The Razorbacks are 4-4 overall on the year and 2-2 in Southeastern Conference games, with wins over Tennessee and Auburn.
But Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze isn’t fooled. The more tape he watches, the more impressed he is with Bret Bielema’s squad, especially the Razorback run defense. Ole Miss (7-2, 4-1 SEC) hosts Arkansas Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on CBS.
“They’re really, really good against the run,” Freeze said. “ I haven’t watched any game where people just lined up and ran the football on them. They’ve played some of the better rushing teams; well, a few anyway. They just do a really sound job. Their technique is really good, and it’ll present a challenge for us to run the football and stay balanced. That’s been kind of who we’ve been the last two weeks, and it’s a comfortable feeling. Hopefully we can find a way to do that again. They’re very talented. Enjoyed the practices; I think our spirits are good. Energy’s good. I think our kids are in a good frame of mind, but it’s going to be a tough task.”
Arkansas is allowing just 117.9 rushing yards per game, good for fifth in the SEC and 20th nationally, despite playing some of the better rushing offense in the country. Three of Arkansas’ seven FBS opponents rank inside the top-40 nationally in rushing offense, and the Razorbacks have held all eight of their opponents below their season rushing average.
The good news for Ole Miss is its rushing attack is trending upwards. After a porous 40-yard ground performance in a loss at Memphis, the Rebels have bounced back with 230 and 156-yard efforts in wins over Texas A&M and Auburn.
“Just trying to get better each week,” co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Luke said of the improved numbers. “A commitment to it and making the decision that we’re going to stick with it. That’s been the biggest thing. But again, just trying to get better each week and try to make sure we stay in manageable down and distances, and cut down on the number of sacks. That’s a key in every game.
“I’ve been very impressed with how hard (the Razorbacks) play. They play two safeties, and still nobody’s been able to run it on them. That tells you something right there. I’ve been very impressed with those guys.”
Arkansas is led offensively by quarterback Brandon Allen, who ranks third in the SEC and 30th nationally with 2,034 passing yards. He’ll be making his 30th consecutive start at quarterback on Saturday, the most consecutive starts under center in Arkansas’ SEC era (1992-present).
Still, the Razorbacks remain a run-first team, and running back Alex Collins is closing in on another 1,000-yard rushing season. With 40 more yards, he would become just the second Razorback in program history with three straight 1,000-yard seasons, joining Razorback great Darren McFadden.
“They know who they are and who they want to be,” Freeze said. “I tell you, the misnomer with that is they’re very good with their play-action. (Allen) is taking care of the ball and throwing it for big chunks of yards with those tight ends, and you have to honor the gaps that they create with their different alignments because they have a really good run game also. It presents a great challenge to you.
“They’ve played sound defense the entire year. No one has said, ‘Hey, let’s rip and roar against you.’ Auburn scored a lot of points, but it was a bunch of overtimes. It was in the 20s before that, I believe. They’re very sound, and they make you earn every point you get. Offensively, they control the ball. They go to Tuscaloosa and play Alabama extremely tough, and Auburn at home. Tennessee on the road, won a big game there. It’s a quality football team.”
* Freeze reiterated husky Tony Conner will “give it a go” against Arkansas. Conner has missed the last six games with a torn meniscus in his knee. “Looked good today,” he said. “We haven’t gone full tilt, but he’ll give it a go.”
* Senior linebacker C.J. Johnson has sported a a limited, no-contact jersey in practice this week, but it has nothing to do with his knee. Freeze said Johnson is dealing with a stinger, and the staff wanted to make sure he didn’t hit. “He looked good today,” Freeze said.
* True freshman Javon Patterson has four starts at left guard and two at right guard on the year. However, he was relegated to a reserve role at Auburn, with veteran Aaron Morris stepping in beside Laremy Tunsil on the left side of the Ole Miss offensive line. While Luke acknowledged Patterson’s lingering ankle injury is “without a doubt” hampering him a bit, the move was made more for the experience Morris brings to the position. “They’re different players,” Luke said. “Right now, Aaron’s probably stronger, more experienced, kind of been through it. But Javon is a unique kid for a true freshman. They both bring something to the table, and so there’s a good competition going right there, where Jordan (Sims) is kind of separating himself at right guard. I would say that Aaron is a little bit ahead of Javon right now.”
* Speaking of Sims, he drew his first start in the win on the Plains, and he’s in line to start again Saturday after another strong week of practice. “He earned it,” Luke said. “He’s played well. Just kept getting better, and he’s just kind of gotten better each week. He had a great day at practice today. I’m really excited about where he’s at.”
* Tunsil played 92 snaps at Auburn, a significant step up from the number of reps he was able to handle in his season debut against Texas A&M. And while Tiger defensive end Carl Lawson gave him everything he could handle in the first half of the game, Tunsil settled in and pretty much erased him in the second. Luke was pleased with how he adjusted, especially with the silent cadence, etc. The preseason All-American should only get better from here.
* Ole Miss is the healthiest its ever been entering November in three-plus seasons under Freeze, which is obviously a boost for the Rebels as they attempt to run the table and reach Atlanta for their first-ever SEC championship game appearance. Yes, Ole Miss is a little bit leg weary and a much-needed bye week awaits, but save for Issac Gross and Robert Conyers - both out with season-ending injuries - Ole Miss finally has all of its weapons, which isn’t lost on Freeze or Luke. “You feel more comfortable now putting Sean (Rawlings) in the game because he’s played so many reps if somebody does need a breather,” Luke said. “You wish you had them all, but you’ve got to play the hand that you’re given, and that’s where we are right now.”
* It’s been said before, but it bears repeating, Justin Bell appears to have found his home at center. Luke said Bell has “a little more physical presence” at the position compared to current starter Ben Still, but Still’s experience is keeping him in the starting lineup. Still has played in 29 games over his four-year career, including 16 starts at center. “We’re trying to work him in, and he’s very knowledgeable and knows the offense,” Luke said of Bell. “Just trying to get those snaps down, and I think he’s getting better with that each week.”