State of the Hogs: Top 10 keys to victory for LSU game

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, November 9, 2017
Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema talks with athletic director Jeff Long during Arkansas' game against No. 1 Alabama.
Photo by Jason Ivester
Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema talks with athletic director Jeff Long during Arkansas' game against No. 1 Alabama.

— Sometimes things we think we know, we don’t know. It makes you rethink everything.

For instance, I thought Arkansas had climbed as an academic giant among SEC schools. Not that the Razorbacks had become Vanderbilt, but I’d read all the handouts about the great progress being made under Jeff Long’s time as athletics director.

Maybe it was that he was also a vice chancellor. I read that every time it was listed in school releases. It made an impact. I just wasn’t putting it all in perspective. I didn’t have the balance needed to make the proper judgment. I wasn’t doing proper analysis.

I thought Long’s new academic building had made a dramatic difference and I guess it did to some degree – in the drive for more degrees. The UA athletics director had championed that in every talk I can recall.

Yes, academics are better at Arkansas. The overall Graduation Success Rate is at 80 percent, up from 78 percent last year. It’s up from the 60 in the NCAA’s first measurement in 2005.

But that’s dead last in the SEC. Last place. Let that soak in.

Vanderbilt leads at 96 percent. South Carolina, Missouri, LSU, Mississippi State and Alabama are all at 90 percent or better.

That measurement is for students who enrolled from 2007-10, so maybe all the focus and money put on academics the last several years will pay off as future reports come out. But it will be several years before we know.

OK, let’s move on to something else I thought I knew: Arkansas would always field a physical team under Bret Bielema as football coach.

Indeed, that seemed to the trend three years ago. The Hogs whipped the Tigers, 17-0, in Fayetteville. Then, the Hogs administered a 31-14 beat down in Baton Rouge in 2015.

There was no question that the Hogs were the more physical team against what has been a traditionally strong team up front. That was two years in a row that Bielema’s team had whipped LSU up front.

I think that’s what has made the plunge in physicality in the last two Arkansas teams so hard to understand. I recall walking off the practice field in August 2015. The question I asked Bielema gave me the belief that he’d established the physical culture that was the trademark of his Wisconsin teams.

I just assumed that it would roll forward. I was wrong. That’s missing now.

I have the media guides stacked on my desk. On top is the one with the offensive line on the cover from two years ago. That’s never happened before at Arkansas. It was an obvious statement: Arkansas is O-Line University. Certainly, it’s not right now.

There is one other thing that bothers me: the lack of defense. The numbers are awful. Giving up 40 points is more the norm of late.

I recall interviewing Long the night Bielema was introduced. Long’s thought process included Bielema’s background as a defensive coach. That’s the way to rise through the SEC. That might be a good thought, but it hasn’t happened.

It’s a little like Long and the GSR. I assumed all of the detail to the academic resources, the impressive staff that oversees the academic wing and the way it was pushed at what seemed like every turn would make the Hogs ultra competitive in that area of the SEC.

No, you aren’t going to be Vanderbilt, but I wouldn’t think you would also lag behind all 13 other schools.

If you are going to keep score, you want to win. You don’t want to finish last.

I was taught that from an early age. Winning matters, on the field and in the classroom.

And, if you are going to preach physicality, then that’s going to be judged, too.

Arkansas is not winning in football and it’s not even playing physical football.

Maybe that changes over the last three games. Maybe Arkansas roars past LSU on Saturday at LSU. Maybe they whip Mississippi State and Missouri. Maybe they throttle Missouri. Maybe there is a bowl game and another victory.

That would change the narrative. That would create a six-game winning streak to end the season.

That would also change the things that I think I know.

But right now, I am pretty sure that I know some things for sure, that I didn’t know 12 months ago.

Remember, the Hogs had beaten TCU, Ole Miss, Florida and Mississippi State to get to the brink of finishing with nine victories. They led Missouri and Virginia Tech by lopsided halftime scores.

That’s when a physical football team closes the door. Clang, clang. That’s what I thought I knew was going to happen in each of those games. It should have happened.

But it didn’t. Now, everything I know has changed. This is not a physical football team headed to Baton Rouge.

It’s not a team that can impose its will on anyone. Coastal Carolina proved that last week.

Like Santos Ramirez said right after the game, “No way should a team like that come into our house and put up 38 on us. No way.”

The way Arkansas can win at Baton Rouge is if LSU has the same kind of relaxed effort that the Hogs had against Coastal Carolina.

The Tigers can help. They could struggle with a 6-yard punt. They could rough the passer twice to extend drives. They could throw a backward lateral that no one wants and give up a scoop and score.

The Tigers have done stuff like that before, as recently as Sept. 30 when Troy, another Sun Belt Conference member, pulled a 24-21 upset at Baton Rouge. However, it’s worth inserting that Troy is better than Coastal Carolina, a first-year member of FBS.

There are some interesting circumstances with this Arkansas team. The Razorbacks have lots of key players from Louisiana. Coaches Michael Smith and Chad Walker grew up in New Orleans. Walker graduated from LSU and got his start in coaching under Nick Saban there.

From there, I’ll begin the keys to the game. I’ll start with physicality, the core of football.

Physicality

The Hogs know it’s the biggest key. Ramirez, the best leader on the team, delivered it after practice Wednesday in a rich way. The defensive captain is one of the most physical players on the team. He’s been superb for most of the season, both as a much improved strong safety and a vocal leader.

“We can’t let them impose their will on us,” Ramirez said. “We’ve got to out-muscle these guys, and that’s the kind of game it’s going to be and we’re looking forward to it.

“LSU-Arkansas is always about who is the most physical for four quarters. We are harping on that.

“We have to bring the mentality that we can’t be stopped.

“This will be about who lays it down from the start. I think our guys know it without me having to say a lot. I don’t think we need a pep rally for us to bring it.”

Energy

That might fit in the first key, but it’s slightly different. Ramirez is the best to describe the vital nature of it in every game.

“We didn’t have it last week against Coastal Carolina,” he said. “I talked to our guys in the second half. I got in their face. I talked to the offense after we got a stop with us down two scores. I told them it was time to bring it.

“I try to be the best I can be and our guys know that. So when I talk, I think they listen.

“Football is a game of energy, so you when guys respect me as a leader, then I can tell them about energy. I think that goes a long ways.”

Respect

The prize for the game is The Golden Boot. But, that might not be what the game is about for all of the Louisiana products on the Arkansas team.

“I think it is more about respect,” said Ramirez, a Shreveport native. “I know what this game is about for me: a time to get what is ours.”

Most of the Arkansas players on the roster did not have LSU offers. Ramirez was recruited by LSU, but did not have a scholarship at the time a decision was needed. He remembers.

“This game means everything for a lot of us,” Ramirez said. “Getting to play them is a dream come true.

“I’ve got a newspaper article saved. Some of their players said they don’t really consider Arkansas an SEC rival. I saw the way they celebrated when they came and took The Boot last year here. Don’t tell me that.”

No, a pep rally probably won’t be needed.

The Key

No doubt, the key is Arden Key. Yeah, I was waiting on this one. It’s too obvious.

Key is the “bench” linebacker in LSU’s 3-4 scheme as orchestrated by defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. He’s the best looking athlete on the field, no matter who LSU plays.

The 6-6, 265-pound junior began the season with a nagging injury, but he’s full speed now. He’s a deluxe pass rusher. He has 21 career sacks, tied for third on LSU’s all-time list.

The problem is that the Tigers also have a deluxe player on the other side. Rover linebacker Devin White (6-1, 248) is also an All-America candidate. White leads the team with 89 tackles, 11 for losses.

The Hogs will have to account for Key and White with tight end blocking and chips from the backfield.

Protection

That’s going to be the problem for Arkansas. Can running back T.J. Hammonds, just learning pass blocking, handle a blitzing Key or White? Hammonds is around 190. That’s a lot to ask for him to pick up the massive and long Key.

This might be a game that requires more fullback play. Kendrick Jackson is one of the many Louisiana natives on the team. He could play a big role in pass protection. He missed two games after the death of his mother, but was back on the field against Coastal Carolina.

The LSU defensive front has been strong. Ends Rashard Lawrence (300 pounds) and Christian LaCouture (308) and nose tackle Greg Gilmore (308) have won the battles up front all season.

Outside Matchups

Who wins the matchups on the outside between wide receivers and corners? That goes for both sides of the ball.

Arkansas corners gave up big plays the last couple of weeks. In some cases, they were in perfect position but didn’t turn to find the ball. That has to change this week. LSU’s DJ Chark, Russell Gage and Derrick Dillon are talented wide receivers.

LSU has terrific cornerback play. Kevin Toliver and Greedy Williams can play tight coverage knowing the pass rush will get there in a hurry.

This is a big stage for the Arkansas wideouts, most lacking the type of atmosphere that looms at Tiger Stadium even for an 11 a.m. kickoff.

Jonathan Nance, Deon Stewart, Jordan Jones and Brandon Martin haven’t played much or at all against LSU.

Kelley or Allen

Cole Kelley has started the last four games with Austin Allen out with a shoulder injury. However, it’s Kelley who is less than full speed this week, with Allen claiming to be at or near 100 percent for the first time since going down against South Carolina.

Kelley sprained a toe against Coastal Carolina. He was in a boot early in the week, but was said to have practiced in the critical Wednesday/Thursday workouts. Allen got the bulk of the work on Tuesday.

I don’t take much stock in anything Bielema says about the starting quarterback this week. He’s always played games with that information, as do most coaches.

There is a personal feeling that Allen will get his chance this week.

“I’m close to 100 percent now,” Allen said Tuesday. “I started out with zero strength the Alabama week. I was about 40 percent for Ole Miss. I was able to let it rip today and felt good with no discomfort.

“It was a long, hard process with six hours of treatment a day. Ice, heat, ice, heat; I’ve done it all.

“I’ve done everything (trainer) Matt Summers has given me or suggested. I’m better.”

Allen did not give anything away. When asked who would get the playing time Saturday, he said, “Whatever the coaches decide, we’ll roll with it. I’m a team guy.”

Nothing Cheap

That was the problem last week for the Hogs. They gave Coastal Carolina the kind of help Ole Miss provided the week before. It’s the recipe for an upset.

Arkansas must be turnover-free and make no mistakes in the kicking game. It’s what Bielema pushes, but it hasn’t been anything consistent.

The Hogs are minus-2 in turnover margin for the season. LSU is even.

The Tigers have lost only three fumbles and opponents have lost only two fumbles.

The big stat in LSU games has been sacks. On defense, the Tigers have 30. They have given up 21.

Conversely, Arkansas has given up 28, while making only 12.

Stop the Run

It’s the key every week. LSU’s combination of Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams is terrific. Guice started slowly, but seems to be rounding into form with 782 yards on 143 rushes. Williams has 559 on 108.

There hasn’t been anything consistent about the Arkansas running game. Chase Hayden led the ground attack through seven games, but is out with a broken leg. Devwah Whaley leads now with 428, but Hammonds has been the story for the last two games. He has 259 yards on just 25 carries for a 10.4 average.

The real question is: Can the Arkansas offensive line give any of those runners more than a crack? It seems Zach Rogers has settled in at center and Hjalte Froholdt has emerged as the emotional leader of the group. Froholdt is the only lineman to start every game in the same spot.

LSU’s offensive line is led by Will Clapp. He moved from guard to center this season with amazing results. He was an All-SEC first-teamer by the coaches last season.

Defensive Improvement

It may just come down to defensive improvement for the Razorbacks. Can they match the LSU defense? The Tigers start fast.

LSU has allowed only nine touchdowns in the first half dating to the 2016 Alabama game. That’s 14 games.

The Hogs have allowed an average of 422.2 yards per game. The defensive scoring average is 36.1. They have been outscored in every quarter except the second when Arkansas has outscored opponents 76-72.

LSU loses the first quarter, 40-38, but the Tigers have the advantage in the last three. The closest of the last three is the third, when it’s LSU, 72-66.

How do you improve on defense? Ramirez had the answer. It’s about making plays, he said.

“Like in the last quarter, we made plays,” he said. “We have to start the game doing that.”

Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads had the same data, position by position, as to who made plays and who didn’t.

“We got beat at multiple spots,” Rhoads said. “We got beat in multiple techniques. We got beat in zone, we got beat in man.

“At the end of the game, the same balls we were getting beat on, we are making plays on. That is what we have got to get back to, making plays on a consistent level in order to have a chance to compete in this ballgame.”

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