State of the Hogs: LSU
There is this one constant among all the questions that I've heard through 16 seasons of publishing Hawgs Illustrated magazine. How are the Razorbacks going to play this week?
No matter what else is going on, and lately there has been a lot, that question is still No. 1 on the list.
Often, I don't have a clue. Practices are closed these days so there is not a lot of information to process to answer the question.
Sometimes you find a player who is willing to share about practice and cuts to the chase. He knows his team and whether the players are in tune with the game plan and able to execute it. He knows if the team has its stinger that week. He knows about the focus.
That's not to say there are players that are willing to share those type of thoughts from week to week. It's that they don't really know what they saw in practice and how that will carry over to the game. They are too caught up in their little world to see the big picture.
A few years back I noticed that nose guard Curt Davis had that insight about his own team. One of the defensive captains, he was very good at gauging the pulse of the team and could accurately predict how the Hogs would play on any given Saturday. And, he liked giving me a wink or a heads up as he left practice on Thursday afternoon.
"We got it this week, Mr. Henry," he said. "We are going to play well. We are ready. Mark it down. We are prepared and ready. Locked in, focused." There were no secrets shared. No trick plays. No schemes given away.
No real other tidbits other than something simple about focus for the week, or lack of focus. The amazing thing, Davis was dead on every week. He knew that team and how it would play. Actually, that took place every Thursday for the better part of two seasons.
It got to be a running line from Chuck Barrett on his talk radio when I delivered the Thursday night practice report. Chuck would ask, "What did Curt Davis tell you." And, I'd share it.
I've had other players tell me about the mindset of the team in the past couple of years. Sometimes they were right, just as many times wrong. Often, they probably knew their own mindset, but perhaps weren't as good at telling where the rest of the team was sitting that week.
So what does any of that have to do with the trip to Baton Rouge on Friday to play top-ranked LSU? I had a player give me a heads up on how the team will play after practice Wednesday. I can't tell you if he has the pulse of the team, as Davis always did. But he might.
Peyton Hillis didn't make any predictions as far as winning the game. However, the senior fullback, finishing a spectacular final campaign for the Hogs, did offer that the Hogs were superb in practices this week. He thought it was among the best they've had during his four-year career.
Hillis flashed that million dollar smile. The Conway country boy with the Hollywood good looks reached out to shake the writer's hand with a Happy Thanksgiving wish and then said, "We are going down there and we are going to play well. I believe that after the way we've practiced this week."
What I sensed was that the Hogs know they have nothing to lose going to Baton Rouge. It may be a lot like last year when LSU came to Little Rock with a hunter's mentality. Perhaps these Razorbacks see the ultimate prize, a No. 1 scalp.
That can be intense motivation, but that in itself doesn't mean anything if the preparation isn't top notch as well.
I think it has been top notch. I've sensed in the way the coaches have stayed late each day and the way eyes have focused on them in meetings on the field or extra work after practice. There is a bounce in the step of the players. Just as he had them up last week, I sense Houston Nutt, with his back to the wall, has this team firmly in his grasps right now. It is his team and he has them ready right now.
The most important ingredient I sense is courage, perhaps the biggest key to every trip to Baton Rouge to play good LSU teams. Some let fear set in and have no chance. It is an imposing atmosphere. I did not sense fear. Respect, yes. But I do not think this team is afraid of the challenge.
The key, as it always is against LSU, will be whether or not the Hogs can go toe-to-toe with the Tigers in the trenches. That's where LSU thumps most teams. Yes, they have great speed on both sides of the ball, but the absolute strength of this LSU team is in the way they block and get off blocks.
Both teams are beat up. As it always is at the end of a long, tough SEC season, both teams have key players trying to play through injuries. At Arkansas, it is Felix Jones (thigh), Marcus Monk (knee), Robert Johnson (ankle), Michael Grant (hamstring), Kevin Woods (shoulder) and Jerrell Norton (knee).
The LSU list isn't as clear because of team policies, but it's apparent that the Tigers are battered on defense. Left tackle Glenn Dorsey and middle linebacker Darry Beckwith have been hobbled for several weeks. They may play, but they may not be in top form.
I do not know if Felix Jones can or will be at top form against LSU. But I bet he is a factor. I do know that if he can play, he will play. Jones is as game a competitor as there is on this team, or any team. He loves to compete. You can watch him gather himself on a kickoff return and tell he loves to play the game.
I know he enjoys these kinds of games, playing against the best possible opponent. I've asked him about playing in top settings and you can just see his eyes sparkle as he talks about competing on the big stage.
"If you are a ball player," Jones said, "you couldn't ask for anything more than to play against an SEC team. They are all good. But then there are some games that are just a little bit better, bigger and it just makes you more excited to be a part of it. You go out there to compete and to do one other thing, you go out there to win. That's all that matters, winning."
So I don't worry about Felix Jones, or whether he will be at 95 percent or 100 percent. I know that he is going to be pretty close and that he's better than most at 95 percent.
There is a lot of focus on Darren McFadden and his pursuit of the Heisman Trophy. There is good reason for it. He is a great player, perhaps the greatest in the land this year.
But there are going to be a lot of great players on the field Saturday. Most of them will be wearing all white, LSU's home colors.
I picked LSU to win, 28-24, in our magazine predictions done on Sunday. The rest of our pickers took LSU, too. It's the logical pick. LSU has more talent than anyone in the country.
But as game time approaches I am starting to believe in these Razorbacks. I believe they have their stinger ready this week and an upset is possible.
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