State of the Hogs: Carolina

Can Arkansas turn things around after a tough October? They travel to South Carolina next week to find out. Here are the thoughts of HI.com publisher Clay Henry.

The most important game of the year for Arkansas looms next week in Columbia, S.C. If Arkansas wins, there is a chance it can win out and finish 7-4. A loss might mean this team falls all the way to 4-7, but more likely to 5-6.

I've picked Arkansas to win, but I can't tell you with firm conviction that it's a sure victory. I don¹t know enough about the physical condition of some injured players like Matt Jones, Peyton Hillis, Steven Harris and Tony Ugoh to know if the Hogs can put together four quarters of offense against the Gamecocks.

Visiting with Roy Wittke on Friday, it appears Jones has made solid progress all week in his rehab from injuries to his left leg. He sustained a strain to his groin against Auburn, then aggravated his left hamstring against Georgia.

"If we had to play a game this weekend, Matt will play," Wittke said. "He told me this (Friday) morning when I saw him at treatment that he's definitely better today than he was yesterday. And, he thinks he's better at this point in this week than he was at this point last week."

Aside from those injuries, I do know that the defense is coming together and will play better down the stretch, as long as it remains relatively healthy. The front seven portion of the defense played remarkably well against Georgia, winning more than its share of the battles last week.

I suspect the secondary, not so stellar last week, will continue to improve over the next four weeks when the opposition is not of the same caliber as what it saw the last three games. Back to next week¹s trip to South Carolina. It's a huge game for the Razorbacks. Some momentum can be won at Columbia that might carry these young Hogs the rest of the way and produce much needed off-season energy.

I¹ve been amazed at how things have held together so far. Held together? Yes, I think the mental state of these Hogs is better than I would have anticipated after going 0-3 in October.

I haven't seen one indication that Houston Nutt has lost his team, and I worried that that was just what would have happened to a team with this much inexperience and key injuries.

I figured in preseason that Matt Jones was the key to this team. After that, I thought, offensive tackles Zac Tubbs and Ugoh were the next most critical offensive players. Tubbs and Ugoh had more experience than about any of the others penciled in for starting spots. I thought those three must stay healthy for the Hogs to do well on offense.

Well, they haven't. Tubbs was lost for the season with a broken leg on the Tuesday after the loss to Florida during a bruising middle drill to start the first open date. Ugoh missed last week after fighting a kidney stone all week.

If the Hogs have all their bullets at South Carolina, I have a good feeling about how they will play. I like the effort I see in the secondary the past two weeks. Yes, there are still mistakes from time to time. They'll have some more before this year ends, but they will be fewer and fewer as those pups age.

The main ingredient is Jones. It appears he¹s going to be close to 100 percent by the Carolina trip. That is a good sign for the rest of the year.

Things may begin to settle out if that's the case. Momentum is a huge factor in sports. It¹s a bigger deal than most can ever understand. Some call it confidence. Either way, it¹s a huge part of what happens in each game and each season.

I don¹t think the St. Louis Cardinals ever had a shred of momentum in the World Series. They never led at any point in any game. Momentum was on Boston¹s side all four games. Sometimes teams are good enough to swing the momentum to their side.

Sometimes they aren¹t. Sometimes a single player can swing momentum. Momentum might be critical next week at Columbia. Both teams are probably fragile enough that momentum could be the deciding area. Momentum and confidence might come to the game disguised in a Matt Jones No. 9 jersey.

Someone who has seen both Arkansas and South Carolina this season tells me that if Jones is "reasonably" healthy, Arkansas should triumph. He has some interesting reasons. He said South Carolina, while better than Arkansas on defense, is not good enough in the passing game to exploit Arkansas' major weakness, the secondary.

Possession time may be the key. South Carolina likes to hold the ball with a clock-eating ground game. But, without a great passing quarterback, the Gamecocks may not be able to do that against an Arkansas defense which is geared to stop the run. Of course, there is another theory. Arkansas' secondary may be so weak that South Carolina suddenly finds its passing game.

South Carolina has used four quarterbacks over the past month of the season. Injuries have limited those four players in recent weeks. Will any or all of them be available against Arkansas?

"That isn¹t as big a deal as whether or not Arkansas has Jones," my source said. "South Carolina's quarterbacks aren't as talented as Jones. Lou (Holtz) uses them interchangeably. He¹ll run them in for different plays. The key is whether Jones can play at a reasonable level."

If Jones can go, old "mo" may jump on the Hogs' back for several weeks. If not, November may not be any more fun than October.


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