McFadden's Heisman Campaign: Arkansas Preview
The word from Arkansas is that the Gamecock defense is just the right medicine to revitalize junior Darren McFadden's ailing bid to win the 2007 Heisman Trophy. The pundits who predict the Heisman Trophy winner have soured somewhat on McFadden, a wonderful athlete and the 2006 runnerup for the award.
"By them saying [I'm] slipping, it's not something I'm really concerned [about] because I don't feel like I came on to the Heisman scene until around this time last season," McFadden said Monday.
McFadden is referring to the 219 yard rushing effort against the Gamecocks last season. In fact, McFadden's performance against the Gamecocks last season kick-started his late season push for the trophy. Arkansas coaches and offensive linemen fully expect to gash the Gamecock defense again because McFadden has had big games in both of his two years of playing the Gamecocks. (As a freshman, McFadden rushed for 189 yards.)
When McFadden says, "I don't feel like I came on to the Heisman scene until around this time last season," he is directly implying that he expects to run all over the Gamecocks just like he has done the last two years. McFadden sees the Gamecock defense as an elixer to rejuvenate his flailing 2007 Heisman campaign.
The Arkansas Athletic Department weekly press release echoes those sentiments. The weekly press release by the Arkansas AD highlights the fact that in McFadden's two games against South Carolina, he has rushed for 406 yards and averaged 7.2 yards per carry. The release brags that McFadden has rushed for more yardage against the Gamecocks than he has against any other opponent in his career.
Arkansas has promoted McFadden for the 2007 Heisman Trophy since the beginning of the year. The campaign stalled following early season losses to Alabama, Kentucky, and Auburn. Still McFadden, a great talent, had fabulous individual performances in two of those losses to Alabama and Kentucky, rushing for 195 and 173 yards respectively. However, the Heisman voters are not likely to award the trophy to a player on a losing football team.
Two weeks ago McFadden suffered a rib injury against Ole Miss, a team Arkansas beat 44-8 in Oxford. Consequently, his recent rushing totals have suffered as he played through the injury. McFadden rushed for only 61 yards in the last game (against Florida International), although he did score four touchdowns. Both Head Coach Houston Nutt and McFadden say that he is at full strength, another hint that he expects to run roughshod against the Gamecock defense this Saturday evening.
In the last televised game Arkansas played (against Auburn), McFadden did not impress any Heisman voters with his performance. He only rushed for 43 yards on 17 attempts against Auburn, an average of just 2.5 yards per rush. ESPN2 is broadcasting this weekend's game and a national television audience will be watching McFadden's performance. He and his Arkansas teammates know this may represent the last, best hope for McFadden to play well and get back into the Heisman Trophy race.
Arkansas, which has won only five games and is one game away from bowl eligibility, has also declared this game to be "Senior Day." Thus, Nutt will have three good reasons to motivate the Arkansas players: (1) boosting McFadden's Heisman chances; (2) qualifying for bowl eligibility; and (3) winning on Senior Day.
The Senior Day announcement seemed somewhat strange because Arkansas still has another home game left -- against Mississippi State on November 17. For most schools, Senior Days are reserved for the final home game of the season. Perhaps because the final home game against State will be played in Little Rock instead of Fayetteville, the home of Arkansas main campus, the school regards the South Carolina game as its final game on its home campus. Or perhaps Arkansas will declare the game against State a second Senior Day. In any case, it will be one of McFadden's final two home games playing for Arkansas fans. McFadden's mother announced earlier this week on her web site, DarrenMcFadden.Org, that McFadden will declare himself eligible for the NFL draft (one year early).
With so many reasons to motivate them, fans should expect the Arkansas players to be as emotionally ready as any team the Gamecocks have played this season. The Gamecocks must be ready to meet the initial fury or the game could get out of hand very quickly.
The Gamecocks, on the other hand, will be thinking about the October 28 beach house fire in Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina. The fire killed seven college students, six of whom were Gamecocks.
The fire puts the Arkansas football game into perspective. It reminds us that life is fleeting and that we ought to invest our time into relationships with our friends and families. The deaths of those so young saddens us especially because their lives had much promise and the loss seems devastating.
The Gamecocks are playing the game as a tribute to those who died in the fire. The players are wearing a helmet sticker that reads, "Forever to thee," the final words in each stanza of South Carolina's alma mater. The students who died in the fire likely sang the words at the Vanderbilt game. Because of the players' tribute to those lost in the fire, we ought to consider the words of our Alma Mater here:
We hail thee, Carolina, and sing thy high praise
With loyal devotion, remembering the days
When proudly we sought thee, thy children to be:
Here's a health, Carolina, forever to thee!
Since pilgrims of learning, we entered thy walls
And found dearest comrades in thy classic halls
We've honored and loved thee as sons faithfully;
Here's a health, Carolina, forever to thee!
Generations of sons have rejoiced to proclaim
Thy watchword of service, thy beauty and fame;
For ages to come shall their rallying cry be:
Here's a health, Carolina, forever to thee!
Fair shrine of high honor and truth, thou shalt still
Blaze forth as a beacon, thy mission fulfill,
And crowned by all hearts in a new jubilee:
Here's a health, Carolina, forever to thee!
The Alma Mater speaks of the generations of Carolina students gone by, and the service that they provided to the South Carolina community in their lives. It speaks also of a "new jubilee," which is a reference to Heaven and how when we arrive in Heaven we shall no longer hunger or thirst, nor shall the scorching wind or the sun strike us. The song says that the fruit of the University, its high honor and truth, i.e., the people, shall shine forth in eternity.
South Carolina's Alma Mater will be on the players' helmets, and in their hearts, for the Arkansas game. The seven deaths are very sad, but USC's Alma Mater is a song of hope and suggests we shall one day see those students again in a new jubilee. Even before the fire, the song was special to the Gamecock players. In a national television interview after the Kentucky game, defensive end Eric Norwood made the ESPN reporter turn to salute the Alma Mater. This week, USC safety Emanuel Cook said the Gamecocks would play their best against Arkansas in remembrance of the students killed in the fire.
The idea of a new jubilee and thoughts about Heaven are one thing for the defense to consider. The present reality of facing an exploding Arkansas offense is another. This is not an insignificant challenge for the defense.
In the last five games, the Arkansas offense is averaging 42 points and 431 yards per game. Its average of scoring 40 points per game is currently first in the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
The Arkansas rushing attack is particularly impressive, 288 yards per game. It is first in the SEC (and third in the nation). To put that statistic into context, the second leading running team in the SEC is LSU, which averages only 220 yards per contest.
Arkansas' two running backs, McFadden and Felix Jones, may be the best duo of running backs in the country. McFadden, a rare blend of size, speed and power, has averaged 124 yards per game in 2007, a statistic that is first among SEC running backs (and 11th nationally).
Despite the threat of McFadden, the Gamecocks cannot ignore Jones, who has blazing sprinter's speed and is a threat to score from anywhere on the field. Jones' per rush average is actually better than that of McFadden. He is currently first in the nation in average yardage per carry, 8.8 yards. Jones has five 100 yard rushing games in 2007, and he has also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.
In 2006, Arkansas' coach Houston Nutt, implemented a wildcat offensive formation package to get these two playmakers the ball. The wildcat formation removes the quarterback (Casey Dick) and features a shotgun snap to McFadden who plays like an old single-wing tailback.
The formation was not a Nutt invention. The wildcat, a variation of a double wing offensive formation, has been around for many years. The wildcat (and its parent the double wing offense) generally features trap blocking, a crossing wingback who is in motion before the snap, and misdirection.
Arkansas is using the wildcat formation again in 2007, but Nutt renamed it the Wild Hog. McFadden, who sometimes played quarterback while in high school, is a moderate threat to pass from the Wild Hog. More likely than not, when you see Arkansas in the Wild Hog, either McFadden or Jones will run the ball.
The diagram below shows one of the plays Arkansas uses from the Wild Hog formation.
In the play diagramed above, Jones (25) goes in motion before the snap. The center snaps the ball to McFadden (5) just as Jones races by in front of him. McFadden can then either hand the ball off to the speeding Jones, or fake a handoff (misdirection), and run himself in the opposite direction.
The play diagramed above is not a read option. The hand off, or the fake hand off as the case may be, is pre-planned before the snap.
On the pass variation of the play, McFadden fakes to Jones and starts to run. He will then straighten up and pass over linebackers and safeties to a tight end or split end on a crossing pattern.
The play is more effective because the pass cannot be overlooked. McFadden is a legitimate passing threat. He is 9 of 13 in pass attempts for 124 yards and four touchdowns for his career.
One final note about the Wild Hog is the fact Nutt calls the formation most often when Arkansas gets close to an opponent's goal line. The nearness to the endzone makes the threat of a McFadden run even more dangerous. However, if an opponent sells out to stop McFadden from running, he just stops and lobs the football to a receiver across the goal line. He has yet to throw an interception.
The Gamecock offense will also face a significant challenge. The Arkansas defense is improving every week. It has really played well in the last five games. During that span, it has allowed only 9.8 points and 270 yards total offense by opponents per game. The Arkansas pass defense has been particularly stout over that period, allowing only 121 yards per game and just 37% completion rate.
The two cornerbacks for Arkansas, Michael Grant (8) and Jerell Norton (27), are outstanding. Norton has five interceptions this year. He returned one of the five 100 yards (against North Texas) for a touchdown. The other cornerback, Grant, averages nearly two pass breakups per game, a statistic that leads the SEC.
The two exceptional cornerbacks allow Reggie Herring, who is Arkansas' Defensive Coordinator (and a former Clemson Defensive Coordinator), to play press man to man coverage. Press man coverage allows extra defenders to play close to the line of scrimmage, a tactic useful for stopping an opponent's running plays or for blitzing opposing quarterbacks to force errant throws.
The strategy is working well. NCAA football statistics prove that the Arkansas' pass defense is currently ranked first in the nation. The NCAA uses the statistic pass efficiency to measure the overall quality of a pass defense.
The key to a Gamecock victory this week against this very difficult opponent on the road will be to play mistake free football and good defense.
Playing mistake free against Arkansas will be a challenge. The Arkansas defense has 15 interceptions (first in the SEC) and 7 fumble recoveries (tied for second in the SEC). The Gamecock offense cannot sputter and cough up the football like it did in the Tennessee and Vanderbilt games.
Meanwhile, the Gamecock defense must consistently stop the potent Arkansas rushing attack. Arkansas is not a passing team. Therefore, Tyrone Nix's strategy will be to stop the run and make Casey Dick (the Arkansas quarterback) pass against a fast Gamecock secondary. The Gamecock defense may not be ranked first in pass efficiency, but it does lead the conference (and is second nationally) in passing yardage allowed per game.
The Gamecocks are capable of beating Arkansas with a solid defensive effort and by playing mistake-free on offense. Perhaps the Gamecocks offense will get rolling, and maybe the defense will play well. Then, instead of a balm, McFadden and mates will find the Gamecocks a bitter pill.
Here's a health, Carolina, forever to thee.
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