Game day has finally arrived for the 21st-ranked team in the nation. An offseason full of transfers and e-mails, lawsuits and accusations, has finally given way to football. Razorback Nation, or most of it anyhow, is surely grateful.
The Razorbacks open their season tonight against the most difficult of their four nonconference foes, the Troy Trojans. And close to 70,000 sets of eyes in Reynolds Razorback Stadium will focus in on several key areas.
Among them, a Heisman Trophy campaign will commence. A new offensive coordinator will show off his system. And a new kicker will showcase his powerful right leg.
Arkansas coach Houston Nutt has tried to warn against overlooking the team considered by many experts to be the Sun Belt Conference favorites. "Troy, watch out now," were the first four words to come out of Nutt's mouth at Arkansas' media day when addressing tonight's opponent.
Impossible not to start with the strong, speedy running back from Little Rock. He tops many preseason Heisman Trophy lists. He has graced the covers of publications such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine. Simply put, from a local and national perspective, he is Arkansas football. Troy knows this and will focus its primary defensive efforts on stopping the 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior. "He's a Bo Jackson-type guy ... a Herschel Walker," Troy coach Larry Blakeney said. "He can do all the things that they could do." And unlike last season, when a toe injury slowed him, McFadden will start out at full strength in week 1. He'll do it all tonight -- take handoffs, receive pitches, line up in the WildHog and return kickoffs.
McFadden can thrive without a consistent passing game. He proved that last season against LSU when he rushed for 182 yards and Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick passed for just 29 yards. But that's not ideal. Arkansas needs better balance offensively. So early on tonight, the Razorbacks will need an efficient start from Dick, who makes his first start in a season-opener. Dick says he feels comfortable in the new system installed by first-year offensive coordinator David Lee. And while Lee surely won't open up the entire playbook tonight, expect to see Dick make throws to a variety of targets. Troy likely will dare Dick to win the game, as eight, maybe even nine Trojan defenders will set up close to the line of scrimmage.
These guys are the Hogs' first line of defense tonight against the Troy's quick, elusive quarterback, Omar Haugabook. A pretty tough task when you consider Haugabook's abilities and the collective lack of experience between the four big Razorbacks up front. When preseason camp opened up, starting defensive ends Chris Wade and Adrian Davis were second-team. Starting defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard was an end. Only tackle Ernest Mitchell brings extensive starting experience from last season. As Jamaal Anderson has shown, you don't need to be a marquee name to quickly become a stud on the D-Line at Arkansas.
A name alteration wasn't the only change made to the offensive formation with McFadden as the quarterback in the shotgun. Before and after WildCat became WildHog, it received a makeover. Just how much of a makeover is unknown, however. During preseason camp, glimpses were revealed. Most plays still involve Felix Jones going in motion and either receiving the ball from McFadden or playing a decoy. But Lee has installed other variations. The offense was used in moderation last season, never more than a couple handfuls per game. But what if Dick fails to improve on his accuracy? What then? "I know we probably would never do it, but we'd be pretty good I think if we ran (the WildHog) the whole game," running back Michael Smith said.
Dick's favorite receiver won't be in uniform tonight. In fact, Marcus Monk won't be available for at least Arkansas' first two games. A rangy 6-foot-6, Monk brings an element to Arkansas' passing game that no other Razorback receiver can. Regardless, the Hogs' other receivers must replace Monk, must at least manage to shake free from Troy's talented secondary and hold on to Dick's passes. Monk's injury has sped up the maturation process for several of Arkansas pass catchers. At the top that list is sophomore London Crawford. As a much-hyped freshman, Crawford struggled. But with an improved attitude, Crawford slides into Monk's split end spot. Reggie Fish, Robert Johnson and true freshman Crosby Tuck all figure to see passes tossed in their direction.
Make no mistake, Troy is not here just for the $425,000 paycheck. The Trojans won their first-ever Sun Belt Conference championship last season, and they return a bunch of playmakers from that squad. They won seven of their last eight games to end the season -- including a New Orleans Bowl victory -- behind a revamped offense and a fast, physical defense.
Though 23-point underdogs tonight at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, the Trojans won't be thrilled with even a moral victory of any kind. This may shock Razorbacks fans, but the Trojans possess the talent to spring an upset.
The quarterback of Troy's Texas Tech-like spread offense is accurate and lightning-fast. The star running back nearly rushed for 1,000 yards last year. The standout wide receiver caught 68 balls last season, and the secondary is stocked with two, maybe even three, players with NFL futures.
Troy can't be scared tonight. The Trojans can't enter a Southeastern Conference environment and wilt under the pressure. They can't, in any way, be intimidated of the Razorbacks. They likely won't be. After all, Troy has made a living recently -- that is, its athletic department has -- by accepting guaranteed money in exchange for likely losses. Only last season, the Trojans nearly spoiled the plans of those bigger schools that hoped for an easy W. The Trojans led at Florida State in the fourth quarter and at Georgia Tech in the third quarter before narrowly losing both games. "They're not in awe of any stadium," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "The crowd doesn't bother them." Then again, the Trojans did get drilled 56-0 last season at Nebraska.
Here's a comparison that could strike fear into Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring, as well as Razorbacks fans. Ricky Hazel, the sports information director at Troy, was asked to compare Haugabook to a player on Arkansas' roster. His answer was swift for the quarterback who was last season's Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year. "It'd have to be Darren McFadden," Hazel said. "They're built the same, and Omar runs a 4.3 (40-yard dash)." For now, though, Haugabook directs Troy's spread offense with efficiency and game-breaking capability. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder completed less than 56 percent of his passes in only two games last season. And he rushed for 92 yards in the New Orleans Bowl. "His ability to escape scares you," Nutt said.
Leodis McKelvin and Elbert Mack likely have futures in professional football, Troy coach Larry Blakeney said. They are, in the truest sense of the term, "shutdown corners." To be sure, the duo will be tested to their fullest abilities tonight. Troy will leave them out on their own, to defend in one-on-one coverage, for most of the game. With McKelvin and Mack on the outside, Troy can allow its safeties to creep up by its linebackers. Arkansas' passing game doesn't worry Troy. The Razorbacks' rushing attack does. So anticipate every defender not named McKelvin and Mack to flood the line of scrimmage. Also, the two corners contribute as explosive return men. "Those two corners are very good, and they have no fear," Nutt said.
Determining the glaring weakness on Troy's roster is not difficult. The Trojans have four new starters on their offensive line. Only left tackle Chris Jamison returned from a senior-laden group up front. And as if their lack of experience wasn't apparent enough, how's this for a final convincing statement? The Trojans do not have even one senior offensive lineman on their roster. So, obviously, the new contributors need to grow up, and grow up fast. The starters are big, at least, averaging 305 pounds. "We can't go in too confident," Arkansas defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. "But we know that they have a lot of guys who will be playing a lot for the first time in this kind of game."
After scrambling around and eluding defenders, Haugabook often found Banks last season. Banks caught 68 passes and eight touchdowns last season as a junior. "We've got a good thing going," Haugabook said. "It's like we always know what the other one is going to do on the field. And that's great in this offense. I'll be running around all crazy, but I always seem to find him when I really need to." Banks will team up with Mykeal Terry to comprise likely the most talented wide receiver duo in the Sun Belt. Banks' maturity is his most important asset. The former quarterback is a rare 26-year-old senior. He spent four years playing minor league baseball. He's also married and has a daughter.
Arkansas vs. Troy
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