No matter what teams have shown on tape for other opponents, the first possession of the game is always produces a moment of anxiety for the Arkansas coaching staff.
What's the defensive front? Most teams alter something from what they've shown against most of the other SEC teams, often times facing a spread. They don't see anything like what Arkansas brings on offense, a downhill running attack featuring Alex Collins and Kody Walker.
And what about the linebackers? Are there two, three? What about the safeties? Are there two in the box, a single high safety? Are they both crashing at the snap? Or, just one?
What will new LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele bring to stop what is now a perfectly balanced Arkansas offense with the running of Alex Collins and the play-action passing of Brandon Allen? That will be the first key to the SEC game at 6:15 p.m. Saturday at Tiger Stadium.
That's why early-game adjustments are so critical. Arkansas offensive line coach Sam Pittman is moving on the fly and it changes game by game. Remember, both offensive coordinator Dan Enos and Pittman are on the field, relying on tight ends coach Barry Lunney for a quick alert on the defensive alignment.
For example, Ole Miss opened in a 4-4 look with one of the linebackers a backup defensive end with no standup experience. It was a new look just for Arkansas. He moved to the second tier of the defense to give the Rebels another heavy player in Dave Wommack's scheme.
It took the Hogs only one play to spot that move and how they might adjust. It paid instant dividends when they began to match a play-action fake to Collins with a waggle move from Brandon Allen, then a wide-open tight end in the flat. That converted end was not going to handle the transition from run to pass in one game.
And, the extra man in the 4-4 was a safety. Oh how Brandon Allen made him look silly with passes to the second tier. He wasn't in position to chase Drew Morgan or Dominique Reed.
Gradually, the Rebels backed out of some of those looks into a traditional 4-3 with Collins starting to gain more and more yards.
Pittman said it's been fun to watch the passing game develop. It means more room for the running game.
“I think what you see is that everyone thinks we are heavy with the run calls,” Pittman said. “We are and that's true. But what everyone is finding out is that we can throw it, too. Every game you see teams start out playing us one way, but they back those safeties up as the game goes along. They still are involved in the run fits and they come up.”
It's just that they aren't in the gaps by the second quarter.
“It started to show against Tennessee,” he said. “I think as we've gone forward, the threat of the pass has shown up earlier and earlier in the way teams are playing us with their safeties.
“So what happens is those 2-yard runs by Alex are now 5-yard runs. And, he is patient enough to know that it's going to happen. Alex doesn't mind a 5-yard run, but I do think you saw him get some longer runs as the game went on against Ole Miss.”
SEC analyst Butch Davis attended the Ole Miss game. He takes one weekend off per month, per his contract. He and his wife use that open date to fly in for the Oxford home games to spend the weekend with their son, a walk-on player at Ole Miss, now a redshirt sophomore. He attended the Arkansas-Ole Miss game and the 53-52 Arkansas victory was pure excitement, even for an old defensive coach.
“My son will bring four or five of his teammates over and we'll cook,” he said. “So I was there. I will say that I thought it was a great game by two very fine quarterbacks. Between the two of them, they may have set defensive football back 100 years.
“I really was trying to think of a better game by an Arkansas quarterback. I couldn't come up with one. I am aware of many of the good quarterbacks to play there, including Joe Ferguson, Bill Montgomery, Quinn Grovey, Clint Stoerner, Matt Jones, Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson.”
Davis was wowed by Allen. The former NFL and college coach has seen Kelly before and said it was his best game, but not as good as Allen.
“Brandon was spectacular,” Davis said. “It was a great game plan and perfect execution. The whole thing with what Arkansas did was brilliant and it started with Brandon.
“I assume that Ole Miss thought the Arkansas blueprint was to bludgeon them with the run game, maybe 40 times between the tackles. Because that's what they lined up to stop. Arkansas was just semi effective with the run game, but Ole Miss had zero answers for that passing game.
“I say that because after maybe the first series, Arkansas moved the launch point for Brandon and it was different for about every play. The pass rush never caught up and the coverage couldn't handle what Arkansas was doing. They hit them underneath and then because of the time they gained in moving the launch point with the bootlegs and waggles, the deep crossing routes were open and I mean open.
“And, if they weren't open, Brandon would throw them open. He did that time after time. Rarely was he in the same place and that kept the Ole Miss rush off balance. He found those second tier guys with some great throws.”
Allen threw for a school record six touchdowns. His 442 passing yards at Ole Miss gives him 2,476 for the year. He's thrown for 41 Tds against just 10 interceptions in his last 20 games. It's the boost he's gained from the emergence of Drew Morgan and Dominique Reed that makes Allen tough to defend. Combined with the run, there is the desired balance that an offensive coordinator loves and a defensive coordinator hates.
“Schematically, I think the Arkansas offense gives them a good chance,” Davis said. “They can play keep away from Fournette like they did with Kelly.
“What LSU has to worry about is letting Alabama beat them twice. And, I like the formula Arkansas has found on offense. What Arkansas has to do on defense is make sure they contain Brandon Harris, the LSU quarterback. He's not capable of doing what Kelly did as far as those scrambles, but they've got to finish some plays.”
So that's the game in a nutshell. But we'll go into more specifics as we get into the keys to victory for the trip to Death Valley.
Top 10 Keys to Victory
1, Pick Your Poison – It's tough for LSU. Arkansas will run the ball if you set your defense deep. Allen is great at the check downs. And, a run can be a little toss to a motion back, or a bubble screen if the safeties are deep. Yes, they go into the stat book as a pass, but they are hardly more than handoffs. How will LSU align to stop the Hogs. I saw John Chavis set his free safety 30 yards deep to stop Bobby Petrino. The safeties have been tight to the line of scrimmage against most Bret Bielema teams, until the last few weeks when the threat of the pass has become real. It's real now. Ask Dave Wommack,the Ole Miss defensive playcaller.
2, Pick Your Poison II – The Hogs will have to load the box against Fournette. He's a beast. LSU will try to pound the Hogs with their big sophomore back after he was stuffed last week at Alabama. It's doubtful that the Hogs can do the same as the Tide, but they do play the run better than the pass. It's clear that Brandon Harris doesn't have near the venom as Fournette. That's the poison the Hogs fear the least so don't be surprised with two safeties in the box and tight coverage at corner, with a release to run contain. Harris isn't near the passer that Allen is now. So it's probably the right strategy.
3, The Pass – Allen has completed more passes than Brandon Harris has attempted. That's the difference in the two passing games. Allen has completed 174 of 268 for 65 percent. Harris is 81 of 147 for 55.1 percent. But the key for both few interceptions. Allen has thrown five picks against 21 TDs. Harris has thrown just one, with 10 TDs. Both teams protect the football. This is the area that Arkansas must win, by forcing Harris into a mistake or two. They could not do that in their last two SEC games. Neither Auburn or Ole Miss had a turnover, yet the Hogs still won. That may not be the best recipe for winning SEC games.
4, Tight ends – It's a good matchup for the Hogs. Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle have combined for 34 and 17 catches, respectively. LSU tight end Colin Jeter has just five catches. This is an area where the Hogs have an advantage. Jeter is a good blocker and is part of the reason Fournette has been successful. But the Hogs have more ability to change fronts and put pressure on the linebackers than LSU does with Jeter. It's one of the reasons Alabama handled Fournette. Remember, the Hogs held Fournette to 9 yards on 5 carries last year.
5, Alex Collins – Without the hype about Fournette, remember that Collins is one of the elite backs in the SEC, too. Collins has 1,068 yards with three games to go. He's going to jump high in the UA record books if he stays healthy. He has the same number of 100-yard games as Fournette this year and has four 150-yard games. He has to have a big game against the Tigers and help the Hogs play keep away from Fournette.
6, Physicality – This is always a game of tough line play. The LSU-Arkansas game has featured some of the real slugfest as far as line play in SEC play each year. The Hogs have the most experienced linemen. LSU plays two freshmen in the offensive line. It's a good line, but Arkansas might have the better unit for one of the few times in this game. Who wins the battle of pad level might be the one who keeps The Boot, the trophy sitting in the UA football building now. I was pleased to see the development of Frank Ragnow at right guard. Pittman has confirmed he plans to move the sophomore back to center after this year, but Ragnow held his own against Ole Miss tackle Robert Nkemdiche, grading out 85 percent. Ragnow is a key in the Hogs' plans to run the ball at LSU.
7, Alabama – There is little doubt that Arkansas is glad to play the Tigers the week after they played Alabama. LSU and Alabama both had a week off to put everything into the rivalry game in Tuscaloosa. How much is left in that tank for the Tigers. I always think back to the old gas station advertisement of put a Tiger in your tank and the company handed out tiger tales to hang on your gas cap. Are the Tigers twitching their tales when they take the field, or is there an Alabama hang over. I think there was last year when the Hogs thumped LSU, 17-0, in Fayetteville.
8, Ole Miss – It's just the opposite thought. Are the Hogs too high after a victory over Ole Miss that no one saw coming until the last play was made? Or did they turn the page on Sunday and get heavy into LSU preparations? I thought the positioning of the LSU game was a break for Arkansas, until I realized that the Hogs were celebrating a monumental victory on the road against a tough Ole Miss team. How does that work in the mental game. Who has their stinger this week? Are both teams empty as far as emotional fuel? I think this still sits with Arkansas and it is played in Death Valley at night.
9, Cornerback Play – It's been a struggle for Arkansas to make any plays in the secondary. DJ Dean has been beat up all season. He's had ankle and toe problems and has not been the player advertised. Jared Collins has a thumb problem that may effect his tackling. The players you might expect to step up this week is Henre' Toliver, a sophomore from Marrero, La., and Santos Ramirez, a redshirt freshman from Shreveport, La. The Hogs need big games from those two defensive backs, especially in chances to tackle Fournette.
10, Brandon Allen – Can the fifth-year senior stay on a roll? He's been spectacular in the last three games. Bret Bielema said one of the bye week goals was to make the last six games special for Allen. He's been more than special of late. Can he match the magical level he reached at Ole Miss in a night game in Death Valley. Few quarterbacks have done that. The rest of the Arkansas offense – as positioned by playcaller Dan Enos – has made it look easy of late. Allen is the straw that stirs the punch. And, they'll be plenty of punch flowing in Tiger Stadium. The days of fans egging his truck are long gone. Allen said his truck is filthy and in need of a wash. Maybe this time, he'll come home from a great road victory and it will be washed and hand waxed. Or, maybe someone will just write something on the dirty tail gate. If he plays at Baton Rouge like I think he'll play, it should read: All-SEC.