Arkansas is now 2-0 since we began pointing the path to success. Coincidence? Check the track record and decide for yourself. (Yo, Jeff Long. Tweet me. I work cheap.)
Of course, being the magnanimous scribes we are, we’ll allow for the possibility that the Hogs’ recent resurgence could have something to do with the fact that the last two games came against the worst teams in the SEC. That changes Saturday when Ole Miss (?!) comes to Little Rock.
Not all that surprisingly, the Rebels have improved since shaking off a bad case of the HDNs, and have become again a thoroughly average football team. And for a team like Arkansas, whose showings so far still leave most of us with little idea how good (or bad) the Hogs might really be, what better way to measure one’s self than against the mean.
Here’s a grading scale to help you better decipher Saturday’s (equally possible) outcomes:
Arkansas wins big: The Hogs are for real, y’all. A bowl game is in the cards.
Arkansas wins close: Hey, we’re not terrible! In fact, we’re slightly better than average.
Arkansas loses close: Hey, we’re better than Kentucky!
Arkansas loses big: So, what do you think about Gary Patterson?
If the Hogs are to avoid the latter two scenarios and keep us hanging on to hope, here’s what needs to happen.
1. Limit the big play
Ole Miss has had a run of at least 20 yards and a pass of at least 30 in every game so far, and they’ve had completions of at least 50 yards in five of seven games.
It’s imperative that Arkansas limit the big chunks of yardage and make the Rebels work for every first down. If they do, mistakes become more likely, and Ole Miss has turned to the ball over at least three times in four games this year.
Arkansas’ defense has shown vast improvement since September’s four-game debacle, and I’m inclined to strike Kentucky’s long TD from the record since it was already 49-0 when the Wildcats finally got on the board. But even against Auburn, when the Hogs gave up only seven points, there were a couple of blown coverages that resulted in receivers streaking uncovered down the field.
Luckily, Auburn didn’t have the kind of quarterback who could make Arkansas pay for that kind of slip-up. Ole Miss, on the other hand, might.
Which leads us to Bo Wallace…
2. Contain Wallace
The former Arkansas State Red Wolf (Wolve?) and junior college QB is a definite upgrade for Ole Miss and he benefits from having missed out on the Houston D. Nutt Quarterback Regression Experience.
However, he has shown a proclivity for giving the ball away. Through seven games he’s thrown eight interceptions.
He’s also thrown nine touchdowns and completed 63 percent of his passes, but more worrisome for Arkansas, perhaps, is his ability to run. Officially, Wallace has run for five touchdowns and 225 yards, but if you take away the yardage lost via sacks, he’s averaging about 50 rushing yards per game.
Assuming the memories haven’t been repressed, Hog fans remember all too well mobile quarterbacks like ULM’s Kevin Browning gallivanting through the defense while Arkansas’ cement-shoed defenders trudged after them.
The defense has looked faster and more aggressive lately, and whether or not that continues could be what decides the game against Ole Miss. When the secondary does its part, the pass rush must respond by getting the quarterback on the ground —or at least forcing a bad pass. If Wallace is able to escape and run for positive yardage, it could be a long game for Arkansas.
3. Push them around
After missing the last three and a half games, Chris Gragg is back, and the importance of his return can hardly be overstated (did you realize he’s still the second-leading receiver on the team?)
But with or without Gragg, the passing game is able to get its yards. What might be more important in determining Saturday’s outcome, is how the running game fares.
Ole Miss has one of the smallest front sevens in the SEC, but have covered that weakness with an aggressive style, helping the Rebels rank among the nation’s best in tackles for loss. But this isn’t LSU; Ole Miss is giving up more than 170 rushing yards per game in SEC play.
If the Hogs come close to that, it means play action is more effective, third and longs are few and far between, the chains keep moving, chances for red zone failures drop and the Ole Miss offense stays on the sideline.
Arkansas has had its most effective games on the ground against Auburn and Kentucky. On Saturday, we’ll find out if that —and so much more — was a product of weak competition or if the Hogs are truly a viable threat in the second half of the season.