Jim Harris: Early Downs Key for Razorbacks in the Swamp


the swamp at night

Much has already been made this week that Arkansas never has won in the Swamp, the nickname given University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. They’ve only made three visits, and only once were the Razorbacks clearly outmanned — in 1997 when then-Razorback coach Danny Ford stood mostly mute, unable to do much more than grouse while Florida’s defending national champs put a 56-7 licking on his Hogs. Ford would be gone after that hapless season, which belied what would come under Houston Nutt the following year.

Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones made a 2004 visit to Gainesville interesting in the second half, just as he’d done the year before in Fayetteville when the Hogs nearly wiped out a 33-7 deficit in the final 10 minutes as Ron Zook’s undisciplined, unpredictable Gators let down but had just enough cushion to win.

And surely everyone still vividly recalls Arkansas’ near miss at upsetting Tim Tebow and the defending national champion Gators in 2009, before Marc Curles and his officiating crew blatantly helped Tebow pull that game out at the end.

My compadre on KTHV, Channel 11’s “HogZone Super Saturday” recap after every UA game, Mark Edwards, remembers a personal foul being flagged on Arkansas’ Malcolm Sheppard when it was obvious to CBS’ broadcasting crew and anyone else who saw the replay that a Florida lineman had been the instigator. But that game also had four quarters of odd spottings of the football by the linemen, particularly on the Tebow-led last drive; hits out of bounds on Hog running backs that weren’t flagged, and other doozies that made the whole country, at the time, wonder what was going on with the SEC — was it so determined to keep its premier teams, Florida and Alabama, Nos. 1 and 2 nationally that it would stoop to such shenanigans? National commentators wondered as much for days afterward. Of course, those two did end up meeting in the SEC championship game, both unbeaten until Alabama halted the Tebow run.


For me, through all those many trips into Texas in the old Southwest Conference, it was the first time I’d seen an Arkansas team treated the way the officials seemed to view Tulsa or other Hog nonconference foes back in the Arkansas football glory years. (Tulsa and Oklahoma State eventually ended their annual series with the UA when they couldn’t get home-and-home meetings.)

Such was life for an SEC “newcomer,” even one in the league for 17 years, against an original member of the club — you might as well have been a nonconference team.

For their efforts, Curles and his crew were suspended three weeks by the SEC office — of course the 23-20 Florida win still stood, but that unprecedented move spoke volumes about what we’d seen in Gainesville four years ago. Curles showed up with a crew in Fayetteville for this season’s opener against Louisiana; I laughed when Nathan Holmes went unflagged for an obvious block in the back on Jonathan Williams’ 75-yard touchdown run in the Hogs’ runaway win.

Florida (3-1) is already an early season loser on the road to Miami and ranked 18th nationally, and it isn’t the powerhouse it was under Tebow and Urban Meyer four short years ago, though third-year head coach Will Muschamp won 11 games in year two of his cleanup of the dumpster fire Meyer left in 2010. He’s a heckuva recruiter, and it shows defensively, but Florida is light years from the Steve Spurrier Fun-and-Gun offensive days when Arkansas couldn’t stay on the same turf with the Gators. I’ll still never forget Danny Ford saying before that 1997 matchup that if his team had one edge, it might be in the kicking game — and Florida nevertheless ran the opening kickoff back for a score.

In three straight years, starting with an SEC Championship Game matchup in 1995, Arkansas lost to Spurrier and the Gators by a combined 122-17. Before that, Arkansas and Florida met just once, in the 1982 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl game the Hogs and Lou Holtz won 28-24, and the one time Arkansas has maybe dressed as much talent in its top 44 players as UF did.

Make no mistake, Florida has Arkansas outmanned, especially in the trenches on the Gators’ defensive side against Arkansas’ offense. The Hogs’ coaching staff made a big move to get its most talented players on the field last week when freshmen Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper were inserted as starters at guard, and that will help the running game. Arkansas has the best center in the SEC in Travis Swanson, too, but is still just average at best at tackle and will remain so this year.

That line will face a nearly immovable front in Florida’s D-line. It would be easy to say, just have quarterback Brandon Allen throw it to loosen things up, but the Gators may also possess the best secondary in the SEC. Of course, a lot of this is based on a four-game start that includes the loss to Miami (how good really are the Hurricanes?) and a win over Tennessee that is a long way from being back.

What stands out most statistically about the Gators is the incredible third-down work by the defense: Florida opponents are converting third downs at a ridiculously low 18 percent rate (8 of 45). Arkansas converts third downs at a 42 percent clip (28 of 66), which isn’t horrid. But the last time the Hogs went on the road, without Allen at Rutgers, they managed just 4 of 13 conversions on third down.

The key, it would seem, is making the most of first and second downs. Does offensive coordinator Jim Chaney dial up more passes than usual on first down rather than attempt to run into a dominant Gator seven- or eight-man front? It’s more fun to watch what this offense brings on second-and-5 or better than second-and-10 or worse.

Rest assured, Muschamp, who spent some time learning the ways of Nick Saban as his defensive coordinator at LSU, and Florida have you right where they want you when it’s third-and-long.

Florida also thinks it has Arkansas right where it wants the Hogs, in the Swamp. Playing at night there is a different animal, too. But the Razorbacks can put some of those 91,000 fans to sleep early by taking advantage in the first quarter, the only period the Gators have been outscored all year (28-23). If Florida’s run-heavy offense, behind new quarterback Tyler Murphy, gets a quick lead, the Gators will be able to dictate the entire game. If the Hogs somehow make Florida play from behind, and it might get dicey for the home folks.

No question, Arkansas is due one from the Gators.

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