Louisiana State has had an open date to get ready for Arkansas. The Hogs have had a short week to prepare for the Tigers. Hence, LSU is a solid 9 1/2 point favorite in what is Arkansas' regular-season finale at 1:30 p.m. Friday at Baton Rouge.
But, the Hogs can win. There are several things that must happen for the Hogs to win, and let's take a look at this week's keys to victory.
The good news for the Hogs is that they are no longer the fragile team that must find a good break early in a game to remain competitive. These Hogs believe in themselves. They have the confidence to respond to almost any situation, especially when a break goes against them. They think they are going to win Friday. And, that is great news.
However, when one of their quarterbacks does well, whether it be Zak Clark or Matt Jones, it does seem to lift the rest of the team to greater heights. The Hogs need a solid game from Clark and Jones. They've been getting just that for several weeks. Nothing that happened this week in practice should alter the prospects of that happening again. Both played well in practice throughout the week.
Arkansas must avoid turnovers. It is difficult to win on the road against a good team like LSU if there are turnovers and penalties. The good news is that the Hogs have been relatively turnover free and have reduced their penalties in significant fashion.
The Hogs must stay healthy up front. The offensive line has been bruised and battered the last few weeks, with ankle sprains to Mark Bokermann and Kenny Sandlin and a hip bruise to Sandlin. The Hogs need for their line to play well, just as it has the last few weeks.
The Hogs need solid games from Fred Talley and Cedric Cobbs. Both appear relatively healthy, although Talley has taken no contact on a sore shoulder. If he can't go, Brandon Holmes is ready to step in to provide relief for Cobbs.
A huge key would be for the Hogs to establish the run early, just as they did last week against Mississippi State. The fact that the Bulldogs had to bring more people inside to stop Arkansas' power plays set up the option outside for Matt Jones later in the game. If the Hogs are able to run inside, it's hard to stop Jones outside. So, watch for the Hogs' running on their zone plays early in the game. If they work, look for big plays as the game progresses.
LSU's secondary has given up some plays. Arkansas is not especially strong at wide receiver, so this may be a wash as far as matchups. But, it will be important to the Hogs' option game if the receivers can stretch the field against LSU's secondary. The Hogs did that with Sparky Hamilton against MSU, and it backed up the Bulldogs in the second half and led to a big third quarter.
Defensively, the Hogs must stop the power running of Lebrandon Toefield and the bubble screen passes to Josh Reed. These are LSU's bread-and-butter plays. If they can nullify these two aspects of the LSU offense, it may lead to a big day for the Hogs. However, few have been able to slow both aspects of the LSU offense. How the Hogs fare in these two areas will be big keys.
Arkansas would like to matchup Lawrence Richardson with Reed, the league's most prolific receiver. That will be the day's key matchup, along with LSU linebacker Trev Faulk against the Hogs' tailbacks. The Arkansas tailbacks will be trying to block Faulk on Jones' option keepers and QB draws. How the Hogs fare in these two matchups may very well decide the game.
However, it is hard to lockup one player on Reed. The Tigers place the quick receiver in the slot, and move him in motion. That makes it tough to play bump and run and sometimes puts a strong safety on Reed, instead of a true cornerback. That may mean Batman Carroll plays a lot in the Hogs' five DB package. That would put Carroll on Smith. Watch for the matchups on Reed. If the Hogs are able to handle him in man coverage, it could lead to a big day for their defense.
Another huge key is always in the kicking game. Arkansas has been solid most of the year, but there are a few question marks this week. Brennan O'Donohoe missed two easy field goals last week, and got a push in practice this week from true freshman David Carlton. If O'Donohoe misses early, look for the Hogs to give Carlton a chance. The Hogs are hopeful that punt returner Marvin Jackson is recovered from an ankle sprain. He practiced on a very limited basis last week, but was significantly improved by Wednesday. Houston Nutt said Wednesday that with 48 hours left before game time, he thought Jackson had a chance to play. If he can't go, the Hogs will likely use George Wilson to return punts. Wilson is not as flashy as Jackson, but is a solid return man.
In summary, this is a game the Hogs can win. They are not in awe of the Tigers, and think they will win. There is a lot at stake in this game. For the first time since Arkansas joined the SEC, this game has the meaning that CBS-TV had hoped for when they began to move the game to Friday for national TV.