Based on the last couple of seasons, it's probably fitting that LSU and Arkansas would meet in the highest-ranked matchup in Tiger Stadium in 52 years. Since 2005 the series is tied at three games apiece with an aggregate score of 185-184 in favor of the Razorbacks. There's been overtime, last-minute game-winners, punts that have bounce off players' feet and lights-out hits from Tiger safeties to both opponents AND teammates.
Weird. Shit. Happens.
Which means, what exactly? It's easy for writers to talk about history like it's something tangible. An actual opponent, out competing on the field. Ridiculous of course. That isn't to say that history doesn't matter, but LSU isn't facing Darren McFadden or Peyton Hillis, and Arkansas isn't facing JaMarcus Russell or Glenn Dorsey. If anything, the top-ranked 2011 Tigers have been about breaking through the expectations of the past. No chaos and wizardry. Just cold, efficient football dominance. Offense when needed, defense always, with game-changing special teams. And now, only the No. 3 team in the country stands between No. 1 and the postseason.
What to Watch for on Saturday
I've mentioned a number of times now that one of the unexpected benefits to LSU's brutal schedule this season has been that a lot of the teaching points have built upon one another. Each opponent has brought some new concepts to the table while still using some that the Tigers have seen previously. Hell, LSU has an idea of what a short week looks like after playing Mississippi State on a Thursday. And of course, that culminates with the Bobby Petrino-devised Arkansas attack, which leads the SEC in total offense, passing and scoring.
Petrino's offense has often been labeled the "power spread," which I feel is kind of an overstatement, given that Arkansas is hardly the only team to blend spread and pro-style concepts. The ‘Backs will show the Tigers a lot of the same elements they saw in Oregon, West Virginia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. The difference, at least to my eyes, is that Petrino is one of the more consistently aggressive play-callers out there.
We've come to think of aggressive playcalling as being pass-, especially deep pass, oriented, but with Petrino that hasn't always been the case. His roots are in the original one-back spread offenses of Mike Price and Dennis Erickson, with additional influences from coaches like John L. Smith, Scott Linehan and Chris Palmer. Most people associate the attack with quarterbacks Stefan LaFors, Brian Brohm and Ryan Mallett slinging the ball around in three-to-five receiver sets, but Petrino's never been afraid to pound out a running game with workhorse backs like Ronnie Brown, Michael Bush or, last season, Knile Davis. Because truly aggressive playcalling is much more about running core plays, taking what a defense will give you and knowing when to break tendency. And Petrino has shown on many an occasion that he's just as comfortable dropping 50-plus on an opponent with 25 passing attempts as he is with 40.
The passing game is "conceptual," which is to say the route combinations on a given play are designed to do something specific to a defense, such as stretch it vertically or horizontally to create down-field seams or create gaps in underneath zones. One of the ‘Backs' go-to passing concepts is the shallow cross (think West Virginia), coupled into the "Drive" concept.
The shallow is one of the more common passing concepts in all of college football, and obviously it's an easy way to get the ball to a speedy/shifty receiver in space. But where Petrino adds a wrinkle is with the backside post/wheel combination. It can help create more room for the underneath crosses by forcing the corner/linebacker that side wider and deeper into their drop. Petrino will also set that combination as the "Alert!" call for his quarterback, which is to say that it can become the primary read depending on the look a defense gives. Smart Football has more on the "drive" concept here, including some variations based on defensive looks. Something else to watch will be tight end Chris Gragg on the wheel route, something I'll have more on in a bit.
The vertical stretches will include familiar plays like three/four verticals (which was the call on Cobi Hamilton's first long touchdown in last year's game), Houston and Y-stick, along with an old Steve Spurrier Fun-n-Gun favorite, "Mills."
This of course was Hamilton's OTHER ridiculous touchdown (ridiculous for reasons that had nothing to do with Hamilton) in 2010. It's a concept designed to attack quarters, or 4-deep zone coverage by drawing up one of the safeties to the curl route and allowing the Z receiver to cut behind him on a post. It can also be coupled with play-action. Jarius Wright and Hamilton are more of the team's every-down go-to guys this season, and then of course there's the dynamic Joe Adams, whom Arkansas will target on bubble/tunnel screens and also try to get the ball to via speed sweeps, end-arounds and reverses.
And then, of course, there's the running game. Arkansas has steadily been in the bottom third of the SEC in rushing attempts all season, but the running game has become much more efficient in the last month (185 yards per game, 5.3 per carry, seven touchdowns) with the return of Dennis Johnson, who has missed parts of the last two seasons after suffering internal injuries on a fluky play where he fell on top of the football. He's not all that big, but Johnson is a compact, stocky back that runs hard and catches the ball well. He pairs with Ronnie Wingo and short-yardage specialist Broderick Green in the ‘Backs' heavily zone-based scheme, similar to the running games of Oregon and Bama.
The favorite play, as it is for most zone-blocking teams, is the stretch, which we're all pretty familiar with now. Arkansas will add the wrinkle of a toss in as well, for the same reason LSU runs the inside zone with a toss -- it allows the line to have extra play-side blockers by having the quarterback account for the backside end with a bootleg.
The ‘Backs will run from both one and two-back sets, the pistol, and use the unbalanced look similar to LSU. Additionally, Petrino uses the old-school strong/weak offensive line, with the guards and tackles flipping on either side of the center. Some wonder if this can serve as an offensive "tell," but as stated before, Petrino's never afraid to break a tendency. If you get too used to seeing one play out of one alignment, there's always a counter or a play-action pass. Additionally, watch out for a lot of draws, especially when Arkansas lines up in the pistol. That seems to be the go-to formation for running inside with Johnson.
Linebackers in the Crosshairs (again)
There's no doubt that Arkansas has the best wide receiver corps in the SEC. There's speed, size and athleticism and they work really well with quarterback Tyler Wilson, staying on the move and working their way open when he breaks containment (which he does often). But if there's any group of defensive backs that can contain them, it's Morris Claiborne, Branton Taylor and Co. Likewise, LSU's defensive line knows exactly what it has to do to defeat the Arkansas zone running attack.
The question mark for this defense, of course, remains the linebacking corps. While I like to think they've improved with the additions of Tahj Jones and Kevin Minter to the starting rotation, they will be targeted and attacked on Friday by Petrino. In the running game, Minter and Ryan Baker will have to be aggressive and attack their gaps, but make sure they don't overpursue and create cutback lanes on the stretch. But the biggest concern is in pass coverage.
West Virginia had a lot of success finding gaps in the zone coverage with their crossing routes and picked up lord knows how many third downs due to missed tackles on those underneath throws. Arkansas also presents the challenge of the SEC's most prolific receiving tight end in Gragg, who is coming off his first 100-yard game of the season with a team high 119 yards on 8 catches versus Mississippi State. Gragg is similar to previous ‘Back TE D.J. Williams, in that he's not all that big for the position (listed 6-3, 236 pounds), but just has that knack for getting open and catching the ball. I'm sure Taylor will assist in covering Gragg at times, but there will absolutely be times when Stefoin Francois or Jones will have to match-up on him. Plus, there will be the screens and wheel plays to the backs, something that LSU struggled to cover against Alabama three weeks ago.
Eric Reid's health will be very important, because if he's available on the back end of the defense, it'll make everything easier.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the 25 seniors that will come out of that tunnel for the final time on Friday. This group represents a large chunk of the leadership on this team, including players like Will Blackwell, Brandon Taylor, T-Bob Hebert, Ryan Baker, Ron Brooks and the injured Josh Dworaczyk. Additionally, there are key contributors like James Stampley, Deangelo Peterson, Mitch Joseph, Kendrick Adams, Greg Shaw, Dennis Johnson, Derrick Bryant and long-snapper Joey Crappell, who is a big reason for the team's dominant special teams the last two seasons.
And of course, there are the quarterbacks, Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson, both (seriously people, B-O-T-H. If you can't cheer a guy on senior day you can at least have the common courtesy to keep your mouth shut.) of which are worthy of ovations for their roles in getting the Tigers to this point. All of these guys took their lumps in the rebuilding years of 2008/2009, and have come through it forged into the team we see before us. They all deserved to be honored for that.
Do NOT Expect
A New Gameplan
There should be no doubt of what the identity of this Tiger offense is at this point. LSU will look to dominate the line of scrimmage, run the football, keep passing downs manageable and passing risk measurable. It's not only what this team does, it also happens to be the best way to attack Arkansas, both because it can keep their high-powered passing game on the sidelines and exploit a run defense that has allowed 190-plus yards four times and 250-plus twice. This will not change regardless of who starts or sees most of the snaps at quarterback (I assume Jefferson at this point, but it seems like every time I make an assumption one way or the other we wind up with the opposite result).
Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson plays something of a modified 4-2-5 scheme with Destrehan native Jerico Nelson in a bandit safety/outside linebacker position. The unit has struggled at times but has come on strong in the last month (4.01 yards per play allowed in November is second in the league only to LSU's 3.77), and has some star power in linebackers Jerry Franklin (is it me or has he been at Arkansas for like seven years?) and Alonzo Highsmith, safety Tramain Thomas and pass-rushing defensive end Jake Bequette, who has snagged eight sacks in eight games since returning from injury.
Teams have had success going right at the ‘Backs, and that's been what LSU has done best. Arkansas will swarm the line and give some man-to-man looks outside, so don't be surprised if the attack is similar to Florida: inside zone, inside zone, play-action bomb to Rueben Randle, more inside zone. Also, Bequette has also shown a tendency to fly up the field and lose his gap (also known as Rahim Alem Disease), so don't be surprised if LSU attacks that with some draws and option looks to get Michael Ford the ball in space.
Likewise, LSU's defense is what it is at this point. Win the line of scrimmage. Swarm the ball carrier with numbers. Force long third downs and zone-blitzing from the Mustang package. Arkansas' receivers will win their share of battles, but so will LSU's defensive backs. Wilson has been something of a slow starter, and he will hold on to the ball at times, to his own detriment, trying to make a play down the field. His receivers know how to work with him on scrambles, but he doesn't always have the best feel for the rush. Confusing him with coverage looks pre-snap will be very important, and that worries me if Reid can't go. Likewise, when LSU only rushes four, Sam Montgomery, Adams, Lavar Edwards and Barkevious Mingo will have to try and force Wilson to step up into the pocket.
The ‘Back offensive line has taken some heat at times, but they aren't quite as bad as advertised. Yeah, they've given up twice as many sacks (20) as LSU (10), but that's on nearly twice as many passing attempts, so the sack rates are nearly even (Arky gives up a sack once every 22 attemps, LSU once every 20). They have allowed Wilson to take a lot of hits at times though, and gotten pushed around in the running game by the better defensive fronts on the schedule.
As for special teams, we all know how awesome of a punt returner Joe Adams is, but with Brad Wing the chances of him getting a good shot at bringing one back are pretty slim. Watch for kickoff coverage though, with Johnson and Marquel Wade both sporting 25-plus yard averages. The Tigers have allowed just 20 yards per return this season, but it's the one area that has been prone to lapses at times. Arkansas doesn't punt the ball much, but they are allowing 10.9 yards per return this season, so LSU's returners may finally get a little bit of room.