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LSU vs. Arkansas: What to Watch For

And now…the end is near…and so we face…the final curtain…

Now, now boys, no fighting over leftovers.
Now, now boys, no fighting over leftovers.
Wesley Hitt

The final week of the regular season. The final week?

And now we celebrate our annual Friday afternoon slot of death battle with Arkansas. Hopefully for the last time, so that we can all stop pretending that, while this series has been pretty spirited, it is a rivalry on par with any of the others that take place this weekend.

For a little foreign perspective, BVC of Arkasnsas Expats, which has done a fantastic job of trying to manage their magical misery tour of a season, answered a couple of questions for us. You can read my Q&A with him here.

Obviously, it's always tough to lose your head coach in the middle of spring practice, and Arkansas had to be expecting at least some degree of a lost season. But did anybody see things going this far off the rails?

Only a very few, and I would say that those who did made the prediction more out of unresolved anger over Petrino being fired than any real football prognosticating. Even as bad as the coaching has been, if the Hogs had stayed even remotely healthy they'd be bowl eligible already. The injuries this season have been devastating to say the least. That's easy to overlook with a new chapter in this sideshow of a season being written every weekend.

Arkansas has been an offense-first program for the last few seasons, and that's taken a step back this season. What is the main culprit?

The most obvious answer is almost certainly the correct one. Bobby Petrino is a frickin' genius, and we are missing his creativity and play-calling badassery on the sidelines. Many, including myself, thought that little brother Paul would be a worthy substitute, but we were wrong. More than that, Bobby's attention to detail during practice is gone as well, so players are not improving through the season as they should. Or worse, regressing. I think the world of Tyler Wilson, but he has regressed through this season.

Add in the talent that departed last season and the injuries sustained this season and it's not too surprising the offense hasn't performed as it has in the past.

What the heck happened to Knile Davis?

He is certainly not the back that he was in 2010. It's well documented that he worked extremely hard getting his body back in incredible shape before the season, so most are chalking his lack of production up to fear of reinjury. I think that's certainly playing a part, but my revisionist history theory is that Knile's 2010 season was overvalued somewhat. That other tools on that offense played a huge part in his success that year, and those tools are missing this season. His patience in waiting for running lanes to open up has gone from being an asset to being a huge detriment. Dennis Johnson, whose running style is to charge into the fray and simply bounce off whatever he hits, is much better suited to have success with the 2012 offense.

I know that John L. Smith is an easy target for the blame for things, but have Razorback fans placed any retroactive blame on Bobby Petrino for some of the deficiencies on this team?

I think Bobby Petrino has to shoulder some of the blame. It became obvious very early on in the season that this is not a championship caliber team, and would not have been regardless of who was standing on the sidelines. The defense simply isn't good enough, and depth is a key reason why it isn't. That's on Bobby. The vacuum of leadership left following his departure is a whole other factor, although I'm not sure how much residual blame Petrino is due for that. He's certainly the one who would be providing it if he were here, but he's not. Somebody else has that responsibility now, so they should shoulder the blame for that in my opinion.

You asked me about moving this game to campus -- what is the feeling amongst the Arkansas faithful?

It can actually get pretty contentious. The LSU game was obviously War Memorial Stadium's crown jewel, so naturally the pro-WMS crowd fought tooth and nail to hold onto it as long as possible. Moving the game to Fayetteville this season seemed like a stroke of genius following last season's 11-2 campaign, but it has turned into a nightmare. The students turned back several thousand tickets which are being sold for $25 each, so a game that saw tickets going for hundreds of dollars in August may end up not even being a sellout. Brutal.

With that said, however, allow me to add that the majority of Hog fans recognize that it is time for the LSU game to move to Razorback Stadium. The dissenters are passionate, and they are loud, but I think the sentiment will subside as soon as the first important game between the two teams is played in Fayetteville. Once it's out of the way, everyone will move on, as they have always done.

Bowl eligibility is out the window now, so is there any concern that things will be mailed in?

Sadly, the Razorbacks mailing things in has been a concern for weeks now, and a common occurrence in the second half the past two weeks. I'd say it's more of an expectation that things will be mailed in at this point. I do hope that I'm proven wrong, however. I'd love to walk out of Razorback Stadium following the game feeling great about the Hogs' effort, instead of walking out during the third quarter feeling great about the prospect of another drink.

Care to weather a game prediction?

I really don't think this is a repeat of 2008. Arkansas may come out full of piss and vinegar, but the first sign of adversity will allow the same old demons to return. It could as bad as a fumble or as benign as a pre-snap penalty, but when it happens, things escalate quickly.

I'll say that Tyler Wilson and Cobi Hamilton hook up for two scores, and Dennis Johnson gets one as well. 49-21 LSU, and John L. Smith is galloping away out of my mind forever before the final gun goes off.

Finally, obviously you guys have been tracking potential head-coaching candidates. Who is the first choice, and how do you see things playing out with this hire?

I'm not sure there is a first choice, or at least not a unanimous one. Jeff Long has done a masterful job keeping a lid on such a prolonged and anticipated search. The names with the most smoke right now are Gary Patterson of TCU, Mike Gundy of Oklahoma State, James Franklin of Vanderbilt, and, of course, Jon Gruden. Pete Carroll was also mentioned in a column by the sports editor of the state's largest newspaper, so things are really all over the map.

I don't doubt that Gruden or Carroll have been contacted, but I'm not sure either would be the right fit in Fayetteville, and I think both would recognize that. Praying that it's not Franklin. That leaves Patterson and Gundy. Give me Gundy, but I'd happily take either. Of course, my #1 since April, however unrealistic, is Chris Petersen of Boise State. If Jeff Long could land him, I'd be elated.

One thing is for sure, it's going to be an interesting couple of weeks for Razorback fans. Thank y'all for having me, Happy Thanksgiving, and Woo Pig Sooie!

On to the game.

What to Watch For On Saturday (groan) Friday

Danger Zone

Yeah, so Arkansas is 4-7 and in the midst of searching for their next head coach. Yes, they have been outscored by their 11 opponents by an average of about a touchdown per game. But no, you should not feel comfortable about this one. Should LSU absolutely show up and throttle the Razorbacks? Yes, and they will if they show up focused and ready to play. But the Tigers haven't won a game in the state of Arkansas since 2006, and are just 2-4 on the road against the Razorbacks since 2000. And like clockwork, there is always some crazy thing that tends to go the home team's way. I can't remember how many times a punt has careened off of somebody's foot. Hell, even last year Arkansas returned a fumble for a touchdown off of the best possible bounce Alonzo Highsmith could have possibly gotten. Nevermind the time a kicked football touched off a game-winning drive by Casey Dick or that time Karnell Hatcher gave up two 80-yard touchdowns in a half, one of which involved tackling his own teammate. Oh, and their head coach is probably crazier than ours, albeit in a less charming, "don't-make-any-sudden-movements-or-he-might-chop-your-Adam's-Apple-into-your-throat" way. And he literally has nothing left to lose.

There is nothing about this series that should make an LSU fan comfortable, even if it is (finally) getting moved out of that high school stadium in Little Rock. Tyler Wilson is still the SEC's leading passer (yards per game, at least), and Cobi Hamilton is tops in both catches and yards. Both will be drafted this spring (personally, I would love to see Hamilton catching deep balls from Drew Brees next season), and it would not shock me at all if the perennially underrated Dennis Johnson joins them. He reminds me a lot of Pierre Thomas. Compact, hard runner with decent speed and a very good set of hands.

Oh! And there's the little matter of the 620 passing yards and four touchdowns LSU's secondary has given up in the last two games.

Schematically, Arkansas hasn't changed much without Petrino. They're still your basic pro-style offense with a heavy dose of spread looks. The main difference has been the aforementioned depth issues and the loss of Petrino's great mind for game-planning and play calling. But if the Tiger defense leaves holes, Wilson is still good enough to exploit them. Look for at least some bracket coverage on Hamilton, as Arkansas's second leading receiver is a tight end that hasn't played in a month. But don't be surprised if Johnson gets a lot of targets on screens, especially after all of the success Bama had with it and T.J. Yeldon. Wilson's accuracy will place a premium on tight coverage and ball skills.

The Razorback o-line has done a solid job of keeping teams out of the backfield this season, but this is also the dead-worst rushing attack in the SEC, and by a comfortable margin. The Knile Davis that torched most of the SEC in 2010 appears to be a distant memory. Of course, it doesn't help that Arkansas has been trying to make up deficits in nearly every game. They're allowing 33 points per game to conference opponents, ahead of just Kentucky and Tennessee.

Identity Crisis

Look, nobody is enjoying LSU's passing game renaissance more than me. It's extremely fulfilling to see the concepts I spent this offseason studying and hoping to see come to fruition in the last month. But Poseur made a good point after the Ole Miss game. This offense has lost a bit of its identity in the last two weeks.

Half of the reason we all wanted to see this passing game was evolve was so that it could complement a dominating rushing attack, and in the last two weeks, while the passing game is putting up nice numbers, the running game has been sporadic. Still somewhat effective, but not the soul-crushing engine that we've come to expect from LSU in recent years.

Thing is, Arkansas' pass defense is going to make it very difficult to resist temptation. They rank last in the SEC in: completions allowed, pass yardage, yards per attempt and completions of 10 yards or longer. The run defense numbers are relatively decent, but that's kind of like saying Arkansas is so easy to shoot at, it makes them harder to stab.

And even still, this is a team that allows 4.2 yards per carry on the ground on first down, and LSU is a team that leads the league in first-down rushing yards (1,294) and yards per carry (5.6). Arkansas has nothing to lose here. It's the final game of a lost season and the last one Wilson will ever play there -- his last chance for a marquee victory over a big-time conference opponent. And as well as he's played the last two seasons, that's something that has eluded Wilson. LSU can't let emotion be a factor here. They have to keep Arkansas on the matt and out of breath. And the best way to do that is to pound the defense up front and let the passing game compliment that. Besides, those big shots down the field always work better when the defense is forced to commit a safety and man up outside.

Now, I'm not saying LSU needs to be stubborn to game situations, just don't get so caught up in playing with these new toys that you forget the ones that have always been there for you. Arkansas has a solid enough pass rush -- 28 sacks, just one fewer than LSU as a team -- and as impressive as Mettenberger has been under pressure, I'd just as soon not see a repeat of last week's performance. And of course, keeping Wilson off of the field would be the best way to protect LSU's young corners. Mississippi State had a lot of success with their zone running game last weekend, so we might just be in for another performance of the Jeremy Hill show.

Effed in the A

As I mentioned before, Arkansas' offensive line doesn't give up a lot of sacks. Now, largely that's because of Wilson's ability to get rid of the ball, but given that LSU's pass rush hasn't quite been what it should be, look for a couple of extra blitz looks when the Tigers can get the ‘Backs in long-yardage situations. A good change-up in that department might be using Kevin Minter and Lamin Barrow through the A-gaps instead of Micah Eugene from the edge. A-gap pressures can frustrate the hell out of quarterbacks, especially slightly shorter ones like Wilson (his listed height of 6-3 is likely generous by an inch or two). Obviously, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and for a quarterback that needs as many sight lines and throwing lanes as his offensive line can give him (because he can't see over them), the sight of a middle linebacker bearing down forces him to trust that his blitz read or release player will be exactly where he's supposed to be every time. And if the offensive line has to pinch down more often to handle the blitz, that'll create more one-on-one situations for Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. As underproductive as they've been at times this season, I'll still take that matchup against anybody.

Final game y'all. It's been a real interesting ride. Let's close this one out strong and see how the bowl politics work out. Geaaaauuuuxxx...