many times when it was easier to hike to the stadium than figure out transportation. The family residence at my birth was on Markham and was torn down to build the Wendy's across from the stadium.
Needless to say my roots are WMS and are grand. I don't mind the drive. It pains me to think there might be a day when no games are payed in Little Rock.
Either way, it's important to remember your roots. Bret Bielema seems to be getting that more and more about the Little Rock games, just like he quickly got up to speed on the Texas rivalry last December.
I do chuckle when Bielema – and before him Bobby Petrino – thought it was a novel idea to charter a plane for the return trip to Fayetteville after the game. He spoke again on that subject this week, noting that the recovery time from the game shouldn't start with a three-hour drive. It just makes a difference to come back by plane, even if it's still easiest to bus down.
It's almost like no one had ever done that. Interestingly, Arkansas teams have been flying back from Little Rock for more than 50 years. Jim Bone, the trainer under Frank Broyles from 1967-72, explained the logistics of the frequent Little Rock trips during his tenure.
“We always had a charter flight for the starters and anyone who had an injury,” Bone said. “Coach Broyles believed in getting at least the guys who played back immediately after the game. We did have one bus with reserves going back.”
During those years, the Hogs often played four times in Little Rock. That was especially the case when an 11th game was added and the likes of Stanford, Southern Cal and California came to Little Rock.
“We loaded up on two buses,” Bone said. “We did it two ways. Some years we took the buses to Hot Springs and stayed at the Majestic. We had use of the hot baths and for guys in treatment, it was great. Then, for a time, we would bus to Conway for Friday night.
“It varied on how many we could fly back. Sometimes the plane wasn't any bigger than 25 seats. Sometimes there were 40 seats.”
Bone, retired in Heber Springs, visited a UA practice in August as the guest of Dean Weber, another former UA trainer now in the Razorback Foundation. He was overwhelmed by a tour of the training facilities.
“They had seven whirlpools and one of them was bigger than our entire training area,” Bone said. “It's an amazing facility. We did some of the things they do now. We called them contrast baths, but we might have a tub that you could get only get one leg or one arm into.”
One thing he noticed wasn't as good. Players are scattered across town. There is nothing like Arkansas had with Wilson Sharp House, the dormitory just a few feet from the coaching offices at Barnhill Field House.
“I just know that Wilson Matthews or Charlie Coffey could find a player and have them in their coaching office in five minutes,” Bone said. “It was instant access. Coach Broyles had it designed with that in mind. It's not like that anymore, with players everywhere.
“And those were great staffs assembled by Coach Broyles. I worked with men like Joe Gibbs, Don Breaux, Raymond Berry, Mervin Johnson, Billy Kinard, Wilson Matthews and the list goes on and on. Great coaches, well disciplined.
“Our facilities were not great, but our young men thought we had it good, too. That probably has to do with the quality of the people. You think about the young men I worked with, like Joe Ferguson, Bill Montgomery, Chuck Dicus, Bruce James, Rick Kersey and I'm just getting started. Great people.
“Those were exciting times for me. And, when I think of the Little Rock games, they were always exciting trips. Our players just loved making that trip.”
I heard the same things from current players. Sophomore free safety Josh Liddell is worried that he won't have enough tickets for the huge number of family and friends coming from Pine Bluff.
“It's 40 minutes from home,” Liddell said. “I have a need for about 30 tickets. I'm close, but I'm still looking. I love Little Rock games. I went to some as a kid. I played there as a sophomore in high school. I was in on about 12 plays last year against Georgia.
“Here's the thing about games at Little Rock, the fans are so close to the field that you can hear your name called from the stands. They are on top of you and it's fun. It's always exciting in that stadium.”
Okay, atmosphere is where I'll start in this week's keys to victory. It's clearly different place than Fayetteville. Players and fans alike speak about it over and over. The game is not a sellout, but I still expect a rowdy crowd for the 3 p.m. Kickoff.
Keys To Victory
1, Atmosphere – For a Little Rock native, and I qualify, it doesn't get any better than going to War Memorial Stadium. I get goose bumps every time. That will never stop. I know it will be the same for many in the stadium, no matter the game. Toledo is not a Power 5 team, but the Rockets have flair and ability. They will bring a quick tempo, something the Hogs have to match from the outset on defense. The rowdy nature of the Little Rock crowd ought to help in that regard. I think atmosphere will be top notch.
2, Quarterback Play – I move this up a notch this week, most notably with Toledo's Phillip Ely in mind. Yes, Brandon Allen must match his antiseptic play from the first week against a much better defense than UTEP. The Rockets start three seniors and a junior in the secondary. The Miners had three freshmen taking most of the snaps. That was a cake walk for Keon Hatcher and easy pickings for Allen. But can the Arkansas pass rush get to Ely's quick, three-step passing game? Will Robb Smith dial up more pressure off the edge like the Henre' Toliver blitz to open the second half? Ely is experienced and accurate. But I think the Hogs will knock him around with pressures and that will impact the game.
3, Tight Ends – Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle are natives of Central Arkansas. Henry hails from Pulaski Academy, Sprinkle from White Hall. The Hogs also expect to have Alex Voelzke back at tight end, after missing last week with a sore back. Voelzke will wear No. 88, in honor of the late Garrett Uekman. Expect those three to be in the game plan as Dan Enos continues to rely on tight ends for vertical plays in the passing game. Voelzke might play some at fullback, where Sprinkle was utilized last week. Toledo relies more on three wideouts and might not have a lot of tight end plays. Henry and Voelzke will be the flag guys. Bret Bielema picks two players to lead the team on with American and Arkansas flags each week. Bret Bielema said on his radio show Thursday night that true freshman C.J. O'Grady, suspended for week one, would see action against Toledo.
4, The Slot – This is Toledo's game. Corey Jones, just 5-9 by 165, is the guy quarterback Phillip Ely looks for in the quick game. Lanky Alonzo Russell (6-4, 190) is a solid outside receiver, but it's Jones that the Hogs must match to make it tough on Ely. That's where Henre' Toliver comes into play in the nickel package. Can Toliver take away Ely's shortest throws? It's an appropriate tune-up for next week when Texas Tech loves the slot man, too.
5, The MVPs – That's what I call Brandon Allen and Brooks Ellis. They have to play well each week for Arkansas to be successful. Both were solid in the openers, although Ellis was negated by UTEP misdirection plays designed to flow away from the weakside. This will be more of an open field game with the way Toledo plays and might be more in the wheel house for Ellis. He's a noted space guy and this is a space game. I think both Allen and Ellis will have big games.
6, Running Backs – UTEP took away the Arkansas running game for the most part with scheme. The Miners put nine in the box. I don't think Toledo will try that again after seeing what Allen could do. I more balanced approach to defense will open up things for Alex Collins, Kody Walker and Rawleigh Williams. This might be a breakout day for Williams. He should find some running room in the second half as the Hogs dominate up front. Toledo is missing star running back Kareem Hunt, who rushed for 271 yards and five touchdowns against Arkansas State in the GoDaddy Bowl.
7, Tackling – That's the area defensive coordinator Robb Smith wants to be cleaner. On UTEP's seven third down conversions, most came about because of a missed tackle. Smith and assistant coaches stressed their tackling “system” this week. Liddell said, “We will tackle better. We didn't scrimmage much in preseason, but that's no excuse. We just didn't use our technique. I know I dropped my head twice. You can't tackle if you drop your head and don't play with your eyes.”
8, The Led – That's short for Jeremiah Ledbetter, the junior college transfer defensive end. Ledbetter led the Hogs with eight tackles last week and earned a start ahead of Tevin Beanum at the weakside end, the position Trey Flowers played last year. Arkansas looks solid here. Flowers was a standout, but so is Ledbetter. Toledo has five new starters in the offensive line and had only one half of chemistry with the opener against Stony Brook canceled at halftime.
9, Jojo Watch – I was all about looking for No. 87 in the opener. That's juco transfer Dominique Reed, the speedy wide receiver from Camden. Now, I'll be looking for Robinson, the elusive redshirt freshman from Miami. Robinson was suspended for the opener, but should be available this week. But the Hogs suddenly have numbers at this position. When will Jojo's mojo finally appear?
10, The Brad Pad – That's the fenced in area on the golf course where Brad Paisley will provide a live concert afterwards. The area won't be open until 30 minutes after the game. You won't need a ticket to get into the Brad Pad. But there is limited seating. How many will leave before the game is done? That depends a lot on how those first nine keys work out.