It was midway through spring drills as the Arkansas football team finished up a half-pad day with some goal line work. Brandon Allen brought the team to the line of scrimmage with two tight ends, Hunter Henry to the right and Jeremy Sprinkle to the left.
And, on defense, it looked like a fire drill from a foreign country. Ends, linebackers and safeties were bumping into each other as they tried to figure out the strong side of the formation.
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith blew his whistle and broke into a tirade. There was pure disgust. But deep down, he was probably glad to see it happen because it gave him a perfect time for a coaching emphasis on exactly what can’t happen – and did last year against Alabama.
Alabama scored its winning touchdown on a 6-yard pass from Blake Sims to DeAndrew White with 12:36 left in the game. It was caused by a complete breakdown in alignment and recognition of what Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was trying to do with a balanced formation.
The Tide rolled personnel quickly and officials did pause the action briefly while the Hogs subbed, but did not allow proper alignment, something Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema protested after failing to get a timeout called despite running all the way to the 15-yard line and well onto the field.
“I remember that play,” Arkansas linebacker Brooks Ellis said Wednesday. “I wasn’t out there because I’d just gone out on an injury. But I do remember it and I know what you are talking about with what we worked on in the spring, against that same formation.”
Smith said that formation was a point of emphasis in the spring. He said he was disappointed the Hogs couldn’t line up right against it in the spring workout, but ready to explain it again.
“You want to be able to declare to the strength of the formation,” he said. “And, if they are in perfect balance like that, then you don’t have to worry much about what is strong or weak, you just line up either way. But it takes recognition of what they are trying to do and be ready for it.”
Smith would prefer the referee hold the action while the defensive team gets properly aligned, but knows there sometimes is too quick of a signal for the ball in play. It’s been a point of emphasis again this week as the Hogs prepare for the trip to play No. 8 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Game time is 6 p.m., with ESPN carrying the broadcast.
“They do a great job with their scheme,” Smith said. “They do try to scheme you. Alignment and communication is always a major part of what we try to do right. It’s important this week because they also have very good players.”
It was interesting that Clint Stoerner’s remarks at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club concerned communication with the Arkansas linebackers. It made me think back to last year when Ellis was on the sideline for that critical play. He also missed the Georgia game the next week when Nick Chubb went wild. Communication lapses on defense sometimes settle the outcome.
“I think Dre Greenlaw and Brooks Ellis have got to communicate better and get lined up right and get the right number in the box,” Stoerner said. “If they can and the offense gets the lead, they can dictate and make it tough on Alabama.
“The key will be the Arkansas front seven against the Alabama running game. They have to slow down the running game and then be able to get after the quarterback.”
The Hogs did that last year, limiting Alabama to just 66 yards on the ground, 227 total. Derrick Henry, the Tide’s 242-pound bruiser, had just 25 yards on seven carries, the longest for 8 yards. Henry had a career high 148 yards last week in a big win over Georgia.
The other Alabama touchdown last year came when Blake Sims scrambled, but pulled up just short of the line of scrimmage and found an open T. J. Yeldon. Two Arkansas defenders left Yeldon to break towards Sims. It went for a 22-yard touchdown play.
The scramble won’t be as scary this week with Jake Coker at quarterback for Alabama. Ellis said the plan is to pressure Coker with outside rushes.
“We want to affect him,” Ellis said. “We want to get in his head.”
Keys to Victory
1, Quarterback Poise – It’s clear that Arkansas’ Brandon Allen is the more experienced quarterback and has been one of the best in the SEC this season – except for some critical misses with open receivers in the fourth quarter. He has to remain cool if that opportunity presents itself again. Conversely, the Hogs want to rattle Jake Coker, the first-time starter for Alabama. He’s been inconsistent, but he does have very good players at the wide receiver position and proven tight ends. Poise at this position can mean the difference in a close game. Allen will need some help and it appears it may be finally arriving at wide receiver despite injuries to Keon Hatcher, Cody Hollister and Jared Cornelius. The passing game seems to be coming together under coordinator Dan Enos with receivers Drew Morgan, Kenderick Edwards and Jojo Robinson emerging to help tight ends Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle. Both defenses have the ability to shut down the run, so it might come down to the better passing team. The Arkansas passing game has improved this year.
2, Quick Start – It will be a loud, packed house at Bryant-Denny Stadium, over 101,000. The best way to handle the crowd, put some early points on the board and get them back in their seats. The Hogs didn’t do that at Tennessee last week, falling behind, 14-0. This is not the venue to let that happen again. It’s that big crowd that seems to excite the Hogs. Freshman linebacker Dre Greenlaw said, “It’s going to be a lifetime experience.” Nose guard DeMarcus Hodge said, “It’s what you dream about, going to play in a place like this against this type of team, especially if you are a big-time defensive linemen, against that type of running team. I love it.”
3, Special Teams – Alabama blocked a punt for a touchdown last week and has great team speed on special teams. Can the Hogs erase some of their special teams issues? They gave up kickoff return for a touchdown to open the game. They also gave up a punt return for a touchdown, but a block in the back penalty brought that one back. There was a blocked field goal when holder Matt Emrich had the ball slip out of his hand as he spun the ball to position the laces away from kicker Cole Hudlund. There was also a failed fake field goal. None of that can happen against Alabama. Scoring an upset is usually built around solid special teams.
4, The Run – Can either team establish the running game? Alabama gave up some yards in the first half last year with blitzes. Brandon Allen scrambled to find his tight ends for big plays. So the Tide backed out of its heavy pressures in the second half, playing the run with its base 3-4 without any problems and dropping more into coverages. That plan worked. The Hogs have to block the Tide’s base for Alex Collins. It’s doubtful Collins can make it four straight games with 150 yards. Maybe getting to 80 would be a good goal against this Alabama front, something Bret Bielema compares to the NFL. Alabama is 72-4 since the start of the 2008 season when rushing for at least 140. Of course, one of those exceptions was last year in Fayetteville when the Tide made just 66.
5, Turnovers – The key to the only blemish on Alabama’s 4-1 start is a 43-37 loss to Ole Miss when the Tide committed five turnovers. Can the Hogs force any? They got a key turnover last week against Tennessee in the red zone when Jared Collins forced a fumble, recovered by Tevin Beanum. Alabama is favored by over two touchdowns and would need to give the Hogs some help for an upset. Coker can do that. He’s been erratic.
6, Mistakes – Arkansas has been its own worst enemy, unless you consider that the referees are not on your team. The Hogs committed just three penalties last week at Tennessee after being flagged for 31 in the fist four games, including 11 against Texas A&M. It’s tough to communicate in Bryant-Denny and that can be part of the issue in staying penalty free. Alabama’s defense is too good to give up yards via penalties. The Hogs must avoid mistakes and limit penalties. The mistakes on defense have led to big plays. The perfect illustration is the mis-alignment by Dre Greenlaw on a speedy wide receiver to let Texas A&M tie the game late in the fourth quarter.
7, Three and Out – Alabama is among the nation’s best at forcing three-and-outs. The Hogs must avoid adding to the Tide’s gaudy three-and-out stats, giving the defense some rest. The Tide has totaled 21 three-and-outs in the last two games to average 6.8 per game for the season. Moving the chains hasn’t been the issue for the Hogs. It’s putting up points in the red zone. But the Hogs have to get to the red zone this week and that’s been difficult against Alabama’s front seven.
8, The Matchup to Watch – It has to be the two left offensive tackles in the game, Alabama sophomore Cam Robinson (6-6, 326) and Arkansas junior Denver Kirkland (6-5, 340). Both teams love to run to their left side. Robinson has freshman Ross Pierschbacher (6-5, 298) at left guard. Arkansas pairs senior Sebastian Tretola (6-5, 334) with Kirkland at guard. How these tandems protect their quarterback could decide the game because sacks and quarterback turnovers come when the back side. Both teams are going to roll defensive linemen throughout the game. Alabama sometimes plays 12, Arkansas as many as 10. JaMichael Winston should play more at end this week after giving way to Tevin Beanum the last two games. Winston hails from Mobile, Ala., and this is a big game for the junior captain.
9, Tackling – It’s not easy to bring down a big back like Henry and the Hogs have a tough one in Alex Collins. Henry runs through defenders. Collins seems to make them miss. How many yards after contact will there be in this game. Nick Saban-coached teams have a reputation as sure tacklers. That’s the area that improved last year under new defensive coordinator Robb Smith. Can the Hogs tackle Henry? Nose guard DeMarcus Hodge said it will be about shedding blockers and getting a “whole body” on Henry, not shooting out an arm while engaged in a block. It will be a huge key, perhaps too low on this list.
10, Defense – In general, can Arkansas match punches with a great defense. It’s been about the offense in the first few games as far as the opposition. Toledo, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Tennessee all entered the game bragging about their offense and for good reason. This week, it’s about the Alabama defense. The Tide uses defense to set up the offense with a short field with turnovers. The Hogs have to do the same with its defense, slowing Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake. The Hogs’ best bet for an upset is a low scoring game with defense ruling, just like last year.