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

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, October 12, 2017
Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads yells during a game against South Carolina on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads yells during a game against South Carolina on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in Fayetteville.

— Upsets happen every week in college football. Last week's whopper reshaped the top 10, perhaps knocking Oklahoma out of the College Football Playoff.

The then-No. 3 Sooners lost 38-31 to the Cyclones. That was only the sixth ISU victory in 82 games in the series.

Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads understands that series well. He was head coach at Iowa State for seven seasons from 2009-15.

“It's been ugly,” Rhoads said.

That's kind of where the Hogs are at right now, not a pretty place after a 48-22 loss at South Carolina. But Rhoads thinks they will be up for the trip to Tuscaloosa.

“You always talk about the opportunity,” he said, noting that it won't take coaches telling players for them to know about the potential for an upset like what Iowa State scored last weekend when they were a 30-point underdog.

“You don't have to get specific,” he said. “They know it.

“There is a phrase we use in coaching: if you don't get excited about this, you don't have a pulse.

“We are going to play No. 1 in a great environment. Yes, it's a hostile environment, but it's great and it's exciting.”

Arkansas is a 30-point underdog at Alabama.

“People outside of our building don't believe, but we believe,” said Bijhon Jackson, senior nose tackle. “That's all that matters.”

It takes me back to another time when no one really believed the Hogs had an upset chance. It came into focus as I visited with my older brother Butch, retired in Tuscaloosa. His last job, for almost a decade was as executive director of Crimson Tide Sports Marketing, the athletic department's multimedia property.

I'll stay with Butch on my trip to cover the game this weekend. We've had several conversations over the last two months, both about this trip and also making plans to attend the induction of our father, Orville, into the SWC Hall of Fame later this month.

There was also a series of phone calls before and just after the passing of Frank Broyles. Butch served as sports information director and assistant athletics director under Broyles, first when Broyles was a coach and later when he was athletics director.

Butch was on board when Lou Holtz led Arkansas to a 31-6 upset of No. 2 Oklahoma in the 1978 Orange Bowl. He was present when Holtz announced to Broyles that the Hogs would not only beat the Sooners, but thrashed them.

“Coach Broyles and I were in the conference room going over plans to expand the seating in Barnhill Arena, how to set up the priority plans,” Butch said. “Lou came in to see Coach Broyles. He wanted to talk about the possibility of winning the national championship.”

The bowl pairings had been announced and the betting line favored Oklahoma by 11. It was before running backs Michael Forrest, Ben Cowins and Donny Bobo had been suspended for the game and guard Leotis Harris hurt his knee.

Texas and Oklahoma held the top spots in the poll. Arkansas was fifth, behind Notre Dame.

“What if we Notre Dame beats Texas and we beat Oklahoma badly?” Holtz said. “Can we finish No. 1? I think we will beat them badly, like 38-6."

“Coach Broyles and I just looked at each other," Butch said. "No one said anything for a bit. Finally, Coach Broyles said, 'Lou, first you have to beat Oklahoma.' Lou said, 'It's going to be 38-6.' Then he left. Coach Broyles and I looked at each other and then went back to what we were doing. It was pretty unbelievable.”

But guess what: Holtz had a brilliant game plan on offense, with a trick influence play to confuse the quick Sooners defense. Backup running back Roland Sales rumbled for 205 yards, an Orange Bowl record. The Hogs totaled 407 while a great UA defense stuffed the OU wishbone, forcing key fumbles.

“It was 31-6, but Lou had his quarterback take a knee at the OU goal line as the game ended,” Butch said. “It sure could have been 38-6, just like he called it.”

I doubt anyone is calling anything like that ahead of this trip to Tuscaloosa. Quarterback Austin Allen, out of practice this week, might not play because of a sore shoulder. The backup is redshirt freshman Cole Kelley. That's not exactly like replacing all those backs with Sales.

Plus, Arkansas isn't taking a defense to Tuscaloosa like the one it had in the Orange Bowl. Dan Hampton, named earlier this week the Arkansas legend for this year's SEC Championship Game, isn't leading the defense. And, that unit also had Jimmy Walker, Vaughn Lusby, Larry Jackson, William Hampton. There was a great all-purpose kicker in Steve Little, too.

That was a great Oklahoma team, but the team that Broyles left Holtz was just as good. Except for an Earl Campbell screen pass late in the game to erase third-and-19, Arkansas had Texas on the ropes before losing 13-9.

Butch had a story on that Texas game, too. Monte Kiffin had thought the Hogs had a perfect plan to slow Campbell and did except for the screen pass. The Hogs had allowed just two field goals (although making just three from Little) until the end of the game.

“Kiffin was one of those coaches who worked himself nearly to death every week,” Butch said. “He smoked and didn't eat. He lived on coffee.

“It was well into the night after the game when I got a call from campus police. They said security had found a man passed out in the Broyles Center. So I went back to the office. It was Kiffin.

“I got to him and asked, 'Coach, when is the last time you ate?' He said it was Tuesday. He was just crushed and exhausted. I took him to the Village Inn and got him to eat some pancakes. He really couldn't believe we'd lost. He was just devastated.

“I know that was a great Arkansas team, as talented as anything Arkansas has ever had.”

That's not what Arkansas is taking to Tuscaloosa on defense. The Hogs have had a tough time stopping the run over the last three seasons. Alabama averages 301.7 yards on the ground.

Quarterback Jalen Hurts leads the way with 517 net yards, with only 40 yards in losses. No one forces him into a bad play. His offense has only one turnover, a lone lost fumble. He's 70 of 111 passing with no interceptions.

That's where we will start at as far as the keys to victory. It's the key to any road victory.


Turnovers

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema preaches turnover avoidance. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos said he's never been a part of a program that works harder to eliminate turnovers. The Hogs lost the turnover battle last week in Columbia, S.C., 4-0. They were devastating. Two were pick-six plays and a scoop-and-score. The Gamecocks tallied 24 points off of those four mistakes.

Alabama has had only one turnover, but has eight takeaways. This team isn't as good as last year's that stayed up with a lot of SEC offenses in points scored. But there are still ball hawks in the secondary like safety-nickel back Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Physicality

That's the word being stressed this week by Arkansas players and coaches. They lost too many battles up front last week at South Carolina. Captain Frank Ragnow said it's a pride thing this week.

“Be physical, man,” Ragnow said. “You’re playing offensive line for Bret Bielema and you've just got to be physical. You've got to claw, crawl, and you've got to take pride in it. This week I'm really trying to emphasize to all four other guys, man, it's got to be physical. Refuse to get beat. Scratch, claw, no matter what. I want to be the most physical five out there.”

Enos didn't point to one area. He said it was on the backs, the receivers and the offensive line.

In regards to the Carolina tape review, Enos said, “There were a couple of runs we missed. At the end of the day, we didn't hold up physically the way we thought we would. There was not a lot of room (to run). Overall, they were more physical team.”

On the Alabama defense, Enos said, “They are extremely talented. No one is running on them. It's a huge challenge. You will have to be creative and pull out all of the stops.”

Alabama's backs are physical. It's a downhill attack.

“They roll four and all of them are dynamic,” said Vernon Hargreaves, inside linebackers coach at Arkansas. “They wear you down and then hit a big play. They just keep coming. Of course, the quarterback is so good, whether it's scrambles or called quarterback runs.

“On the backs, they have the speed and nifty ability to make you miss. But sometimes they just lower their shoulder and come at you. It's a challenge, but we look forward to challenges.”

Wide Receiver Separation

The difficult area in the passing game is just getting open, much less protecting the quarterback. Allen said this week that you have to get the ball out because of the creativity of the Alabama blitzes. But, it's on the receivers to beat press coverage and a physical secondary.

“In this league, they let you put your hands on the receivers and they do it well,” Allen said. “They are extremely physical in the secondary.”

This might be a week to use a couple of bigger receivers. Brandon Martin, who played well at Carolina, might get a bigger role. Also, LaMichael Pettway seems like he's out of the doghouse and might travel. Martin and Pettway are the two most physical receivers on the team.

Positive Outlook

That may seem like a strange key, but there has been a lot of negativity surrounding the program. Fans have been active on social media in expressing their frustration and disappointment. Bielema has been under fire. It's tough to ignore.

“I think it's impossible to block it all out,” Ragnow said. “I mean, even if you say you're blocking it all out, you're not. So I think me personally I try to use it as fuel. … I'm not saying you guys are like haters or anything, but just prove the naysayers wrong.

“You use it to fuel you and you realize that there aren't many people giving us a shot, so internally we've got to rally and know it's going to be a four-quarter war.”

There's nothing like a chance to play No. 1 to fire up a team.

“It has always been a challenge for my whole career and I think I am just trying to emphasize physicality and just knowing that it is going to be a war, going to be four quarters and you just have got to be ready to go every single rep,” Ragnow said. “They're No. 1. And they've kind of always been. They produce position after position after position freak shows … Hats off to them. They're freak shows that are really well coached. So hats off to their coaching staff.”

Protection

Whether it's Allen or Kelley, the Hogs have to do a better job of protection. If there is a good bit of news, it's that this is not the best of Nick Saban's blitz teams. They haven't gotten as much pressure on quarterbacks. A series of injuries at outside linebacker has robbed the Tide of its best pass rushers.

That doesn't mean it will be easy. Arkansas has given up 13 sacks. Obviously, Allen was knocked from the game last week by a Carolina team that hasn't been a great pressure team.

Arkansas is expected to start the same lineup as last week, with Paul Ramirez starting at right tackle and Johnny Gibson moving to right guard. Gibson has been recovering from a knee sprain against Carolina. If he can't go, freshman Ty Clary would step in at right guard. Brian Wallace may get some snaps at right tackle in competitive situation with Ramirez.

Excitement

It may not be an exciting time for fans, but players look forward to playing Alabama. McTelvin Agim was recruited by Alabama and looks forward to the chance to play at Tuscaloosa. He confirmed that he considered the Tide, and gave praise to Saban.

“He's a great coach and a great man,” Agim said. “I know that there are people who don't give us a shot, but that's not us. We think we can win and we are excited to play the game. You just go play and know that anyone has a chance on any given day. You fight as hard as you can to the end and know your best is all you can do. It's exciting.”

De'Jon Harris is another Arkansas player who took a visit to Alabama after getting an offer from Saban. It wasn't really much of a flirtation.

“I was committed to Arkansas and it was just a week before signing date,” Harris said. “I wasn't going to go there. I just took a visit. I did go to Coach Saban's office. He told me I was an old-school guy, what he likes. I didn't really have to tell him no, because I think he knew I wasn't going there.”

The Top Matchup

It's been a series of challenges for freshman cornerback Kamren Curl, the replacement for injured Ryan Pulley (out for the year with shoulder surgery). Since Curl lines up at left corner every play, the opposition has an easy time getting the desired matchup, away from Henre' Toliver, the right corner.

Curl's assignment will probably be against Alabama ace Calvin Ridley, the team leader with 29 catches for 390 yards. Ridley is fast and strong. He'll get the ball on a variety of touches, including direct handoffs.

Running back Bo Scarbrough is second on the team with just 10 catches. Twelve players have at least two catches for the Tide.

Penalties

If there is an edge for Arkansas in the stats, it's with penalties. Alabama has been assessed 32 penalties, Arkansas just 23. But Alabama generally plays disciplined football. If there's an area where they take chances, it's in the secondary where defensive backs challenge for the ball on every throw. The Tide can get some pass interference calls, but going for turnovers is worth the risk in Saban's system.

Stopping Hurts

Alabama relied on its defense last year. It's been more about the offense this season, although Alabama's defense is definitely still stout.

“This is the most dynamic run-pass guy we've faced,” said Jackson, concerned about Hurts ability to scramble.

“You want to pressure him, but at the same time, you have to stay in your lanes. You have run fits on pressures. He's that dangerous.”

Along with Scarbrough, Alabama will play Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris at running back. All have breakaway speed.

“I think you just have to concentrate on your run fits,” Jackson said. “Our linebackers have worked hard in that area and I believe we have confidence that we will be in the right spots.”

Hargreaves said, “We are going to rotate De'Jon Harris, Dre Greenlaw and Grant Morgan to try to keep our guys fresh. That's especially important against this backfield. They are rotating backs and we have to do the same thing. But Hurts is the threat. He's really talented.”

Special Teams

Arkansas has worked hard to improve kickoff coverage since the Texas A&M game. Several newcomers have been added to that unit, including Brenden Young and Derrick Munson.

One of the few highlights last week was the first made field goal of the season, a 49-yarder by Connor Limpert. The Hogs were the last to do that among college football's top division.

Alabama's special teams are solid, although kicker Andy Pappanastos has had an up-and-down career. He's a solid 10 of 13 on the season. Punter JK Scott is having an off year, averaging just 38.5 yards.

Since Alabama hasn't given up but 11 scores (seven TDs, four field goals), it hasn't had to return many kickoffs. The Tide has just six returns for a 22.8 average.

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