State of the Hogs: Auburn Matchups
This could be real simple Saturday night. Football coaches like to talk to the media in terms that cut to the chase.
Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring is like that. His central theme after practice this week was about the running game and brute power as he tried to set the stage for the SEC slobberknocker with Auburn.
He called it a manhood check. That's not a surprise. It's always like that with Auburn. I remember the Tigers running the ball down the Hogs' throat for the entire second half two years ago when they rallied from a halftime deficit to win easily. It was a little bit like that last year at Auburn when the Hogs controlled the line of scrimmage in a surprisingly easy victory over the nation's No. 2-ranked team.
It would be too easy to point to offensive line play as the key component in this game. That's like saying what makes my pancakes taste good is melted butter oozing off the edges. You can point to defensive line play as critical, too. That would be correct.
No, I'm going to watch Peyton Hillis, the Arkansas fullback. Is he going to block the Auburn linebackers and safeties in the Hogs' run game, particularly on the counters that seem to be the bread-and-butter of this offense against SEC foes?
Hillis was at his best last week against Tennessee-Chattanooga. He recorded a career high nine knockdown blocks, most of them on spectacular runs by Felix Jones. (Jones played 30 snaps last week and was graded at a plus in all of them.)
It'll help Hillis if his blocking mates in the offensive line are fit and ready. Right tackle Nate Garner didn't play much against Chattanooga, spending most of humid night in the locker room getting fluids via IV. That required Robert Felton to move from guard to tackle with DeMarcus Love stepping in at guard. Neither Felton nor Love were particularly good, but the Hogs should be steady again up front with Garner healthy boosted by forecasts of a cool night.
I'm going to watch Auburn fullback Carl Stewart, like Hillis a senior with proven ability to play smashmouth in the SEC. Can he take out Weston Dacus or Wendell Davis, the men likely to be playing middle linebacker for the Hogs? Can he put tailback Brad Lester into the secondary where he's going to be one-on-one with a safety?
And, I'm going to be watching to see if Arkansas can make plays with its defensive safeties, Matt Hewitt and Kevin Woods. Hewitt will often be near the line of scrimmage, leaving Woods free to clean up mistakes. That's been a problem for Arkansas the last several years, free safety play. Moving Michael Grant to cornerback brought back that problem. Can Woods handle that big role against Auburn? It's a question mark. Woods whiffed on that 59-yard run against Chattanooga.
On the other side of the ball, Auburn is in much the same situation. The Tigers have retooled their defense in an effort to simplify things for their safeties. They no longer play a free safety system. They designate their safeties as right and left.
Fifth-year senior Eric Brock will be the right safety. He started the year as a backup, but has emerged as Auburn's best tackler in the secondary.
He's so good at the line of scrimmage that the Tigers actually played him at strongside linebacker earlier this season when injuries reduced depth there. He was superb in that role and may be the eighth man in the box Saturday night.
The Tigers may be in the same situation as the Hogs at the other safety, looking for someone to step up. Aairon Savage is probably out with a knee injury, leaving left safety to either redshirt freshman Zac Etheridge or true freshman Mike McNeil. That may be a spot the Hogs can exploit.
The other question mark injury wise for the Tigers is at linebacker where Trey Blackmon has been out with a knee injury. He's practiced some this week and is slated for action, but his knee has not been particularly stable. Can Blackmon play an entire game of smashmouth? Maybe, maybe not. He'll have to withstand the pounding Hillis can dish out.
Hillis may be the key player for the Hogs. That's the role he played last year in that Arkansas victory at Auburn. Yes, Marcus Monk made a big catch early in the game and shook himself loose from the Tigers' corner for a long touchdown play. I don't want to minimize that play, nor the way Mitch Mustain stepped into that blitzing safety to deliver the jump ball to Monk.
However, play after play, Hillis was the man for the Hogs. He blocked his man all day. He made one critical third-down catch on a slant after cutting off motion to the boundary. In short, he was fabulous. It was that game that made me think Hillis can be an every-down fullback in the NFL, never leaving because of thrid-down situations.
It seems the crucial thing might be to get Hillis involved early. When he makes a play, his spirits and his play seem to lift. Then, he's a terror, everything all thought he would be when he was the top-ranked fullback in the country coming out of high school.
I didn't feel too good about this game last weekend when it was time to make predictions in Hawgs Illustrated. I picked Auburn, 24-14. It was a rare game when all of our HI pickers went against the Hogs. The only time I can remember that lately was before the Hogs' trip to Los Angeles two years ago to play Southern Cal. All picked USC.
But I'm starting to think I was wrong. I don't see Auburn as a juggernaut. I think this will be a week where Arkansas gives great effort and tries to turn around a season that has not gone right. The Hogs are good enough to beat Auburn.
Conversely, I know what to expect from Auburn. The Tigers will be breathing fire after the way they were thrashed by the Hogs at Auburn last year. The Auburn coaches take the same pride in the physical nature of the way they play as do the Arkansas coaches.
I'm guessing that words like manhood, character, toughness and mental fortitude will be tossed around in the pre-game locker rooms on both ends of Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
It's going to be old-time football, physical in every way. Both sides are going to work to knock down the other side's defensive front, and they will at times. How those safeties do when they are all that's left will determine this game.
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