Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
The Razorbacks will have to help their tackles to protect quarterback Tyler Wilson (shown) and the passing game against the LSU Tigers’ talented pass rushers.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s first season as the starter in Baton Rouge hasn’t gone entirely as planned from a production standpoint. The Georgia transfer is 67th nationally in pass efficiency (129.62) and 70th with 206.5 passing yards per game. Mettenberger has completed 177 of 300 passes for 2,272 yards with 10 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. His completion percentage (.590) is third from the bottom among SEC starters, yet his best game (24 of 35, 298 yards, 1 TD, 68.6 percent completions) came against Alabama. Tyler Wilson (218 of 349, 3,028 yards) owns 27 Arkansas records and he can take over a huge one with 88 passing yards today. With 7,406 career passing yards, Wilson is just 87 shy of Ryan Mallett’s Arkansas record of 7,493 yards. Wilson’s 20 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions are trending in the wrong direction from his 24-6 numbers of 2011. Wilson is third among SEC players and fifth among active NCAA players with 7.35 yards per play in his career. His passing efficiency of 147.38 is fifth in the SEC and 30th nationally, while his 302.8 passing yards per game tops the SEC and is 12th in the NCAA. His six passes of 60-plus yards are tied for second in the country. Wilson took a hard shot to his right hip in his final series last week. The Razorbacks are 25th nationally in passing yards per game (296.3).
Running back LSU might have the biggest load of top-shelf backs in the nation, but it has not been the juggernaut rushing team some projected. The Tigers rank fifth in the SEC and 42nd nationally with 188.2 rushing yards per game, led by freshman Jeremy Hill (112 carries, 554 yards, 9 touchdowns, 4.9 yards per carry), who had consecutive 100-yard games against South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama. Alfred Blue (20-166) had 100-yard games the first two weeks and leads the regulars with 6.8 yards per carry, but he’s out with an ankle injury. Kenny Hilliard (77-448, 6, 5.8), Michael Ford (68-395, 3, 5.8) and Spencer Ware (82-336, 1, 4.1) all have the talent to be lead backs. Russell Shepard (20-161, 1) runs about twice per game and averages 8.1 yards per carry. Dennis Johnson (131-727, 8, 5.5) is putting together his best season as a back for Arkansas. His efforts have included 100-yard games against Ole Miss and Tulsa and 112 receiving yards with 2 touchdowns. Knile Davis (105-346, 2, 3.3) had a rough return from a hamstring injury with just 6 yards last week, but he also had 84 rushing and 148 all-purpose yards at Texas A&M. Jonathan Williams (43-227, 5.3 ypc) continues to show he’s a rising star in the SEC. Senior Ronnie Wingo (12-59, 1, 4.9) hasn’t gotten much opportunity. Arkansas has fallen back to 103rd nationally in rushing with 120.1 yards per game.
Receiver LSU doesn’t have an individual ace, like Arkansas’ Cobi Hamilton, but the speed and athleticism from Odell Beckham (36 receptions, 561 yards, 2 touchdowns), Jarvis Landry (44-461, 3) and Kadron Boone (24-334, 4) make the Tigers tough to defend when coupled with a dangerous run game. The crew has compiled two 100-yard games: Landry’s 9-109-1 outing vs. Mississippi State and Beckham’s 5-182-2 performance against Towson. Shepard (6-92) has no catches in the past five games. Tight end Chase Clement (4-44) has done more blocking than catching. Hamilton is Arkansas’ single-season leader with 80 catches for 1,237 yards. With four receptions, he’ll surpass Jarius Wright’s 165 to become the Hogs’ career leader. Hamilton is tied for 10th on the SEC single-season chart, but could move into a tie for third with 10 catches today. Hamilton had 3 catches for 164 yards and 2 touchdowns against LSU at Little Rock in 2010, and he had 2 catches for 75 yards against the Tigers last year. Junior Brandon Mitchell (15-257) returns from a four-game suspension to face his home-state Tigers, joining Mekale McKay (19-272, 1), Javontee Herndon (18-279, 3), Julian Horton (12-158, 2) and Demetrius Wilson (8-113, 1). Tight ends Austin Tate (14-111) and Alex Voelzke (2-28, 1) have worked without star Chris Gragg (22-289, 3) for more than half the season.
Line The Tigers have used five different starting combinations up front and have lost three linemen who started the season opener. Only guard La’el Collins has made all 11 starts. Center P.J. Lonergan, the reigning SEC lineman of the week, is questionable with an arm injury. Josh Dworaczyk (8 starts) and Vadal Alexander (7 starts) are the tackles, though Alex Hurst and Chris Faulk were the original starters. Trai Turner took over at right guard for the injured Josh Williford in Game 7 and has made five starts. LSU’s makeshift line has been an issue for offensive consistency, but they produced in some big games, such as Alabama and South Carolina. The Tigers are 68th nationally in total offense (394.6 yards per game) and 46th in scoring (31.2 points per game). However, they allow 2.1 sacks per game to rank 77th in the nation. Arkansas juniors Alvin Bailey and Travis Swanson will make their 38th career starts today. Tackles David Hurd, Jason Peacock and Brey Cook will be under pressure to protect the edge against the tough LSU front. Guard Tyler Deacon, a former walk-on, will make his 11th start and will join Peacock in Senior Day ceremonies. Arkansas ranks 46th nationally with 1.6 sacks allowed per game, but that doesn’t account for some of the hits after release Tyler Wilson has taken. The Razorbacks are 54th nationally in total offense (416.4 ypg) and 88th in scoring (24.5 ppg).
Line LSU’s Sam Montgomery (31 tackles, 12 TFL, 7 sacks, 3 hurries) and Barkevious Mingo (32, 5.5, 4) are high-round NFL Draft prospects, and they get quality help at end from Lavar Edwards (22, 7, 4.5) and Jemauria Rasco (8, 2 TFL). The tackle spots are manned mostly by Bennie Logan (33, 5, 2), Josh Downs (12, 2.5, 1.5) and Anthony Johnson (30, 10, 3), though Chancey Aghayere (7, 1 sack) started on Senior Day for Logan last week. Danielle Hunter (12) and Ego Ferguson (10, 1 TFL) also come in for relief. LSU ranks eighth nationally against the rush (101.7 yards per game) and is tied for 23rd with 2.64 sacks per game.
Arkansas’ front four has been the strength of the unit all season, and the Hogs rank fifth in the SEC and 25th in the nation against the run (127.3 ypg).
Byran Jones (49, 5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 4 hurries) has been the top tackle, along with Alfred Davis (38, 2.5 TFL, 2 hurries) and senior Jared Green (27, 7.5 sacks, 3.5 TFL), whose tenacity as an undersized battler has been admirable. D.D. Jones (16, 4 PBU) has been slowed by leg issues, while Robert Thomas (16, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 5 hurries) has one more year to meet his big expectations. Colton Miles-Nash (14), the most versatile lineman, is questionable with a knee injury. Ends Chris Smith (46, 11.5, 8, 12 hurries) and Trey Flowers (40, 12, 5.5, 11) have logged many snaps at the end spots, with relief from Miles-Nash and Austin Flynn (10, 1.5 TFL, 3 hurries).
Linebackers Middle linebacker Kevin Minter (101, 13.5 TFL, 3 sacks) makes plays all over the field for LSU, as evidenced by his 4 hurries, 5 passes broken up and an interception, and he ranks third in the SEC in tackles. Lamin Barrow (80, 5.5 TFL) at weakside linebacker drops into coverage more than rushes the passer. Four players have started at the strongside linebacker spot this season, led by Lamar Louis (12, 2 hurries), Kwon Alexander (11, 2 fumble recoveries) and Luke Muncie (10, 1 interception). Alexander and Muncie are out with injuries. The Tigers rank fifth nationally in total defense (281.1 yards per game) and third in the SEC. Arkansas will send out true freshmen Otha Peters (30, 2 hurries) and A.J. Turner (41, 2 TFL, 1 sack) to start at middle linebacker and weakside linebacker, respectively, for the third consecutive game. While they have had issues in reaction time and pass coverage, their tackling ferocity and potential are undeniable. Terrell Williams (52,2.5 TFL, 1 sack), who was having a good senior season, has received a reprieve from his indefinite suspension (DWI arrest) and will get a shot to play in his finale. Jarrett Lake (11) is the only other backup taking significant reps. Strongside linebacker Ross Rasner (79, 3 int, 6 pbu), whose productive season has fallen under the radar with the team’s struggles, will be plenty active.
Secondary No Tyrann Mathieu, a Heisman finalist who was suspended for the season, has made Tharold Simon (35, 3 int, 6 pbu) and Jalen Mills (43, 2 int, 3 pbu) into 11-game starters for the Tigers. Jalen Collins (26, 2 int, 6 pbu) is the top cornerback in reserve.
Eric Reid (76, 2 int, 4 pbu) also has started all 11 games at free safety, while strong safety Craig Loston (46, 3 TFL, 3 int) has made 10 starts. Loston leads LSU with 103 interception return yards, including a 100-yard touchdown return against Mississippi State. Ronald Martin (28, 2 INT) has one start, and Micah Eugene (22, 3 sacks, 3 PBU) and Jerqwinick Sandolph (3, 1 fumble recovery) pull backup duty.
LSU, tied for sixth in the NCAA with 17 interceptions, is tied for 13th in pass defense (179.4 ypg). Ross Rasner has been all over the field for Arkansas, collecting two sacks and two forced fumbles. Fellow safeties Eric Bennett (36, 3 pbu) and Rohan Gaines (72, 4 pbu, 1 hurry) have played better as the season has progressed. Gaines had a huge hit last week that drew a questionable flag for hitting a defenseless receiver. The tandem of sophomore Tevin Mitchel (28, 1 int, 4 pbu) and true freshman Will Hines (24, 1 int, 3 pbu, 1 fumble recovery) will make their fifth consecutive start together. They’ve given up big plays, but they’re improving as young starters in a tough league. The reserve cornerbacks are Davyon McKinney (11) and Darius Winston (5, 1 pbu).
Arkansas is 115th nationally in pass defense (292.1 ypg).
Special teams The Tigers have play makers in every area of the kicking game, including punt returns, where Odell Beckham ranks 27th in the nation (10.3 yards per return), and kickoff return, where Michael Ford is 35th (24.5 yard per return). Beckham has two punt return touchdowns, including an 89-yarder last week. Left-footed punter Brad Wing ranked 13th in the nation (44.4 yards per punt) and the Tigers are 14th in net punting (40.1 yards per punt).
Kicker Drew Alleman’s field goal accuracy (18 of 26, 69.2 percent) isn’t great, but he’s second in the SEC and ninth nationally with 1.64 made field goals per game. Alleman is 34 of 40 in his career from 49 yards and in, but 0 of 4 beyond that with a career long of 44 yards. Arkansas’ Dylan Breeding averages 45.7 yards per punt to rank sixth nationally and position himself for consecutive top 10 seasons. The Hogs are ninth nationally in net punting (40.5 yards per punt), one of the few highlights in the kicking game. Zach Hocker is 11 of 16 (.688) on field goals and 32 for 32 on extra points while taking over the school’s career kick scoring mark this year. Arkansas switched out its punt and kickoff return men last week, going with Kaelon Kelleybrew and true freshman D’Arthur Cowan, respectively, to the same subpar results, including a Kelleybrew muff that was recovered by South Carolina. Sophomore Keante Minor (7.6 yards per return) is likely to resume his punt returning duties, with the awful kickoff returning (114th nationally at 17.7 yards per return) job up for grabs.
Intangibles LSU has a chance to slip into the BCS pairings, particularly if it can end with a dominating road victory. The Tigers have had some funky scores this season, like a slender victory at Auburn and a snoozer of a showing in beating Towson, so there is a sense of the unexpected with the Tigers and their cap-wearing quote machine, Coach Les Miles.
Arkansas has sunken to the proverbial playing for pride today in a season wrought with betrayal, disappointment, injuries and heartbreak. The Razorbacks have been competitive early in every game except for Alabama, but between turnovers, penalties and other assorted mistakes they have found a way to lose control in the middle quarters of recent games and suffer a few blowouts. If Arkansas is sloppy with the ball again today, it could be an embarrassing home blowout with more purple and gold in the stands in the fourth quarter than Razorback red.
Key match up Arkansas offensive tackles David Hurd, Jason Peacock and Brey Cook, tight ends and backs vs. LSU defensive ends Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Lavar Edwards The Razorbacks will have to help their tackles to protect quarterback Tyler Wilson and the passing game against the Tigers’ talented pass rushers.
Sports, Pages 23 on 11/23/2012