State of the Hogs: LSU

HawgsIllustrated.com publisher Clay Henry takes a look at the SEC regular season finale between Arkansas and LSU.

Pressure makes you do funny things. Sometimes your muscles tighten. Next thing you know, you are breathing too fast and very little oxygen gets to your muscles. Then, you lose strength.

I think that happened last week at Mississippi State. I think it had an effect on this Arkansas team and made it look slow afoot.

Houston Nutt got all of that. When he apologized Sunday for putting too much pressure on his team, that was one of the things on his minds.

The Hogs won't be tight Friday against LSU. Yes, there is still much to play for as far as the BCS standings and a chance, even if it's slim, at a national championship matchup with Ohio State. But this is a game the Hogs have tried to take a different approach to all week.

They've noticed as more and more of the national experts have gone with LSU even with the SEC West crown already safely tucked away in the Broyles Center.

Nutt does a nice job taking the pressure off his club. He's mentioned that to his players. He was shaking his head as he took his team to the field Wednesday after hearing that former SEC coach Jim Donnan was the latest to pick the Tigers.

Nutt is a master at motivation and making sure his team is loose and fresh for big games. I liked what I saw this week in practice. The Hogs took off the pads and even sat out key players like Chris Houston and Matterral Richardson trying to get them fresh for the Tigers.

I liked what I saw at the start of practice Wednesday when Nutt had the equipment staff wheel massive speakers onto the four corners of the practice field to pipe in some music. He picked the first tune, one of his favorites, a Tim McGraw classic, "Live Like You Were Dying." The second tune was selected by the captains, a hip hop tune by Jim Jones, "We Stay Fly."

I sang along to the first tune, the first song on one of my favorite CDs that's in my truck six-disc changer. Can't say that I knew the second, but the players danced as they stretched, wiggling their every muscle as strength coach Don Decker put them through their pre-practice paces.

These Hogs, so good for the last 10 games, will need to be fresh and tough Friday against the Tigers, man-for-man perhaps the nation's most talented squad. Take a look at the defensive line in pre-game warmups if you are in the stadium. No one has as fine a set as LSU's Tyson Jackson, Glenn Dorsey, Marlon Favorite and Chase Pittman. Throw in backup tackle Charles Alexander and those Tigers are big, fast, strong and mean.

"We've got to play perfect up front," said Mike Markuson, the Arkansas offensive line coach. "By that, I mean we have to step correctly, have our balance and play great fundamental football. You step a little off and you don't have your balance just right and they will grab you and literally throw you across the field. They are that strong, that physical.

"You have to sustain ties across our front. They are so fast that if you turn someone loose, they get to the ball. We have to lock up and play our tail off."

The running game was not productive last week at Starkville. It has to improve this week, but the Tigers are better against ground attacks than the Bulldogs. LSU has allowed only two plays of 20 yards or more this year and the longest was a 30-yarder by Arizona on Sept. 9.

"They are the best front we've seen, no doubt," Markuson said. "Those two inside guys are really good and Dorsey is big time. He's big and strong."

No one has handled Dorsey with one-one-one blocks. The Hogs will give right guard Robert Felton help as much as possible with center Jonathan Luigs.

The good news is that the Hogs should have Stephen Parker back fulltime this week. The senior left guard played only a handful of snaps last week because of a knee injury that has bothered him most of this month.

"We missed him," Nutt said. "He's our bell cow, our most physical player. It will be good to have him back. We need him in this game."

The Hogs will have to hit some passes to take the pressure off the running game, but Markuson knows what it's going to take to beat the Tigers.

"We still have to run the ball on them," he said. "They are good, but we are, too. We have to stay patient with our running game. We have to grind on them. We have to pound and grind and don't get anxious because they stop us some. That's what you do against a great defense, go right at them.

"We haven't seen many fronts like they have on defense. But by the same token, they haven't seen us. We can give them some headaches, too."

Defensively, the Hogs have to do a better job of tackling when they get clean shots at LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Defensive coordinator Reggie Herring said the Hogs got three open shots at Russell last year in Baton Rouge and bounced off each time.

"We had a chance to make a sack just before halftime and he just shrugged us off," Herring said. "That was a big play in the game. We have to grab him and get him down. If you don't get him down, he can fire it 40 yards down the field with a man hanging on him."

It's a tough dilemma as far as how to attack Russell. If the Hogs blitz and over pursue, Russell doesn't mind taking off.

"You may not want to flush him," Herring said. "You do and it means trouble because he is dangerous on the move. Just the same, you just try to contain him in the pocket and he stands in there and delivers some great passes, real lasers into tight spots."

As good as Russell has been, he can also be inconsistent. The Hogs hope he isn't at his best Friday.

"If he is at his best, he can put 50 on you in a hurry," Herring said. "We just want to hang on, somehow get the ball to the fourth quarter. This isn't a game that one side of the ball can win. Offense can't win it alone. Defense can't win it alone. We've got to have offense, defense and the special teams all making plays to have a chance.

"It's going to be a war of attrition. I really believe you just hang on and hang on and somehow win it at the end. The team that has the most left at the end mentally will be the one that wins."

Herring worries about how his linebackers will hold up. Both Sam Olajubutu and Matt Hewitt, the outside linebackers, are battling knee injuries.

Olajubutu sustained a partial ligament tear several weeks back and has been playing on guts and about 10 rolls of tape per game. Hewitt was injured last week at Starkville, ruled out of this week's game on Sunday before fighting his way back to practice on Tuesday and Wednesday. Hewitt "tweaked" the knee again late in Wednesday's workout leaving Herring worried about his endurance.

If the Tigers go to their usual formations (three and four wide receivers), that might be a break for the Hogs. Herring suddenly has more available corners than linebackers and probably would prefer to pull the strongside linebacker in favor of three or four cornerbacks.

Either way, the Hogs will have their hands full. Herring doesn't leave any doubt about who has the most talent on the field. However, he knows the intangibles have been heavy with the Hogs all year. He knows his players want to step up to the challenge.

"If you want to be the best, then you deal with the demon," Herring said. "LSU is the most talented team in our conference. But if you want to be big time, you get ready every week and you step up to the challenge.

"The hardest challenge is for a coach is to deal with what we are facing this week. Our team has already won the West championship and has got Florida next week. But we've been good about playing each week and taking it one at a time. "It's a great matchup. You've got our strength, our running game against their great run defense.

Then, you've got an equally great battle, our defense against a great offense. Maybe we win some battles there and then get some help from our special teams. That's how you win a game like this."

I don't know any of the words to "We Stay Fly." I do know that Tim McGraw song and can sing it in my sleep. The Hogs aren't ready to die just yet. They plan to live life on Friday in Little Rock. They are going to take their best shot at the demon from south Louisiana with all of those good-looking players.

The Hogs are going to be loose as a goose when they hit the field Friday. They are the SEC West champs, but they are going back to the underdog mentality that has served them well all season. It's the right approach and it might just keep them in the BCS race.

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