State of the Hogs: Top 10 Keys to Victory for Alabama game

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, October 6, 2016
Arkansas tight end Jeremy Sprinkle (83) pushes off a tackle attempt from Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland (19) during the third quarter on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
( Jason Ivester)
Arkansas tight end Jeremy Sprinkle (83) pushes off a tackle attempt from Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland (19) during the third quarter on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

— Most everyone would like to pound the ball in big games. Show me a team that can run the ball in the fourth quarter, I'll show you a team capable of winning the conference championship.

However, when Arkansas has done well against the big boys, it's because of versatility and the ability to pass. In the old days even when passing wasn't a big part of the game, I was always told that the Arkansas teams most capable of beating Texas were the ones with the ability to throw and catch. Those are the ones with great play at quarterback and wide receiver.

I've felt the same way about meetings with Alabama, the measuring stick for Arkansas in the SEC that Texas was in the old Southwest Conference. Don't show up against the Tide with a one-dimensional team.

Yes, you'd like to have enough of a running game to make your play-action passing game tough to recognize. But the ability to throw and catch is the thing that gives you a chance against the Tide. No one is going to hit it big by lining up and going toe-to-toe with 'Bama on every play.

Yes, you can go in with a plan to out-Alabama, Alabama, but you better have a passing game. Arkansas does and a trigger man to make it work with junior quarterback Austin Allen.

Actually, it's improved passing that makes this an attractive game all the way around. That's for both sides. The Crimson Tide looks like it's hitting its stride with the passing game under freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, much better in this area than first advertised.

Hurts was 20 of 33 for 262 yards last week against Kentucky. The passing numbers against Ole Miss in the Alabama's other SEC game weren't as good, just 19 of 31 for 158 yards, but he burned the Rebels on keepers for 148 yards on 18 carries.

The key for both Allen and Hurts are the vast array of weapons in the passing game. Both feature an all-star tight end.

Allen has completed 15 passes to tight end Jeremy Sprinkle. Three have gone for touchdowns. Sprinkle ranks second on the squad behind Drew Morgan's 28 catches.

Hurts has completed 12 to tight end O.J. Howard, the star against Clemson in the national championship game. Howard is third on the team, behind Calvin Ridley's 31 catches and ArDarius Stewart's 13.

There are some great wideout groups around the SEC, but these are two of the best. Along with Morgan, the Hogs have a strong group with Keon Hatcher (14-281), Jared Cornelius (14-262) and Cody Hollister (6-77). Along with Ridley and Stewart, Alabama also likes to use Gehrig Dieter (7-169), Cam Sims (6-65), Trevor Diggs (6-51) and Robert Foster (5-55).

Hatcher is recovering from a hamstring injury against Texas A&M. He missed the Alcorn State game, but returned to practice in a limited way Wednesday. He's questionable for the game, but his physical style is needed against what generally is tough press coverage by the Tide corners.

The wild card in the Arkansas wideout group is Dominique Reed, struggling to find his game after sustaining a high ankle sprain midway through fall camp. He's had drops, fumbles and just hasn't produced when Allen has given him chances. He had a 54-yard touchdown against Alabama last season.

Hollister, with two drops in the opener, has moved ahead of Reed as far as catches and snaps over the last two games. The 6-4, 209-pound senior has also been given a shot at running the ball on wide receiver sweeps, a staple in the Dan Enos offense. Hollister ran twice last week for 48 yards.

Enos, the second-year offensive coordinator, insists Reed will still get some chances, but only after he proves himself in practice.

Morgan may not be as big or fast as some of the wide receivers the two teams will showcase Saturday. But don't tell him he's not one of the best. Perhaps the most confident and intense, he's excited about the chance to play No. 1 Alabama. Morgan had a taste of success last year on a 4-yard touchdown pass just before halftime that gave the Hogs a 7-3 lead they would nurse until the 1:39 mark of the third quarter in an eventual 27-14 loss.

The 6-0, 190-pound senior beat Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones off the line for a slant, when he first faked like he was setting up for a block on the play-action pass. It was just perfect technique.

“That's what we have to do this time, too,” Morgan said. “It's not about being super man. You just have to play perfect technique. Do your job and nothing more. We are good enough. We just have to play our technique and avoid mistakes. That's what beats you against them, mistakes."

Morgan recalls watching from the sideline as a sophomore two years ago when the Hogs came close in a 14-13 loss in Fayetteville. An Arkansas missed extra-point was the difference.

“I was in awe,” he said. “I do remember that one. I was not on the field. But to be honest, I try to forget those games with Alabama. I do know that we've given them two good games the last two years.

“I do think that after that game last year, we got stronger and played pretty well the rest of the season.

“I do think we have more balance this year. We mismatch teams with our balance. We've got the ability to run and pass. We bounce teams back and forth, run when they think pass, pass when they think run. We get them in personnel mismatches.”

The goal is to stay with Alabama for three quarters, then hand the game to Allen in the fourth quarter.

“We think if we can do that, Austin will take us home,” Morgan said. “We've got the weapons. The goal is to finish the game with Austin taking a knee. We really think we can do that.

“Here's the thing, we need this victory. We deserve it and we are going out to fight for it.”

Perhaps the “deserve” thinking comes from being close the last two seasons. But nothing comes without earning it. That's what Arkansas coach Bret Bielema hammers into his players. And, as Sports Illustrated writer Andy Staples said Wednesday at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club, Alabama doesn't give away games.

“You have to take it from them,” Staples said. “I asked Bret what it was like to play a team that never gives you anything.”

That's tough, but Bielema's approach takes that into account. He knows everything must be earned.

So that's where we'll start with this week's keys to victory. Game time is 6 p.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

1. Earn Everything

Nothing has come easy for Arkansas in Bielema's four seasons. There have been plenty of near misses, including heartbreaking losses. It's been better of late with 10 victories in the 12 games since last year's Alabama game. More games are lost than won and the way Bielema builds a team has to do with playing perfect. You earn victory by avoiding turnovers, penalties and mistakes in the kicking game. That's what it will take to upset the Tide, a 14-point favorite for most of the week. Alabama did give the Hogs a first-half turnover that setup Morgan's touchdown last season, but there were two Brandon Allen interceptions late and the game turned on Jacob Coker's 81-yard bomb to Ridley with 1:39 left in the third quarter.

2. Protection

Alabama may not feature the sack attack the Hogs saw against Texas A&M. The Tide has strength and depth on the defensive front, although the depth was depleted some last year by the NFL draft. Jonathan Allen, Da'Ron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson and Tim Williams are all studs. Williams is supposed to be the best pass rusher, but he's made only 10 tackles this year. If the Hogs can protect Allen from the Alabama rush, they may can do some damage in the passing game. Alabama likes to over-play receivers and this Arkansas group might can work free if given enough time.

3. The QB Keeper

The theme this week in the Arkansas camp is don't try to be a super hero. But they do need to find some kryptonite for Alabama's super man. The quarterback keeper has been the nightmare play for the Hogs all season. Hurts (6-2, 209) is big, strong, fast and quick. He's got a change of direction that makes him elusive in the pocket. No doubt, Alabama play caller Lane Kiffin will feature Hurts in some draws and called runs along with some run-pass options, tough on any defense. If the Hogs keep Hurts in the pocket and make him beat them with his arm, they may have a chance for an upset. If not, it's not likely.

4. Non-Offensive Touchdowns

Both teams have done some damage in this area. Arkansas has three pick-six interception returns. So there is potential for that with the Hogs. They've been good at what defensive coordinator Robb Smith calls Catch The Ones They Throw You. Brooks Ellis, Ryan Pulley and Henre' Toliver have all taken interceptions to the house. But Alabama is the king in this department. The Tide leads the nation in non-offensive touchdowns with seven. Alabama has scored in ways other than on offense in seven straight games. There were three in the victory over Ole Miss. Alabama special teams both in returns and coverage is special. The Hogs have to raise their level of play in this department to pull an upset.

5. The Perimeter

Both teams hammer the A-gap. That's a given. But both have thrown the ball wide to twin wide receiver sets. There's an idea that both want to be physical with their wideout blocking, trying to spring something on the sideline. It's always present in a Kiffin offense and it's a staple with Enos, too. That's an every-down check for Allen if he sees soft coverage. So both teams will probably try to take that away with physical press. That could open up something deep down the sideline. Both teams will take vertical shots, sometimes with the tight end when the safeties try to sneak over to help tackle the wide receiver screens.

6. Short Yardage

This has been a problem for Arkansas. It failed to budge A&M on the goal line and there was a similar problem at midfield against Alcorn State. Alabama is bigger and badder than anyone in the country in this area. So how do you beat the Tide on short yardage? It may be on quarterback keepers, or maybe with passes to the tight end. Sprinkle might be the best option for this week. Or, perhaps another tight end – Jack Kraus, Austin Cantrell or Jake Hall – gets a chance.

7. The Spread

This is interesting, but Alabama has moved more toward the spread and an uptempo game with Hurts at quarterback and a vast array of wide receivers. Kiffin likes to use three and four wideouts to move linebackers out of the box and then turn Hurts loose on called runs. And there is a hint of tempo to what the Tide is doing, more than in the past. It could be that the Hogs go spread more, with Allen in the shotgun and more wideouts. The Hogs are equipped for this and Enos has shown it in the past. It would be ironic if Arkansas attacked the Tide defense with more spread, or if both teams went at each other with passing in the fourth quarter.

8. Youth

Both teams have an interesting sprinkle of youth. Alabama starts six seniors on defense, but has a true freshman at quarterback, right tackle and running back. Arkansas has youth, too, but not many true freshmen are starting. The inexperience in the Arkansas offense is in the offensive line where there are three new starters, but all have lettered (although Jake Raulerson earned his at Texas). It will be interesting to see if some true freshmen have increased roles in the Arkansas defensive front seven. McTelvin Agim and Austin Capps have both played a lot at defensive tackle. Capps is a good run stopper, perhaps perfect to play against the Tide. This might be the week De'Jon “Scoota” Harris sees more snaps at linebacker. He has the speed to chase Hurts.

9. Physicality

It's always been a brutal hitting match when Alabama and Arkansas play. Both teams take pride in winning the physical nature of the game. What goes on between the tackles in this game is not a place for the meek. No one just flat out whips Alabama. But the Hogs are going to try to win some battles and will try to establish the run with Rawleigh Williams and Devwah Whaley. Can they find some creases in that proud Alabama front?

10. Intangibles

This one probably sits with Frank Ragnow this week. The star Arkansas center lost his father to a heart attack last Saturday night and Bielema flew with him home to Minnesota. Ragnow told his coaches and teammates that he'll play against Alabama, but missed most of the practices during the week. Line coach Kurt Anderson stayed late each night to tape the individual installations for Alabama's front. He emailed the video to Ragnow around 1 a.m. It's clear Ragnow watched the video and prepared. The emotion within the offensive line and the rest of the team has been raw all week. Anderson said his challenge to his group was “to prepare like Ragnow prepared and they met the challenge.” It's hard to imagine the intensity the Hogs – and the stadium – will feel with Ragnow's return. How well can Ragnow play under such difficult circumstances? All Anderson will say is that if anyone can handle it on this team, it would be Ragnow. It's been clear that Ragnow is one of the teams most beloved players. Engaging and outgoing, he's everyone's friend and no one works harder. He's flipped between guard and center during the season, and is always ready for whatever is best for the team.


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