Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
Clay Henry's Top 10 Keys: Arkansas vs. LSU
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman reacts to a play during the Razorbacks' season opener against No. 4 Georgia on Sept. 26, 2020 in Fayetteville.
It has always been said, “When it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.” Nothing ever changes.
Football coaches know that. And with all of their gimmicky names for situations, there’s one that makes as much sense as anything. Their phrase for third down is often “the money down.”
It’s more appropriate than special teams, often less than special. Never mind that John L. Smith had the great quote about special teams plays netting “giant chunks of land.”
You pay for that land on third down. The fortunes of a football team go up and down on third down.
Heck, you might pay down that $19.1 million the Razorbacks’ athletics department borrowed during the covid-19 pandemic if you convert enough third downs. It’s the money down.
You can make more than nickels and dimes with great performances on third down. Never mind that defensive coordinators call their packages with extra defensive backs “nickel” and “dime” by name.
Make no mistake: it’s going to come down to those packages as Arkansas plays host to LSU at 11 a.m. Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. It has all season.
Can the Hogs pressure a true freshman quarterback into mistakes and pad their nation-leading interception total? You pressure youngsters, drop into coverage against veterans.
As sure as a Labrador retriever will wag its tail, the Razorbacks have a great chance to beat the Tigers if they come close to their third-down numbers. Arkansas coach Sam Pittman knows that’s the key.
Back at practice for the first time in nearly two weeks, Pitman put the Hogs through extra work on third down on Wednesday. It came after his team converted just 3 of 9 on third downs at Florida while losing 63-35. The defense did poorly, too, allowing the Gators to convert 9 of 12.
Those numbers showed up in lopsided time of possession for the Gators. They had the ball for 38:48, compared to 21:12 for the Hogs.
“We’re not the greatest on third down right now and I think that’s the thing where we’ve got to make another leap,” Pittman said. “We have to be able to convert third-and 8s, third-and-6s.
“Obviously it’s easy to say, ‘Well, stay out of third-and-8.’ Well, sometimes it’s hard to do…. We still have to move the chains and we’ve really worked on that this week, along with getting off the field on third-and-8, and longer.
“On defense, you have to get off the field on third down. We were in third-and-manageable for us and we didn’t get off the field, especially in the first half. It was pretty obvious we couldn’t get off the field.”
If you look at a game-by-game breakdown of third-down numbers, it’s easy to figure how the Hogs got to 3-4 ahead of the LSU game. Consider:
• Week 1: Georgia 6 of 20, Arkansas 3 of 14
• Week 2: Mississippi State 6 of 17, Arkansas 5 of 14
• Week 3: Auburn 6 of 15, Arkansas 6 of 15
• Week 4: Ole Miss 4 of 16, Arkansas 6 of 17
• Week 5: Texas A&M 7 of 11, Arkansas 3 of 11
• Week 6: Tennessee 5 of 15, Arkansas 9 of 17
• Week 7: Florida 9 of 12, Arkansas 3 of 9
The Arkansas offense is converting 36.1% of third downs this season, 11th in the SEC and 89th in the nation. The defense is at 40.6% for fourth in the SEC, No. 62 nationally.
The Razorbacks face an LSU team converting 33.3% for 12th in the SEC, No. 102 nationally. The LSU defense allows 47%, for an SEC ranking of 11th and No. 102 nationally.
That LSU ranking on defense is where the Hogs seem to have an advantage. The Tigers have had a hard time getting off the field on third down all season.
So what gives, literally, in the LSU defense? It’s the coverage unit. Ever since the Tigers allowed Mississippi State quarterback to pass for 623 in the season opener, teams have attacked a secondary that likes to lock into man-to-man.
New defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, formerly head coach at Nebraska and Youngstown State, has been criticized for his lack of creativity against passing schemes, but Pittman seems to understand.
“They are still a talented team and their coordinator is outstanding, but they have only three returning starts on defense,” Pittman said. “That’s tough when you lose that much experience.”
About the only place the Tigers have experience is in the secondary, but the top player, cornerback Derek Stingley, began the year fighting an illness and missed the Mississippi State game.
Free safety JaCoby Stevens, the leading tackler with 36, is also a returning starter. Opposing quarterbacks picked on true freshman corner Eli Ricks to start the season and Pelini finally moved him to the second team. Ricks does have three interceptions.
LSU allows 335.2 yards passing per game, 14th in the SEC and 121st in the nation. It’s clear that’s where the Hogs should attack to bolster their third-down numbers.
However, that doesn’t mean the Hogs will abandon the run game, much improved in recent weeks. They ran for 208 against Florida, 198 against Tennessee and 222 against Texas A&M.
That’s cleared the way for success on play-action passes and some big plays against Tennessee and Florida. The Hogs had big pass plays for 56, 59, 47 and 83 in the last two games. Three of those were catches by Mike Woods.
The run game helped make that happen. Both Tennessee and Florida played a safety closer to the box to stop the run and moved the linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage.
“In our offense, you have to have the threat of linebackers moving up,” Pittman said. “When they move up we can throw over the top of them.”
That brings us to our top 10 keys for the LSU game. We’ll start with the quarterback.
Everyone thinks of the senior Arkansas quarterback as an NFL passer, a prospect capable of making a team at the next level. Don’t look now but Franks is on the verge of becoming the Arkansas offensive player with the most rushes this season.
Trelon Smith is the rage after sprinting to an 83-yard touchdown against the Gators, but stands even with Franks on number of carries for the season. They each have 78, just behind team leader Rakeem Boyd’s 82.
Franks may get chances in the quarterback counter and run-pass option game this week because LSU attacks so hard with its defensive ends. Franks made 91 yards (after 20 yards in sacks were subtracted) on 16 carries against Texas A&M. The LSU defense might present similar opportunities for QB runs with the way it plays man-to-man in the secondary.
Obviously, Franks could have a big day passing. He’s been good over the second half of the season, piling up 1,678 yards against seven SEC foes. That’s salty stuff. He’s 138 out of 202 with 16 touchdowns. He’s thrown only three interceptions, and none since the Ole Miss game.
LSU will go with Finley at quarterback, a true freshman with great credentials as a run-pass threat. He’s started the last two games after Myles Brennan went out with an injury.
“He’s a great threat to run,” Pittman said. “We have to keep him in the pocket.”
Finley has a rocket arm and quick feet. He’s a great prospect, but isn’t polished.
His top target is Terrace Marshall, the only returning starter among what was the nation’s best receiver group. Marshall, a probable high draft pick, has 31 catches for 540 yards and nine touchdowns. Finley’s No. 2 target is tight end Arik Gilbert, another true freshman. Gilbert has 22 catches for 259 yards and two touchdowns.
Finley was one of the LSU players hit with covid-19 quarantine two weeks ago, along with other quarterbacks. It left a few days without enough players at the position to practice. Punter Zach Von Rosenberg took some snaps to get the Tigers through a few workouts.
This is an area the Hogs have improved. LSU was one of several teams to bludgeon the Hogs last year. Texas A&M, Tennessee and Florida all flexed muscle in the offensive and defensive lines to cause the Hogs problems the last three weeks.
Who knows who is available because of covid-19 outbreaks on the Arkansas campus. There’s been speculation that the Hogs could be without some key players. They don’t need to lose any on either side of the line of scrimmage.
Last week, the Hogs didn’t travel guard Beaux Limmer or tackle Noah Gatlin on offense. Whether or not they return this week or not is not clear.
LSU has only one returning starter on the offensive line, right tackle Austin Deculus, an All-America candidate. Defensive end Glen Logan is the only returning starter on that side of the line of scrimmage.
The Tigers have had two open dates in a row thanks to a covid-19 postponement last week when they were scheduled to play Alabama. That might have provided time for some scrimmage work to figure out some things in the trenches.
The Tigers are a strange team to watch. They haven’t always been motivated on trips to Fayetteville, especially when nothing is on the line. Do they bring their top effort this week after getting the last two weeks off?
For sure, the trappings are gone for this game, outside of the trophy for the winner, wonderfully designed by David Bazzel, The Golden Boot. It’s a 200-pound trophy the Tigers have won the last four games.
They didn’t seem too excited after last year’s game and comments by head coach Ed Orgeron might provide some bulletin board material for the Hogs. The LSU coach said, “There won’t be too much celebration after this game. Arkansas hasn’t beaten anyone in a long time. On to Texas A&M.”
Is that a slap in the face? Perhaps it is, but either way, the LSU coach didn’t show the Hogs much respect after the 2019 game.
There isn’t much hype about the game because both enter with losing records (unless you count the Auburn game as a victory for the Hogs because of a botched call in the final minute). It’s only the second time since 1995 that both teams are unranked.
Since the Hogs entered the SEC in 1992, there have been only four other times both were unranked and Arkansas won three of those games (in 1992, 1993 and 2008).
Arkansas leads the nation in interceptions with 13, but LSU has taken care of the ball better than most 2-3 teams. They have lost only one fumble and six interceptions. Finley has thrown three in two games.
Arkansas has 16 takeaways on the season (first in the SEC) and LSU has 11, which ranks third. So both teams are good in that category.
Arkansas did give up a scoop and score for a touchdown against Florida when Boyd and Franks seemed to botch a zone read that was covered by the Gators.
Next Man Up
This applies to both teams in a variety of ways. With Arkansas expected to have some players out because of covid-19 testing, depth is more important than usual.
Pittman said in preseason that he went to sleep every night wondering if the second, third and fourth teamers were getting enough attention in practice. This may be the week he finds out.
Along with covid-19 issues, the Hogs must replace starting wide receiver De’Vion Warren, out for the year after suffering a torn ACL on a kickoff against Florida. The injury was suffered on a cut attempt, with no contact.
The likely candidates to take his minutes are Trey Knox, Tyson Morris and true freshman Darin Turner (6-3, 208 pounds). Turner was slowed in preseason by covid-19 quarantine but is ready to play now. He may get his chance against the Tigers.
The Hogs have played through injuries the last two weeks at the tight end position. Hudson Henry sustained an ankle injury against Tennessee that kept him out of the Florida game. Blake Kern suffered a leg injury that limited his play against Florida.
Pittman said Monday that both should play this week. Walk-on Nathan Bax got a few snaps in relief of Kern against Florida.
Both Henry and Kern have developed into dependable options for Franks in the passing game. Kern had the final block on Smith’s 83-yard run against Florida.
This has been an issue for several seasons. Franks holds the ball to put him in too much jeopardy, but he doesn’t throw many interceptions, so that might be a trade off. But he should get a little better protection.
Arkansas has given up 23 sacks. That compares to the 12 sacks the Hogs have gained on defense. It’s season’s most glaring statistics.
LSU will bring pressure on the edge with ends Ali Gaye (6.5 tackles for lost yardage) and BJ Ojulari (5). Ojulari had three tackles for 21 yards in lost yardage against South Carolina.
The Tigers lead the league in tackles for lost yardage with seven per game. The Hogs are 13th in allowing lost yardage plays at 7.29 per game.
Grant Morgan, Bumper Pool and Jalen Catalon
These three must play well again for the Hogs to win. They’ve been magnificent for most of the season and all three have battled injuries.
Morgan has played through an elbow injury against Auburn. The senior captain from Greenwood has played with an elbow brace for most of the season. He leads the Hogs with 81 tackles, first in the SEC with 12.1 per game. He’s totaled at least 15 tackles (with a high of 19 against Ole Miss) in three games this season.
Pool and Catalon are close behind with 70 tackles. Pool missed one game with cracked ribs. Catalon missed the last three quarters of the Texas A&M game because of a targeting penalty.
How Morgan, Pool and Catalon play determines the way the Hogs play on defense. They need all three to be firing on all cylinders.
This is a week when it seems all of the Arkansas planning may bear fruit. Pittman was out of practice the first two days of the week while completing his 10-day quarantine for a positive covid-19 test. We all get the problems not having the head coach in the office causes.
Pittman said they went over that situation in the preseason and were ready with Barry Odom set to become interim head coach for the Florida game.
There are other situations the Hogs have planned for, including an 11 a.m. kickoff. The LSU game is their first early starting time of the season, but they went over that with an 11 a.m. scrimmage in August, including a 7 a.m. breakfast to simulate all details of an early kickoff. The Hogs will get a second 11 a.m. kickoff next week at Missouri.
Of course, the Hogs worked backups and walk ons in multiple positions in August workouts to prepare for quarantines, something that seems to be in deeper numbers this week. Pittman said that’s affected scout teams this week, too.
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