A win over Arkansas on Black Friday will send the Tigers back to the SEC Championship game on December 6th.
Missouri comes home off of a pair of conference road wins, including a 29-21 road win over Tennessee last Saturday. Arkansas is coming off of back-to-back home wins, 17-0 over LSU two weeks ago, and 30-0 over Ole Miss last week.
Arkansas is better than their record would suggest. They’ve played a very challenging conference schedule, and have lost several closely contested conference games. And, they’ve gotten better as the season has gone along. Especially this month, the Razorbacks are playing very, very well.
“We did something that’s never been done in college football, and that’s shut out two ranked teams as an unranked team on back-to-back weeks,” said Arkansas Head Coach Bret Bielema “I mean, that don’t just happen, and I think people recognize that. As far as playing good football, I think we’re playing as good as anybody. I really do………………………………………… I’d be very surprised if we didn’t go there and play very, very well.”
Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel knows that Arkansas is going to be a challenge.
“Arkansas has just had two great wins,” said Coach Pinkel. “Really, if you look at how they’ve played the entire year, a 1-point game against Alabama, and an overtime game against Texas A&M, and you go on and on. They’ve been playing everybody close. So obviously, they’re a very good football team. So what we see right now, the success, doesn’t surprise me. I always watch the teams we’re going to play all year long. They’ve done a great job of building that football program.”
Arkansas has a little bit of a question mark this week at the QB position. Their starter, 6’2” 210-pound junior Brandon Allen, left the game last week with a back injury. Early this week, he was held out of practice. But he has practiced later in the week. Coach Bielema said that Allen is an experienced QB who wouldn’t necessarily need to practice to be able to play this week, so the fact that he has practiced, suggests that he’ll be able to play on Friday.
The Arkansas offense is not as QB-centered as are some others. If Allen is unable to play on Friday, his younger brother, 6’1” 210-pound red-shirt freshman Austin Allen, will be ready. Under Coach Bielema, the Razorbacks run the football on 61% of their offensive plays, and then they throw the ball off of play-action, usually with maximum protection.
For the Razorbacks, it starts up front with the largest offensive line in all of football. Their starting offensive line averages 6’6” and 328 pounds.
“Arkansas presents a lot of formational problems, personnel,” said Coach Pinkel. “They do a lot of unusual-type things in how they line up formations. And they do that to get an edge to get an extra blocker at the point of attack. And, they’re very good at what they do…………………………………….. They also pull it out and play-action pass and go down the field with the ball.”
The Razorbacks’ typical formation is a narrowly-spaced 7-man front, with a pair of very talented tight ends lined up shoulder-to-shoulder with the Arkansas offensive tackles. They’ll also motion a tight end, or line up with 2 TEs on the same side. They often utilize a fullback, in place of a wide-receiver. Their blocking schemes are straight ahead, hat-on-hat, with the goal to outnumber the defenders at the point of attack, or at least account for every defender.
When they do pass, it is usually off of play-action, and with maximum protection for their QB. Typically, he’ll have 2 receivers in a pattern, with an occasional third receiver, often on a delayed route. They like to bring their receivers across the field and hit them in an open space. They’ve also had success with trick plays. They like to suck the defense up toward the line of scrimmage in a variety of ways, and then throw over the top.
While the older Allen is more experienced, and has better passing numbers, I don’t think it makes a huge difference which Allen plays. On the season, Brandon is 165-286-5 (58%) for 1992 yards and 16 TDs (131.16 passer efficiency rating). Austin is 8-16-1 for 154 yards (117.82 passer efficiency rating). The QB might be the driver of this offensive machine, but the motor is up front. And the running backs are where the rubber meets the road.
On the season, 6’0” 223-pound junior RB Jonathan Williams has rushed for 1013 yards and 11 TDs on 175 carries (5.8 yards/carry). His counterpart, 5’11” 215-pound sophomore TB Alex Collins, has rushed for 965 yards and 12 TDs on 173 carries (5.6 yards/carry) Williams will line up in the shotgun and take a direct snap. He has attempted 1 pass this season. And, he’s averaged nearly 1 reception/game. Collins also returns kick-offs.
“In this conference, to have two (backs) over a thousand (yards rushing), especially where we’re at in our program right now, says a lot, not about them, but about everybody around them,” said Coach Bielema.
Two of the Razorbacks’ top three receivers are their tight ends, including 6’5” 250-pound sophomore TE Hunter Henry (32 receptions, 447 yards, 2 TDs), and 6’5” 255-pound senior TE A.J. Derby (22 receptions, 303 yards, 3 TDs). Derby is a game-time decision to be able to return from injury in time to play at Missouri. Arkansas plays with two TEs on the field together most of the time. And overall, their TEs have caught nearly as many balls as their WRs.
Arkansas’ top WR is 6’2” 210-pound junior Keon Hatch. He leads the Razorbacks in receiving, with 36 receptions for 493 yards and 4 TDs, and he also lends a hand on returning kick-offs. Four other WRs have each averaged about 1 reception/game for the Hogs. That number includes 6’4’ 207-pound sophomore Cody Hollister (13 receptions, 137 yards, 1 TD), 6’2” 198-pound senior Demetrius Wilson (13 receptions, 150 yards), 6’0” 192-pound sophomore Drew Morgan (8 receptions, 148 yards, 1 TD), and 5’11” 195-pound freshman Jared Cornelius (13 receptions, 183 yards, 2 TDs). Cornelius is the Razorbacks’ punt return man, a duty he shares with 5’11” 200-pound sophomore corner D.J. Dean.
To be sure, Arkansas has fattened up their rushing statistics against the weaker rush defenses on their schedule, including their four non-conference opponents (Nichols, Texas Tech, NIU, UAB), and Texas A&M, who has the worst rush defense in the SEC. In Arkansas’ 6 other games, the Razorbacks have averaged 130.8 rushing yards/game, and just 3.4 yards/carry. Against Alabama, the Razorbacks managed just 89 yards rushing, on 2.3 yards/carry.
And, while it’s fair to say that Arkansas has gotten better on offense throughout the season, their in-season offensive improvement pales in comparison to the improvement the Hogs have made on the defensive side of the football. It’s on defense where Arkansas has really gotten better. And, it’s their improving defense that earlier this month carried the Hogs to Coach Bielema’s first two SEC wins.
The Arkansas defense has outstanding playmakers at each level, and in each position group.
Up front, the Razorbacks are somewhat undersized. Their top 2 DTs are 6’2” 255-pound sophomore Taiwan Johnson and 6’2” 272-pound sophomore Darius Philon, who was just named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week for his play against Ole Miss. They’re backed up by a pair of behemoths, in 6’2” 324-pound freshman Bijhon Jackson and 6’1” 335-pound junior DeMarcus Hodge. Philon and Johnson are 2 of the Razorbacks’ more-productive defenders. Philon has 41 tackles on the season, including 10.5 TFLs, and 3.5 sacks, to go along with 5 QB hurries, 1 PBU, and a forced fumble. He’s also recovered 3 fumbles this season. Johnson has 22 tackles this season, including 6 TFLs, and 3.5 sacks, to go along with 1 QBH, and 1 fumble recovery.
On the outside, there’s 6’3” 270-pound senior DE Trey Flowers, one of a handful of defensive players that Coach Bielema said earlier this week has been playing at an all-American level. He’s been very productive. On the season, he has 55 tackles, including 12.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, 8 QBHs, 4 PBUs, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery. His counterpart is 6’4” 250-pound sophomore DE Jamichael Winston.
Arkansas’ leading tackler is 6’2” 231-pound senior WLB Martrell Spaight, with 108 tackles on the season, including 8 TFLs, 1 sack, 4 QBHs, 3 PBUs, 1 INT, 2 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. Spaight has already received an invite to the Senior Bowl, and Coach Bielema said earlier this week that Spaight is playing at an all-American level, and as well as anyone in the country.
Alongside of Spaight is 6’2” 237-pound sophomore MLB Brooks Ellis, Arkansas’ second-leading tackler, with 62 tackles on the season, including 5 TFLs, to go along with 1 QBH, 5 PBUs, 2 INTs, and a forced fumble.
On the back end, 5’11” 172-pound sophomore corner Jared Collins has been productive, with 39 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack, and 11 PBUs. And, 5’11” 210-pound senior safety Alan Turner (57 tackles, 1 TFL, 4 PBUs, 1 INT). They’re joined by 5’11” 195-pound junior safety Rohan Gaines (52 tackles, 4 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble), 6’1” 204-pound freshman safety Josh Lidell (10 tackles, 1 PBU), and 6’0” 190-pound senior nickel back Tevin Mitchel (13 tackles, 8 PBUs, 2 INTs).
In their two shutouts this month, the Razorbacks have enjoyed a 7-1 turnover margin. In each game, Arkansas was able to stack the box and shut down their opponents’ running game and make LSU and Ole Miss one-dimensional. In each case, that proved to be an excellent strategy, as neither QB was able to beat the Razorbacks through the air. For Arkansas, that could easily be viewed as somewhat of an aberration, since the Razorbacks have yielded a league-high 9.0 yards/pass attempt in conference games. LSU is last in the league in passing offense, and the Ole Miss QB was playing through injury. Or, it could be said that the Arkansas pass defense has simply improved that much in the season’s final month.
“Obviously, this is a very big game,” explained Coach Pinkel. “We’re playing a really, really good football team. They certainly deserve all the accolades that they’re receiving now for improving the way they have.”