State of the Hogs: Drive to 7-5

Can the Hogs reach the spring forecast? To do it, they need a victory over South Carolina.

Sometime in May, just after the close of spring practice, there came the requests from subscribers to our website to make season forecasts for this Arkansas football team. Pick a record.

So I did, committing to 7-5. There wasn't a lot of science. No complex formulas. I didn't know enough about the other teams for any of that.

I did know a lot about this Arkansas team, although there were mysteries.

How long would it take for the much needed help in the defensive backfield to take hold? Would the sacks decrease? Could the defense stop the run?

Turns out the secondary did get some help from Rudell Crim and Andru Stewart early. It appears David Gordon, Anthony Leon and Darius Winston are starting to catch on now. We just didn't know Isaac Madison would be lost in August practice to ACL surgery.

The sacks are down. It's also become apparent that they can stop the run, to some extent.

It's turned out about the way I thought. The record would be only slightly better, but the team would be closer in the losses. Plus, the nonconference wins are about the way I thought, not as close as last year. Replacing Texas with Texas A&M helped a bunch in that regard.

I thought the losses would be Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss and LSU.

I didn't even hesitate on any of those. And, the wins that were easy to circle were Missouri State, Texas A&M, Eastern Michigan, Troy and Mississippi State. I figured Auburn and South Carolina could be tight fits, but probable wins.

Both Auburn and Mississippi State turned out to be better than I expected, but South Carolina comes to the Ozarks as advertised. It's probably the make-or-break game, as always.

If you go back through the history of the Arkansas-Carolina series, it's been the defining game for both teams for as long as they've been in the SEC, with the exception of year one when both were struggling. It was the first game after the Citadel debacle for Arkansas and it fell in the middle of a five-game losing streak for the Gamecocks.

But if you look at this game starting about 1994, the season of the winner turned upward. The loser slumped. It will probably work out that way again this season.

"We know the importance," said Tim Horton, UA backfield coach. "It's always been the game that pointed one of the team's in the right direction and other in the wrong direction. It has determined bowl situations almost every time. It's a big game and we all know it."

That's big picture stuff. As far as finer points, finding South Carolina linebacker Eric Norwood and keeping him from hitting Ryan Mallett is the big key.

"That's a job," Horton said. "In their scheme, they move him. They are in a different front every snap."

Often, a running back will be on Norwood, a 240-pounder.

"We've been better in pass protection this year," Horton said. "Our young ones are doing well in that area."

The toughest matchup would be Michael Smith, perhaps 170, against Norwood.

Some wonder why Broderick Green gets so many snaps. He's 240 or better and is a fine pass blocker.

"Michael's technique is outstanding and he's a good pass protector, but you just wish there was a little more lead in his butt," Horton said. "We made some mistakes in pass protection last year against South Carolina. Some of them were with our backs and some were with calls from the quarterback. That's a big part of this game Saturday."

On the other side, can Arkansas get pressure on Stephen Carcia, the mobile South Carolina quarterback. The Gamecocks have struggled some in the offensive line under a new coach. They've played almost a different unit every week.

"They do move guys around," Arkansas end Jake Bequette said. "I've studied tape of four different offensive tackles. They've switched their guards and tackles from one week to the next. We have to prepare for several combinations. It's something that adds to your study because different guys show you different things with their stances, so you better know all of them."

All those Carolina blitzes, stunts and variations in fronts causes a lot of film study, too.

"It's not that there are things we haven't seen before," Michael Smith said. "But we don't usually see it all in the same game. We will this week.

"It's a lot, but we can get to it with a lot of study. That's what we have to do this week, make sure we are thorough." The good news is the Hogs are probably more healthy than the Gamecocks.

Arkansas hasn't had an open date since the second week of the season, but Carolina has a worse schedule. The Gamecocks haven't had an open date and are seven weeks into a slate with eight straight SEC games. Plus, the Hogs get them in between Tennessee and Florida.

That's one of those things I looked at last spring when I picked Arkansas. Nothing has happened to change my mind.

When we look back on this season in December, this will be the game that gets circled as the key to a bowl trip. And, I still think it will be Arkansas going to the better bowl.

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