State of the Hogs: UA vs. AU

When Arkansas has the ball, the focus will be on Mitch Mustain and Darren McFadden. When it's Auburn's turn, all eyes will be on Brandon Cox and Kenny Irons.

When it's all done, we'll add up their stats and there is a good chance one of them will be the CBS star of the game, or whatever the television network calls that award these days.

Yes, the play of the quarterback and the tailback are important. No doubt, those four players will play large roles in determining what happens when the SEC West's last two football unbeatens collide in Auburn.

However, it's true what they say about football. It is the ultimate team game. What happens with the other nine players on offense and the 11 that play on defense and those that hold bit roles on kicking units are just as important.

You'll hear Houston Nutt and Tommy Tuberville throw out the usual stuff about needing all 11 on offense, defense and the kicking game to play well for the team to have a chance. It's all true.

But if you want to really focus on what will determine the outcome Saturday, zero in on the play in the trenches, particularly right around the center. As old buddy Merv Johnson, a veteran line coach, taught me, watch the center on each play and you will see the game unfold in front of you.

No doubt, the center starts every play. For Arkansas, it's Jonathan Luigs, one of the stars for the Hogs two weeks ago in the victory over Alabama. He was the Hogs' dominant offensive linemen on that day, perhaps surprising some because he's just a sophomore.

However, Luigs will have a different situation than usual Saturday against Auburn. The Tigers are often in a 5-2 front with a nose tackle over the center, not the 4-3 that most use these days. That means he has to battle 295-pound Josh Thompson, lined up just inches away on most snaps. He won't be the double-team man with his guards, or chasing linebackers like he has most of the first four games. It's a battle worth watching.

Beside him will be the Hogs' nastiest run blocker, senior left guard Stephen Parker, and perhaps the line's best combination of speed and size, junior right guard Robert Felton. What can those guys do to jump start the league's best running game against a small but fast Auburn set of linebackers? Can they block the Tigers at the point of attack? Can they move the chains on third downs to even up the time of possession deficit that has plagued the Hogs early this season?

On the flip side, Auburn is going with a new center with senior Joe Cope, one of the SEC's best, out with an injury. They will be breaking in sophomore Jason Bosley after Cope tore up a knee last week against South Carolina. Bosley is a little bigger than Cope, but not nearly as athletic.

The good news for the Tigers is that Bosley will be surrounded by perhaps the nation's finest guard tandem in Ben Grubbs and Tim Duckworth, a pair of seniors who manhandled the Hogs middle last year along with Cope.

What Keith Jackson, Ernest Mitchell, Marcus Shavers and Cord Gray can do with Grubbs and Duckworth might be the key matchup of the day. The wild card in that is the possible availability of Arkansas defensive tackle Marcus Harrison, rehabbing from knee surgery just 11 days ago.

"Those guards are nasty, just cold blooded," said Reggie Herring the Arkansas defensive coordinator in an obvious attempt at flattery. "They like to hurt you if they can."

There isn't any question that they put the hurt on the Hogs last year. Senior captain Jackson, who started at defensive tackle last year, remembers the pounding the Hogs took in the second half when Auburn scored on every possession.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Jackson said this week. "Our defensive line played like crap. You can blame the defensive line for what happened in that game.

"I still carry it with me. They ran it right down our throats and what happened is our fault.

"We wimped out. It's not going to happen this time."

Herring said similar things right after that game. He said the Hogs weren't man enough up front on that day.

"They put it on us right up the gut and everyone could see it," Herring said just minutes after Auburn turned a 10-6 halftime deficit into a 34-17 victory.

"It was an old-fashioned story. If you can't stop the run, you are done. End of story."

Simply put, Auburn ran it so well in the second half, the Tigers rarely had to execute a third-down snap. In the first half, the Hogs forced third-and-longs and got after the quarterback to force some mistakes.

After that game, Harrison said, "It's a mind-set. In the second half, we didn't have it and didn't compete to the level Auburn competed. Me and Keith are the starters at defensive tackle and it begins right there. Those plays were going right through us. It hurts a lot."

That was then and this is now. But has anything changed?

I'll be watching to see what happens in the trenches to see if the Hogs have grown up inside on both sides of the ball. If they have, that 16-point betting spread favoring Auburn might be out of whack.

If not, Mustain and McFadden will be fighting for their lives while Cox and Irons soak up the spotlight.



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