Austin Allen (above) is a key player for the Razorbacks.
Auburn, Ala. -- When the Auburn Tigers and Arkansas Razorbacks met last season in Fayetteville the contest between two stumbling teams turned into a four-overtime classic that saw Coach Bret Bielema’s team triumph 54-46.
This time around Gus Malzahn and the Tigers play host to the Razorbacks (5:00 p.m., ESPN) in the comfy confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium in what appears to be just as important as last year’s matchup, if not more.
On offense the Hogs boast one of the top running back tandems in the SEC. The conference’s leading rusher is sophomore Rawleigh Williams III (140 carries, 785 yards, five touchdowns). Being paired alongside true freshman Devwah Whaley (49 rushes, 306 yards, one TD) gives Arkansas a strong one-two punch in the backfield that seems common place under Bielema.
This contest might hold even more importance for Williams III. Last season the Dallas, Tex., product was showing great promise in his first season with the Razorbacks, but a serious neck injury sustained against Auburn after a sideline tackle by senior nickelback/safety Rudy Ford. The injury at the time was deemed bad enough to potentially be career-ending. Now almost a year later, Williams III leads the SEC in rushing which is quite a feat.
However, this iteration of the Arkansas offense includes something that has eluded many Bielema units: balance. The introduction of a healthy passing game comes from second-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos and the emergence of quarterback Austin Allen, the younger brother of past Hog QB Brandon Allen.
Austin Allen has had a solid half-season for Arkansas (138-219 passing, 1,861 yards, 63.0 completion percentage, 18 touchdowns, six interceptions). One problem that the offense has had is the pass blocking struggles by the big Hogs on the offensive line as they have given up 17 sacks and 30 QB hurries through only seven games. Auburn’s front four lead by Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson will look to reap the benefits that teams like Alabama and Texas A&M have already taken advantage of this year.
Enos and the rest of the coaching staff would love to clean up the problems with the pass protections, but the offensive coordinator noted he has faith that Allen will stand in the pocket and take hits when he has to.
“He doesn’t flinch,” Enos said. “That’s the thing I love about him. He hasn’t flinched yet. He takes hits. A guy grabbed his facemask and took him to the ground and he got up like he was going to fight the guy, which I’m glad he didn’t. That’s the type of guy he is.”
The wide receivers at Allen’s disposal include the team leader in receptions Drew Morgan (37 catches, 378 yards, two TDs), the leader in receiving yards Jared Cornelius (22 receptions, 448 yards, four touchdowns) and a skill position player coming off a season-ending injury of his own, touchdown leader Keon Hatcher (21 catches, 354 yards, five TDs).
Defensively, the Hogs have been a decent unit that has been susceptible to giving up big plays of 20 and 40-plus yards. Currently, Arkansas is allowing 175.9 rushing yards per game which ranks the Razorbacks 80th in the country in that regard so Auburn will hope to have success running the football.
Brooks Ellis is the unquestioned leader of the Razorback defense, tallying 51 tackles, four for losses and one interception. His partner-in-linebacking, hometown favorite Dre Greenlaw (36 tackles, two fumble recoveries), is out with a foot injury so LB Khalia Hackett has been placed back into the starting lineup after he was benched earlier in the season due to a “need for better production and accountability,” according to Bielema.
Brooks Ellis plays linebacker for the Razorbacks.
Auburn offensive guard Alex Kozan referred to the Hogs defensive line as “solid” earlier in the week, and this unit is certainly that. Tackles Taiwan Johnson (15 tackles, one sack) and Jeremiah Ledbetter (28 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, one forced fumble) and pass rush specialist at end Deatrich Wise (28 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble) could present problems for the Tigers in the trenches.
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith said that the Razorback secondary is in a patchwork state due to injuries and depth issues, but that doesn’t mean that the hands-on-deck for the Flagship should be taken lightly. Corners Jared Collins (12 tackles, three passes defensed) and Henre’ Tolliver (29 tackles, two interceptions, three passes defensed) plus safeties Josh Liddell (33 tackles, one INT, one forced fumble) and Santos Ramirez (23 tackles, two forced fumbles). Besides Collins who stands at 5-11, the secondary is a big, physical unit and all of them including Collins are very willing to press receivers and come into the box and make tackles at the line of scrimmage.
The kicking duties have been given to Adam McFain, who is a perfect, albeit with a small sample size, 3-3 on the year with a long of 43. His backup is Cole Hedlund. Hedlund was the starter to begin the season but has been surpasses after going 4-6 with a long of 38.
Arkansas’s Toby Baker has worked his way onto the Ray Guy Award watch list after a few stellar performances this fall. The senior is averaging 47.2 yards per punt after 24 attempts with nine being downed inside the 20-yard line.