So much of the talk about this week's Arkansas-Ole Miss game centers on three subjects: The coaches, the quarterbacks or the officials.
Oh, those are the things media hype and fans discuss. It's decent fare this week. Bobby Petrino vs. Houston Nutt, Ryan Mallett vs. Jevan Snead and those inept refs that have been banned for a bit have the sex appeal right now.
But the meat and potatoes on the menu is the big boys up front, as always. And, it's an area that I thought Ole Miss owned a sizable advantage during the summer months.
That was before I saw the Arkansas defensive front develop with the arrival of D.D. Jones at nose tackle. That's before I saw Ole Miss struggle to protect Snead, especially sophomore left tackle Bradley Sowell. I knew Michael Orr would be missed as Snead's blindside anchor, but not this much.
Actually, this Arkansas surge on defense isn't just help from Jones, the 6-5, 306-pound true freshman from Bastrop, La. He's good, but there are lots of pieces to this puzzle.
It's clear that juco cornerbacks Rudell Crim and Andru Stewart have improved this defense. And, don't underestimate what Elton Ford's return to form (sometime late in the Alabama game) means to the scheme. The Hogs are also getting good relief play up front from Tenarius Wright, Damario Ambrose, Zack Stadther, Alfred Davis, Lavunce Askew and Patrick Jones.
Bobby Allen, who coaches the Arkansas defensive tackles, has played six at the two inside spots this season. There's depth and talent there now. And, the way those tackles have played is the key to the improved sack production from the ends. Defensive end Jake Bequette knows why he's getting free more often.
"I mean, D.D,'s unbelievable," said Bequette. "For a true freshman coming in here and playing the way he's playing is just incredible.
"From a defensive end standpoint, if you got a big defensive tackle in there who's just wreaking havoc every play, that's great for me. That's great for the defensive line. That's great for the defense.
"He's getting to the point where he and Malcolm, both of them are getting to the point where you can't single block
either one of them. You see it on the film. Anytime they try to one-on-one D.D. or Shep, they're being just very disruptive."
Allen likes what he sees, but knows it's a daily battle. He wants consistent effort and improved technique.
"I think what you saw starting about the Texas A&M game is that we were playing hard every play," Allen said. "That's our focus. And, we have stressed using our hands. We have to shed blocks. You do that by playing with your hands. That's where we've improved -- playing hard each down and relying on our hand technique. That and stopping the run. It always is about stopping the run in this league."
If you go back to last year, the Hogs were not shedding blocks. And, they were getting knocked into their linebackers because of it. That's the difference now. Wendel Davis, Jerry Franklin, Freddy Burton and Jerico Nelson aren't having to scrape around blockers or their teammates to get to the ball carrier. Consequently, more players are getting to the football.
The big result is more fumbles and fumble recoveries. There were times the Hogs caused some fumbles last year, but they didn't have enough defenders in the area to gobble them up.
"It's technique," defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said. "When you play the right technique, you get off blocks. You get to the football. We are flying to the ball better, but it starts with the right technique."
It's the kind of stuff that turned this game last year to Ole Miss in the second half. The Rebels controlled the line of scrimmage with their fine offensive line. And, when the Hogs finally had to bring extra defenders into the box to stop the run, Snead hit some passes against one-on-one coverage.
The Hogs aren't playing so much man these days. They are getting pressure with their front, leaving seven in the back to cover the field in zones. That starts with the two tackles.
What about the Ole Miss single wing stuff, that Wildcat package with wingback Dexter McCluster? It's a concern if the Hogs can't win the battles up front. If you can't block it, it's just a prelude to a punt.
If Ole Miss relies heavily on McCluster in that formation, it probably means it can't run on first down or protect Snead in its basic stuff. That's a good sign for Arkansas and its surging defensive front.
The Rebels have scored just 10, 23 and 3 in their three SEC games, an average of 12. However, don't expect it to be easy. The Rebels have 19 seniors, 13 juniors in their two deep. They have played extremely hard at times. Ask Alabama. Nutt will have his side playing like it's his last stand. Perhaps it is, too.
If it's a turning point for the two programs, it might be because of this surging Arkansas defensive front.
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