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LSU vs. Arkansas: What to Watch For

Different time stamp, same ol’ scary-ass Arkansas.

These two will have their hands full.
These two will have their hands full.
Chris Graythen

Welp, ain't much time to feel sorry for ourselves (not that it ever stops us). LSU has to strap it back up and head up to Fayetteville to face the 4-5 Arkansas Razorbacks.

What to Watch For on Saturday

But Maybe They Just Want to See Us?

And they say you can't make a Trap Game joke without Admiral Ackbar. HA!

This game sets up as a let-down for LSU with all the subtlety of the Las Vegas Strip. Arkansas hasn't won an SEC game in two years. They're coming off a bye week and get a beat-up LSU team that just went through an emotional loss. Oh, and the game's at night, in Fayetteville, where the temperatures project to be below freezing with precipitation -- something the Tigers haven't played in in decades. That's all on top of the general craziness that has been this series. I mean, let's just look at the last 10 years:

  • 2004: Marcus Randall has his best day in purple & gold out of nowhere with four total touchdowns as a to-that-point underachieving LSU offense rolled 43-14 (this game also featured a muffed punt that bounced off the back of a player's foot)
  • 2005: No. 3 LSU had to hold on to the very last play against a 5-win Arkansas team, 19-17
  • 2006: Jamarcus Russell & Co. triumph in a wild shootout with the top-10 Run-DMC Razorbacks, who still went on to win the West
  • 2007: McFadden gets his revenge in a three-overtime heart attack
  • 2008: Miracle on Markham 2
  • 2009: Jordan Jefferson leads a two-minute drill to tie the game and LSU held on in overtime, 33-30
  • 2010: LSU's Karnell Hatcher tackles his own teammate on one of two 70-yard touchdowns by Ryan Mallett as Arkansas won 31-23
  • 2011: Arkansas jumps out to a 14-0 lead on the No. 1 Tigers before Tyrann Mathieu forced two turnovers and ran a punt back 97 yards for a touchdown to pace a 41-17 victory
  • 2012: LSU sweats out a 20-13 win over probably the best effort a bad Arkansas team put forth all year under interim head coach John L. Smith
  • 2013: Anthony Jennings leads a 99-yard touchdown drive off the bench for an injured Zach Mettenberger as LSU comes from behind on a three-win Razorback squad, 31-27. In hindsight, this may be the weirdest ending yet.

It's such a cliché to call the Razorbacks better than the record but...I mean...they lost to Texas A&M in overtime, shot off just about every limb possible while pretty much out-playing Alabama in a one-point home loss AND had No. 1 Mississippi State on the ropes for three quarters with the ball in the final minute and a chance to tie. Bret Bielema's had his team playing hard more often than not, and good football up to a certain point, but they just haven't found a way to finish yet. Either it's going to happen sooner or later, or an opponent will finish themselves off for the Hogs.

I am Jack's existential dread.

Butt Stuff

Ol' BERT likes ‘em big. Bielema has never been ambiguous about exactly what he's all about as a football coach or the kind of team he wants to have. Big.

And the going's been slow, but he's starting to mold Arkansas in his image. Their offensive line averages 328.4 pounds per man, and as of week seven weighed more collectively, at 1,642 pounds, than any front in the NFL. It's a tall group too, with a 6-3 center buttressed by a 6-10 left tackle. And their reputation has backed up the size -- Arkansas rushes for 248 yards a game, has allowed just 10 sacks all year and the lowest tackle-for-loss total in the conference. Tailbacks Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins have combined for 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns.

The head coach's love for backsides doesn't just extend to linemen though. There's also plenty of love for the tight ends. Arkansas's receivers are a big group but they haven't been terribly effective. Keon Hatcher may lead the team in catches and yards, but tight ends Hunter Henry and A.J. Derby are the guys that pace this unit. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney uses one or both in almost every formation Arkansas has, lined up everywhere. Receiver, slot, even as an H-back in the backfield. They both have higher per-catch yardage averages than Hatcher, and Henry and Derby have combined for 18 of quarterback Brandon Allen's 37 completions on third down.

They run a fairly typical pro-style attack. A lot of powers and counters, but Chaney's also been prone to falling in love with traps and draw-type plays, especially when he moves the tight ends around. It's been a little surprising at times, frankly, because Arkansas will occasionally go away from the straight-ahead running game. It's caught up to them at times in SEC play, where that rushing average for the team drops to just 163 yards a game. Some of that is tied to big deficits against teams like Georgia and Auburn, but the Alabama game was never more than one score and Chaney called more than 40 passes for Allen. Likewise, Arkansas ran it just 38 times against Mississippi State, despite averaging more than four yards per carry in a very close game.

Allen, for the most part, has been decent enough, although his 15 touchdowns is somewhat padded by the non-conference competition and throwing a bunch to catch up against Georgia. In conference play, his numbers aren't dramatically better than Anthony Jennings.

So for LSU, the gameplan stays pretty basic. Man up outside, bring safeties into the box, win the line of scrimmage and stop the run with numbers. Kendell Beckwith's hamstring is a bit of a concern, especially in cold weather when it could easily tighten back up. Likewise, Jalen Mills, Ronald Martin and Jamal Adams will have their hands full keeping track of Henry and Derby. And when they're straight up split wide, so will Jalen Collins and Tre'davious White. LSU's two are good-sized, physical corners, but 6-5, 250-pound tight ends are a different matchup.

Chaney may get away from his running game, but the passing game uses a lot of it with play-action and a lot of misdirection like waggles, bootlegs, etc...In some ways the matchup might be similar to what LSU saw from Iowa in the Outback Bowl last year, with Kwon Alexander split out wide in coverage a lot. Overall, this seems like a good set up for LSU's talented secondary, but the defensive front seven is going to have to hold the running game down enough to keep Allen in obvious passing downs. One side-effect to all those bootleg plays could be a quarterback rolling right into Danielle Hunter or Jermauria Rasco. Also, watch for some quick shifts on outside runs to try and outflank the defense. Safeties will need to crash quickly, and corners will need to get off their blocks.

A possible X-factor to watch here -- third-string back Korliss Marshall. He's been dangerous on returns for the Razorbacks, and they could try to use him as a matchup in the passing game coming back off of a suspension.

Do NOT Expect

The Beautiful Game

Let's see...two run-heavy teams with rough passing games...freezing temperatures...wait...what conference are we playing in again?

Seriously though, this should be one ugly game. LSU's offense is what it is at this point, and in that weather, putting the ball in the air is a dicey proposition regardless of who's playing quarterback or their effectiveness level. LSU's best strategy here is going to be to use the running game to grab momentum early and take the air out of that stadium. Arkansas hasn't been a team prone to giving up, but in freezing temperatures and with a fanbase on the brink, there's a chance to make D.W. Reynolds Stadium a mausoleum, and that's always helpful. And yeah, this is home for the Razorbacks, but it's not like they're that used to icy conditions for games, either.

The Razorbacks brought some experience back this season on the defensive side of the ball, and they've taken some strides but still aren't that great of a unit. New coordinator Robb Smith is a former grad assistant under Bielema from his coordinator days, and runs a defense more in line with BERT's Iowa/Norm Parker roots -- heavy on the aggressive zone coverage with a lot of cover-two mixed in.

The defensive line is a little undersized, without a starter north of 275 pounds, but they have some athletes. Tackle Darius Philon and end Trey Flowers are both active guys that can get into the backfield, but much like Ole Miss, this is a group that the LSU offensive line should be able to lean on. The Razorbacks have allowed a similar number to LSU on the ground in conference play, and are coming off a solid 128-yard performance against Mississippi State, but the last time they saw a running game somewhat analogous to LSU it would be Georgia, who ran for 207 yards at more than five a pop.

The linebackers are a big group that tackles well, but just doesn't have a lot of range. The secondary has been one of the least efficient in the league, with 18 touchdowns and 7.7 yards per passing attempt allowed. Both numbers rank last in the conference.

Smith will roll a safety down with a 4-3 "under" look on running downs

but wants to drop into a basic cover-two zone in obvious passing situations. The Hog DBs have been able to swarm the short routes relatively well but are really vulnerable down the field (72 pass plays of 10 yards or longer this season), especially on play-action in running situations.

So in terms of LSU's gameplan, look for something very similar to what we saw against Ole Miss. Run-heavy and managed passing attempts with an eye on avoiding too many situations where Jennings is dropping back and throwing into that zone. Watch for some of the bootleg game on second downs if Arkansas keeps the safeties back -- the comeback route LSU usually pairs with those plays is a good way to attack the sideline hole in that zone. When Jennings does have opportunities down the field, even a few successful throws can make a huge difference.

As for Brandon Harris, my position is clear: dropping as a starter, sight unseen, into a similar situation to the one he struggled in previously doesn't seem like the best idea for anybody. But LSU does need to plan to work him in and work him in quickly. If I were making the call, it would probably on the third series or so. And from there, let his play and his game management determine how many more series he gets. If he comes out hot, ride him for as long as it lasts -- if he's throwing it well LSU can do a lot of damage to this defense. If he's iffy, Jennings can always go in to help him cool off a bit while he works through it. He's been at his best with the pressure off, so that's the circumstances LSU should probably try to create, if at all possible.

Despite what some writers or readers here may think, I'm fully aware that Harris is probably the future here. But there's a way to start the future now without risking the game. And it doesn't involve throwing caution to the wind with two games left. There's still something to play for here, and until one guy proves he can handle the job on his own LSU's better off keeping their options as open as possible.