There are some things that don't ever change when you play Texas A&M in football. First, Reveille will bark. He barks no matter what. There are no neighborhood ordinances at Kyle Field, nor at AT&T Stadium. The dog is just going to bark so get used to it.
I usually find Reveille during warmups. The beautiful collie generally has a collection of students with him and they make for an interesting show. It's one of the pre-kickoff things I'll do in Arlington, Texas tonight. Game time is 6 o'clock as the Hogs try to break a two-game losing streak. No. 14 A&M is 3-0.
What I don't want to get used to is a defense that doesn't tackle, or worse, force a punt. The bark has to return to Robb Smith's group. Well, I don't want the Hogs to be like the Aggie dog. They have to have some bite, and not just bark. The second-year defensive coordinator has to convince his players that his system of tackling will work if they do it correctly. They haven't so far this season.
I saw better tackling last year with this Arkansas defense than in years. Seldom did they miss with the first defender to the ball and there was usually two coming to finish the job. I haven't seen that this year.
Perhaps it's the nature of the spread offense. It's going to be one-on-one with lots of space before the next man can arrive. Clay Jennings, the UA secondary coach, didn't buy any of that. He said alignment just has to improve and eyes have to be in the right place.
But it's more than that. The tackling has just been out of sync. Cornerback Jared Collins said it has been a case of trying to tackle before you arrive.
"We are trying to beat the ball carrier to the punch," he said. "And, that means we are diving and coming up short. You just have to keep driving your legs, get there and then wrap up."
That goes to Smith's first stage of the tackling system, the circuit of drills that are done daily. Smith calls it biting the ball. You take your face mask right to the ball and then wrap up with your arms.
Jennings said the game tape from last week's 35-24 loss to Texas Tech didn't lie. The Hogs did not force a punt because they did not make tackles on third down. They also did not have a pass deflection. Seldom were they in position to touch any passes.
"We intercepted two passes," Jennings said. "They were the only two that were in the air longer than 15 yards. They were throwing short passes and throwing them quickly so they weren't taking long to get them out. It was hard to pressure them. And, there wasn't a lot of time for us to break on the ball.
"But there was plenty of time to get them down before the stakes. So we didn't get them on the ground before the stakes and that was poor tackling. There were three or four times on third down where we had them dead to rights before the stakes and we didn't use our tackling system.
"Bite the ball, bring your feet and wrap your arms. It's that simple. We were diving short.
"It's like a deer hunter in the stand. He has a deer in his sites. But it's out of range. You can't shoot if you are out of range. We were shooting at the ball carrier when we were out of range."
So there was no bark (or bite) to the Arkansas defense last week. They didn't force a punt. The only thing close to a punt was the two long interceptions thrown by Patrick Mahomes, just heaves down the field that D.J. Dean and Collins picked off.
Tech, despite gaining 486 yards on the night, only had the ball for 23:17 and only had three meaningful second-half possessions thanks to two long drives by the Hogs. Unfortunately, the Hogs only got three points out of their two long-distance treks.
The key is for the Hogs to get some stops against the Aggies. It won't be easy. The A&M offense is just as good, although different. The wide receivers are much bigger.
The key will be to tackle the receivers in the open field. Christian Kirk has 16 catches and a 16.8 average. Josh Reynolds averages 17 on his eight catches. Speedy Noil and Damion Reynolds are also talented receivers.
“I'm not sure they have the two jitterbugs like Tech did,” Jennings said. “But they have speed, athleticism and size and have depth.”
A&M's two quarterbacks, Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, have not been as accurate as Mahomes. Allen has completed 61 percent of his passes, Murray just 56.
Here's a stat that might give the Arkansas defense some hope that the bite can return this week. The Aggies have punted 12 times in three games.
So that's where we will start with the keys to victory this week, can the Hogs force some punts?
Keys to Victory
1, The Punt – Drew Kaser is a weapon for the Aggies. He has averaged almost 53 yards on his 10 punts this year. That's okay. The Hogs just want to force some punts after the Red Raiders never even warmed up a punter in Reynolds Razorback Stadium last week. It's interesting in pre-game to see if either Kaser or UA punter Toby Baker can bounce one off the massive scoreboard in Jerry's World. I didn't think to watch the Tech punter in pre-game last week. It would have been the only chance to see him. I chuckled a bit in the post-game interview when Bret Bielema mentioned that the Hogs had a dandy scheme to block a punt, but never got to use it. There are some things that Bret shouldn't have said in the past few weeks, but I thought that was pretty good.
2, Fourth Quarter – Obviously, this has not been a good part of the game for the Razorbacks. It's almost a given that they don't score in the final period. They have been good between the 20s, but not in the red zone, especially in the fourth quarter. They had only a third-quarter field goal last week, and just one field goal in the Toledo game, too. The fourth quarter was the Hogs' undoing last year against A&M. They were headed for a blow out when a long Jonathan Williams run was wiped out by Dan Skipper's tripping penalty. This is as big a key as forcing a punt. You can't just stop the opposition, you have to score, too.
3, Pass Rush – Can the Hogs get some pressure on Allen and Murray and can they protect Brandon Allen from A&M's long, speedy defensive ends, Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. Pass protection has been good for the Hogs, but left tackle Denver Kirkland and right tackle Dan Skipper have not faced anything close to Garrett and Hall. The Aggie ends go hard up the field in the John Chavis defense. Pressure is their game. Can the Hogs give Allen some time? Conversely, the Hogs have had almost no pressure the last two weeks against Toledo and Tech. There have been no quarterback hurries. Can they help the secondary with some pressure? If the Hogs can protect, they might make some big plays in the passing game. Chavis does expose his passing game by over populating the line of scrimmage at times.
4, Penalties – The Hogs have lost touchdowns because of penalties the last two weeks. There was a punt return taken off the board on an Eric Hawkins hold against Toledo. Hunter Henry's touchdown catch in the fourth quarter against Tech was wiped away because of what was judged to be offensive pass interference, a questionable call. There have been several key holding penalties, too. The Hogs had big plays ruined by offensive penalties in other situations the last two weeks, too. Obviously, there were big penalties by Skipper last year against the Aggies. The Bret Bielema goal is to play clean and don't beat yourself. The Hogs have to improve in the category of penalties if they are going to be successful.
5, Running Game – A&M is proud of its offensive line, dubbed the Maroon Goons. Obviously, Arkansas has championed its front wall, dubbed the biggest in football last year. It's a little slimmer this year, but the UA line is still huge. Which one can produce a dominating run game? The Hogs did find some running room last week against Tech, putting up 228 yards, but Tech's defense has a poor reputation. The Aggies are much improved in this area under Chavis, but perhaps the Hogs can run the ball at those two quick ends. Can Kenderick Jackson provide more help at fullback? He got a few snaps last week, mostly positive. The true freshman might see an expanded role. There's been no hint of giving the football the ball. I'd like to see the former prep quarterback can a carry.
6, Physicality – A&M probably has more team speed. But can the Hogs win the hitting battle, the physical matchup that Bielema seems to take pride in winning. They did for three quarters last year, but came up empty at the end. Can they bring the physicality for four quarters this time? I thought the Hogs did a better job at the line of scrimmage, most notably on offense, this past week. Can they bring a little more against the Aggies to open SEC play? The tight ends have to be more physical for the Razorbacks. Can they give the tackles a little help against those tough A&M ends?
7, Alex Collins – First, Alex Collins was pretty good last week. He made 170 yards in a sterling effort against Tech. He did fumble at the end, something that rankled running backs coach Jamel Singleton, a ball security freak. But no one questions the heart that Collins showed against the Red Raiders. He fought and clawed for every yard. The Hogs will need that, plus something from Rawleigh Williams, the backup tailback playing 20 minutes from home this weekend.
8, Clutch Quarterback – Who provides the big play in the fourth quarter, Brandon Allen or the Aggie duo led by Kyle Allen? For all of the improved stuff from Brandon Allen, he's still not led a late drive to win a game. He's thrown for 916 yards, tops in the SEC. He's completing 67.4 percent of his passes. Can he deliver the big throw? His pass to Hunter Henry that was called back last week was a thing of beauty. But one play later he threw well short of an open Jeremy Sprinkle. He missed Henry in the critical end-of-game situation the week before against Toledo, a real chance at that missing game winner. Is this the week he gets over the hump?
9, 1-0 in the SEC – The Hogs have won their SEC opener only once in the last eight seasons. That was in 2010 when Bobby Petrino's third team won at Georgia, 31-24, with a late drive by Ryan Mallett. Four of those losses were to Alabama. Interestingly, that's one of only two times in that span the Hogs were facing an unranked team. Of late, it's been a top 10 team. At No. 14, the Aggies represent the first SEC opener for the Hogs not in the top 10 since Georgia was unranked in 2010.
10, $3 million – That's what UA athletic director Jeff Long says the Hogs get for playing this game in Arlington and that's every year. That means it's more than double the revenue if it was a home-and-home game when SEC teams only keep the receipts on their campus. They get nothing for travel. So that is $6 million against an estimated $2.5 for playing in Fayetteville every other year. I'd say it's one of the keys to the game. So I guess the $6 million question remains, can the Hogs force a punt? If they have some bite and not just a bark, maybe so.