If there's one thing Hog fans can detect without the assistance of a Jefferson Pilot color analyst, it's a leaky defense.
No wonder then, when La.-Lafayette drove with ease on its first two possessions last weekend, a knot formed in the collective gut of Razorback Nation. We could already anticipate the sweaty second-half palms and the angst to come in that game and for the next three months.
Like a Houston Nutt smoke draw on third-and-long, it's a doom we're well-acquainted with, one we can sniff out from the faintest of clues. There's been enough of it on display in Fayetteville in recent years for even the most casual observers to spot the hallmarks: arm tackling, blown coverages and overall passivity.
We know these things from the anecdotal, but just to drive the point home, let's really dig down and wallow in the ugliness for a moment.
- Since 2003, Arkansas has finished in the top half of the SEC in total defense only twice; 5th in 2010 and 6th in 2006.
- The 2010 unit, the only defense in the last five years to finish higher than 9th in the SEC, was almost 5th by default, leading a big group in the middle by a slim margin. It was actually closer to 9th than it was to 4th.
- The Hogs have finished among the bottom four teams in the league in total defense seven times in the last 10 years.
- Last season, Arkansas was 12th (of 14) in points allowed, last in passing yards allowed, last in pass efficiency allowed and 12th in total defense.
Bad, right? Maybe even worse than you realized.
So how does it get better? Can it get better?
Is it an issue of attention to defense? Of coaching? Of talent?
Considering the level of defensive mediocrity displayed over the last two coaching staffs and four defensive coordinators, it would seem at this point to be a systemic problem, an ongoing epidemic unlikely to be cured. It is our lot in SEC life to be merely the speed bumps that superior offenses will run over on their way to touchdowns and titles.
Sorry, I'm not buying that.
In fact, there's reason for optimism based on everything that happened after those first two Ragin' Cajun drives of last weekend.
As mentioned earlier this week
, ULL accounted for nearly half of its yards on its first two drives of the game. Again, let's pause for statistical emphasis.
First two drives: 10.5 plays per drive, 67 yards per drive, one touchdown, one missed field goal.
Final nine drives: 4.9 plays per drive, 15.6 yards per drive, one touchdown, two turnovers, four three-and-outs.
Those latter stats are really, really good, even if they did come against a Sun Belt team, and I'll posit that they are also a product of (1) attention to defense, (2) coaching and (3) talent.
(1) For whatever reason, perhaps because offense always receives top billing, the "Bielema offense" has gotten a lot of attention since he was hired in December. Really though, the ball-control offensive philosophy Bielema is known for is sculpted to serve the defense. Bielema was a defensive lineman in his playing days and a defensive coordinator before ascending to head coach at Wisconsin. Defense isn't likely to ever get short shrift under his watch.
(2) Defensive coordinator Chris Ash & Co., seemed to shift gears on the fly Saturday and opt for a more aggressive approach after those first two drives. Early, the defense played soft in pass rush, focusing more on containment than pressure. When that didn't work, there was no hesitation -- the most talented players on the defense were turned loose and made life tough for the Cajuns from that point forward. It seems pretty straight-forward, but Hog fans have seen enough stubborn defensive play-calling (ahem, Reggie Herring) to appreciate even the simplest adjustments.
(3) There's talent on this defense. As smart guy Bill Connelly pointed out in his Arkansas preview
, the Hogs were relatively strong against the run last year, yielding only 3.4 yards per carry and ranking 5th in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game. The best players remain up front for the Hogs, led by a pair of NFL prospects at DE in Chris Smith and Trey Flowers. Their backup triumvirate of redshirt freshmen Brandon Lewis, Deatrich Wise and JaMichael Winston
all look salty as well. The back seven has much more to prove, though the emergence of Jarret Lake and Austin Jones has me feeling better about the LBs.
To be clear, dramatic, immediate improvement should not be expected. There are still depth issues at safety and linebacker, the cornerbacks have to prove they can consistently make plays on the ball while it's in the air, and the whole unit has to show it can slow down and SEC-caliber passing attack.
From what little we've seen so far, though, there's reason to believe this defense will get better. Starting with the third series of the season, it already has.