The Arkansas – LSU game finally means something this year with both teams battling for the SEC Western Division Title and a New Year's Day Bowl berth. LSU has had two weeks to prepare for Arkansas and will be at full strength when the two teams meet on Friday.
LSU is an excellent passing team, averaging 314 yards per game, which is ranked 9th nationally and 2nd only to Florida in the SEC. Arkansas' defense is allowing 217 passing yards per game and will face a stern test. When Rohan Davey has plenty of time to throw he can be deadly. The Razorbacks must formulate a good pass rush on Davey and with John Thompson's defense, I think Arkansas will be able to. One of LSU's weaknesses this year has been their offensive line and the teams that beat LSU, Tennessee, Florida, and Ole Miss, pressured Davey into throwing before he was ready.
The key for Arkansas stopping LSU is to stop their favorite play, the "Bubble Screen" to Josh Reed. LSU likes to send Reed, who is leading the country in receiving yards per game with 146, into a quick 3-step pattern into the flat. Reed, who was an All-State Running back in high school, runs with the ball very well after he catches it. Teams that play man-to-man pass defense on the corners, which Arkansas does, have had success against this play by jamming Reed at the line of scrimmage. Florida and Ole Miss held LSU below their season average allowing only 286 yards and 183 yards passing respectfully. Arkansas' corners Lawrence Richardson, who leads the SEC in pass deflections, and Batman Carroll, like to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and will create some problems for LSU.
Michael Clayton, LSU's other wide out, averages 66 yards receiving per game, is 6'5" and will have a major height advantage on Batman and Richardson, therefore it will be interesting to watch this match-up of freshmen players. LSU will stretch the field, as they have for every game this year, therefore the Hogs safety play, led by Ken Hamlin, will be vitally important. How Tony Bua reacts to quick passes to Josh Reed and TE Robert Royal over the middle will also play a key role in this game.
LSU is not a great running team, which fares well for Arkansas, who has given up large chunks of real estate to teams that do rush well. LSU averages 151 yards per game, with LaBrandon Toefield leading the way with 76 yards per game. Toefield is a very good runner between the tackles, who can punish opponents and has good speed as well. Arkansas is allowing 155 rushing yards per game, so which team beats their season average will likely contribute to who wins.
Another interesting factor in this game is who executes the best in the Red-Zone. Arkansas is leading the SEC in Red-Zone defense (opponents only score 66% of the time) while LSU is second in the SEC in Red-Zone offense, LSU scores 85% of the time when they are in the Red-Zone. The Hogs' bend, but don't break defensive mentality will be put to the test against the Tigers.
Arkansas' offense has really improved from the beginning of the year, where they only averaged 120 yards offense in the first 3 games. Arkansas has averaged around 400 yards per game over their last 4 games. Arkansas' offensive line will be match-up well with LSU's defensive line. LSU has had trouble getting to the passer as witnessed by only having 13 sacks year to date. Chad Lavalais is the best player on the defensive line and leads LSU in sacks and tackles for losses. The poor pass rush by LSU has allowed opponent's wide receivers plenty of time to work to find open space. LSU is giving up 286 yards passing this year. Only Vanderbilt and Kentucky are giving up more passing yards than LSU this year in the SEC.
LSU is allowing only 120 yards on the ground, 4th best in the SEC. That statistic might be a little mis-leading as their opponents have been going to the air early and often to test that very suspect secondary. The teams that did beat LSU, Tennessee, Florida, and Ole Miss, beat them with wide-open offensive attacks. It is imperative for Arkansas to not play conservative against LSU and open up their offense and spread the ball around. If Zak Clark and Matt Jones are on target with their passes, then they should be able to put up some good numbers. With Matt Jones hitting Sparky Hamilton on that long pass against MS State, LSU will have to respect the pass and not crowd the line of scrimmage when Matt is in the game.
A good matchup to watch will be LSU's outstanding linebackers, Trev Faulk & Bradie James, to see if they can contain Matt Jones on the option play. Alabama had some success with LSU running the option, as they rushed for 174 yards and Tyler Watts accounted for 86 of those yards.
Let's talk home field advantage and the myth of playing at Death Valley. You want to know how intimidating Tiger Stadium is? LSU's home record against SEC teams the past 10 years is 18-21. LSU's home record against Alabama the past 32 years is 1-15-1. Actually, LSU barely plays better at home then it does away. That 18-21 SEC home record over the past decade is only barely better than LSU's 15-23-1 road mark. Not just anybody goes into Tiger Stadium and wins; everybody and his brother does. UAB did last year. Houston did in 1999. In the past three years, Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Georgia have. Are we leaving anybody out? Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: Kentucky has, too.
Seriously though, look for a very close game with the team making the fewest mistakes and the team that hits on some big plays will win in a hard fought battle. I really think Arkansas can come out of Baton Rouge with a victory and I will be there rooting them on.