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LSU vs. Arkansas: What to Watch For

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The Tigers head up to Fayetteville looking to break a streak.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

For his next trick, Ed Orgeron has to overcome one of the laws of physics: inertia.

At least, as far as LSU is concerned.

In each of the last two seasons the Tigers, fresh off a crushing, demoralizing loss to a highly ranked Alabama team, has faced the Arkansas Razorbacks and lost handily, 17-0 in 2014 and 31-14 last season.

College football writer Bruce Feldman has long had a popular theory of the "Body Blow Game," in which teams coming off physically and emotionally draining losses against incredibly physical teams tend to struggle against another team with a physical style. In short, after getting socked in the ribs by Alabama for 60 minutes, LSU now has to find a way to fight off a team whose entire motto involves just sitting on you until you suffocate.

Arkansas, at least on the surface, appears to be hitting their typical NovemBERT stride after taking down Florida 24-7, a game that didn't seem nearly that close on television. The Hogs take a few losses to get rolling, but by the season's final month it's all downhill, and in this case if they can take down LSU again, a 9-3 record would be their best under Bret Bielema.

Matter has a tendency to continue in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless that state is changed by an external force. Saturday night, we begin to find out if Coach O can be that kind of changing force.

What To Watch For On Saturday

Old School

This clip works for a number of reasons – for one, it’s almost definitely BERT’s favorite movie – but it’s also kind of the general spirit of NovemBERT, I’d say. The Razorbacks finally have enough in them to do something wild, like winning a few games.

But it also works for a matchup between two classic, grass-fed pro-style teams that win games up front with tight ends, fullbacks, pulling guards, apple pie, hot dogs, Bud Heavy and a host of other clichés. Arkansas will be LSU’s first opponent since Wisconsin in week one that will make a heavy use of two-back and two-tight-end personnel groupings.

That said, the Razorbacks’ pass/run ratio is a bit flipped this season – they’ve only averaged about 120 rushing yards a game in conference play, compared to 286 through the air with quarterback Austin Allen. That said, sophomore tailback Rawleigh Williams has started to come on in recent weeks, with 148 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Florida last week.

The Arkansas running game involves a lot of misdirection with delays, traps, lead-draws, counters, etc…but one of their favorite running plays combines that sensibility with a crushing block known as a WHAM!

A wham block involves the offensive line chipping a defensive lineman briefly before allowing him into the backfield for a motion blocker, such as a fullback, tight end, H-back or even a wide receiver to clean him up unexpectedly. Arkansas executes this a number of ways, with both tight end Jeremy Sprinkle and all of their wide receivers in motion. This post from Saturdays Down South illustrates one of the plays from 2014. And from the different motions they can constrain the play with different play-action passes designed to create easy completions for Allen.

Wham plays can target different defensive linemen, but look for the Razorbacks to try and use it on Arden Key some to try and take him out of plays unexpectedly. For all his bulk, left tackle Dan Skipper doesn’t have the feet to stay in front of a player like Key – there’s a reason this team has the 120th adjusted sack rate on standard-down passes. He’ll have to be on the lookout when he has a free rush. Likewise, LSU’s interior linemen need to be aware of their block-down/step-down rules, and be prepared to wrong-arm the motion-blocker and plug the hole a bit.

The Razorback line has been better on passing downs – the sack rate jumps up to 41st nationally on passing downs – but they also avoid those situations a bit more, with the bulk of Allen’s passes coming on first and second down (197 of 275 attempts).

You Again?

Allen has stepped in for his older brother extremely well this season, completing 61 percent of his passes at 8.3 yards per attempt. It isn’t a huge shock – Allen is a junior, and he inherited one of the better groups of wide receivers in the conference

Drew Morgan and the big tight end Sprinkle are sure bets to play on Sunday, and Keon Hatcher and Jared Cornelius will both have opportunities as well. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos runs a fairly QB-friendly attack, that likes to use short throws on early downs and generally doesn’t put the quarterback in too many bad situations.

From LSU’s perspective, the gameplan is fairly basic. Roll down a safety on standard downs and press the wide receivers as best you can. Arkansas likes to use motion a lot, but so communication will be important on coverage assignments. Stop the run, force third and long, mix your coverages and unleash the hounds.

In Too Deep

Defense has been more of Arkansas’ issue this season, where they’re allowing 29 points per game and more than 200 rushing yards per game – 260 against conference opponents.

The formerly popular defensive coordinator Robb Smith runs a cover-two oriented defense that is designed to limit big plays and force long, drawn-out possessions where the offense inevitably makes a mistake. It’s currently doing neither: Arkansas ranks 122nd in IsoPPP, and allowed 51 plays of 20 yards or longer. They allow a whopping 7.7 yards per rush attempt, dead last in the SEC, and 6.3 on first down.

In short, this is a game to feature Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice heavily. Last season, LSU’s coaching staff bounced back from the Bama loss with a gameplan that featured nearly three quarters of the playcalling of the shotgun, almost as if they wanted to prove a point following the failure. This year, Steve Ensminger just needs to stay with what has worked to date: the zone and power running game.

In particular, look for some increased use of the 12 personnel grouping in the Ace/two tight ends look, specifically to handle the “under” front Smith prefers.

From a balanced set without a declared strength, the Tigers can use their pin & pull stretch play to attack the edge defenders, either the weakside defensive end or the strongside linebacker. The Razorbacks made a move at the strongside last week with linebacker Randy Ramsey, but Florida’s offensive line is a different animal from LSU’s. The 14 yards Arkansas allowed stands in drastic contrast to the rest of the schedule; even without the crazy 500-plus yardage performance Auburn picked up, this defense gave up 264 yards to Alabama, 366 to Texas A&M and 195 yards to TCU.

Run. The dang. Ball.

In the passing game, LSU needs to keep a focus on schedule to avoid the down-and-distance situations that allow the Razorbacks to open up that two-deep, five-under umbrella.

Using the same personnel set, LSU can create some strong matchups just by motioning the receivers into a twins set. With a 3x1 receiver look, LSU can both run behind those tight ends or force some matchups with a receiver for each defender on the outside – the corner, safety and outside linebacker.

Conceptually, the smash play, something we’ve discussed extensively here, attacks one of the natural holes in cover two down the sideline. Look for some flood/three-level plays as well, to try and convert the zone into some one-on-one matchups.

Danny Etling played his worst game by far last week. Arkansas’ pass defense is relatively solid overall, so the best bet here is to just let 7 and 5 carry the load. Against an offense that relies on holding the ball, LSU’s best bet is to play a little keep away.