Jim & Kane – How the Hogs Can Win at Auburn


Jim Harris and Kane Webb’s Water-cooler Analysis

Is it possible for the Hogs to win at Auburn and answers to other burning questions


By Jim Harris and Kane Webb

Jim, let’s get right to it. Here’s the kickoff question for what I hope will be many editions of Water-Cooler analysis. Thanks for playing.

Describe the ideal scenario for a Razorback upset at Auburn. What has to happen?   

JIM: I believe last year’s result can pretty much be traced to two plays in the first quarter as well as one late in the half that gave Auburn the cushion to win 35-17, and I think it will prove that turnovers at those points in the game will again decide Saturday’s matchup. Last year, Arkansas was in scoring territory (at least to get 3 from Zach Hocker) when Brandon Allen was gashed on his shin and missed the next two offensive snaps: His ill-prepared backup suffered a batted ball INT and then fumbled on his end of the field the next time Arkansas had the ball. That was basically giving up 3 or 7 points and giving Auburn a short field for an easy 7. I consider Auburn’s goal-line stand late in the first half as a turnover as well, as Arkansas got NOTHING in points with four plays inside the 5. Add to that, Auburn QB Nick Marshall recovered his own fumble on a 20-plus yard run in the second half, with the score 28-17, which would have been the Tigers’ only turnover and could have turned the momentum Arkansas’ way.

Long way of saying, the turnover difference will likely decide this. Auburn is more talented in the defensive front seven, though Arkansas will be much improved there over last season, and both have suspect pass defenses. Arkansas’ speed at the starting safeties will continue to be a problem this season until younger players step in. Arkansas may counter some of its deficiencies in conventional pass defense by playing a third cornerback/nickel more of the time to get more speed on the field against these no-huddle, hurry-up teams like Auburn, while relying more on two LBs. Auburn keeps broadcasting that it will pass more this season, but I wonder if that will be true Saturday. Auburn will look to see if Arkansas has really shored up its defense in the middle first, and see if Arkansas can defend the read option it usually had trouble with when it was in a 4-2-5 last year.

Arkansas last year improved its turnover margin over 2012’s abysmal numbers and was still one of the worst in the country. Let’s see if a more aggressive approach under a new defensive coordinator causes more ball-separation from the opponent. That would go a long way to improving on 3-9 and 0-8, and it would definitely give Arkansas a best-case scenario against Auburn: no gifts from the Hogs’ offense, opportunity presented by the defense. Oh, and Brandon Allen can’t miss any snaps either.

KANE: Jim, I hate to agree with you right off the bat, but I agree with you right off the bat. I went back and watched last year’s Auburn game, and two things jumped out: (1) How much Arkansas dominated for most of the first half, even though it fell behind because of its own mistakes and the injury to Allen. And (2) how little Auburn looked like a team that would compete for the SEC West title, much less the national championship, even that late in the season. A real Hog optimist could go through the 2013 results of both teams and, with a tweak here or there, easily see Arkansas and Auburn each going 6-6. But that’s beyond wishful thinking. We know that 3-9 football teams almost always seem snake-bit. They make dumb mistakes. They suffer untimely injuries to their key players. They give up the big play at the worst time. All of which brings us back to Saturday’s opener. If I were handicapping this as a horse race, I’d say the Razorbacks have reason to improve. They’re healthier. They’re a year into the Bret Bielema system. Those freshmen offensive linemen are now sophomores, and the O-line seems to have some depth. They’ve added talent and they have a new defensive coordinator who promises a more aggressive style of play at the line. But they’re also stepping up in class big time against the Tigers. And they’re on the road. Continuing the horse-racing analogy, I’m tempted to say the Tigers have a better trainer (Gus Malzahn) and a more proven jockey (Nick Marshall, who’ll sit Saturday for, what, one series?). Throw in home-field advantage and it’s understandable why Auburn is a three-touchdown favorite. But this question concerns the scenario for an Arkansas upset. And, again, I’m with you: no turnovers, something positive from the defense and a healthy and efficient Brandon Allen. It wouldn’t hurt, either, if the Hogs produced a big play on offense once in a while. Korliss Marshall?

JIM: So, DO you think Korliss Marshall, used in the right way in both the running and passing game by offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, could go all Fred Talley down there on the plains? (For the youngsters who don’t know Hog football pre-2006 or, worse, pre-Petrino, Talley was a small speed back who sliced and diced the Auburn defense for 241 yards in 2002 when Arkansas went in a decided underdog at Auburn and win 38-17.)

KANE: Fred Talley! So glad you brought him up. He’s one of the all-time under-appreciated Razorback running backs. You’ll remember too, Jim, that Fred scored an important touchdown (when the offense was doing absolutely nothing otherwise) to set the stage for the “Miracle on Markham” in 2002 against LSU at War Memorial. Great run. Worth finding on YouTube. As for Marshall, to borrow a line from Mark Twain: I’ll be happy to answer your question, sir. I do not know. Marshall certainly seems to be the flavor of the day on the Hill, and his legend/myth is already growing a bit too quickly. By Saturday, he’ll be a 4.2-forty guy with moves like Barry Sanders and the power of Adrian Peterson. Or maybe he’s just the second coming of Darren McFadden. If Marshall is half as good as advertised, I expect something SportsCenter-worthy from him on the plains. But more like a wow-did-you-see-that? sudden touchdown run in the style of McFadden’s freshman year (think D-Mac’s 70-yard sprint against Alabama) than Talley-like dominance at Auburn. Something to “serve notice” that Marshall is a bad-ass in the making. I will say this. Bielema seems awfully high on Korliss Marshall, and Bielema knows running backs, right?

JIM: Marshall is able to do something neither of his partners in Arkansas’ criminally talented backfield, Jonathan Williams or Alex Collins, can do, and that’s have a small crease and take it to the house. However, each of those guys brings something special to the Arkansas running game: Williams reminds me at times of the way Cedric Cobbs would refuse to be tackled by just one guy, and simply was a load to bring down. Collins can get the tough yards by using his quickness to create a hole where there isn’t one, but I don’t see him outrunning good SEC defenses. Marshall can, the way McFadden could. In essence, if you rolled up these three into one you’d have one of the greatest running backs in college football history. In Arkansas’ case, Bret Bielema has to get his rushing yards by committee, but he’s been ultra-successful in that before with Wisconsin in 2010 with a fantastic trio (Montee Ball, John Clay, James White) now all working in the NFL. The difference for Arkansas still is in the O-line, and I hate to already be pointing to next year before even the first game, but Arkansas has a chance to be awfully good offensively NEXT YEAR running the ball. Or later in this year, perhaps. I think it’s going to be close to impossible for Arkansas not to be playing Frank Ragnow (center) and Brian Wallace (tackle) a lot as this season moves on, but I can’t see it Saturday. Also, the experienced newcomers, Juco transfer Sergio Tretola (guard) and UNLV transfer Cameron Jefferson, who both arrived only before the start of August drills, can’t be expected to be at top form at Auburn. But they will get there. Mainly, Arkansas will depend on the guys who finished spring practice, and the competition at center surely has brought out the best in fourth-year junior Mitch Smothers, while guard Luke Charpentier refuses to be benched just yet. I remain to be convinced that 6-10 Dan Skipper will be able to stop Auburn-type defensive ends at left tackle on a regular basis this year, but we’ll see; while I expect an even bigger year from sophomore Denver Kirkland at guard. Those guys have a chance to control the game for Arkansas, which would mean keeping Auburn’s offense on the sideline. That would be major in Arkansas springing an upset. Arkansas MUST be able to run when it has to, such as trying to pound it home in close like it failed to do last year. While I would love to see Brandon Allen wing it all over the field and show the world that what they saw the last eight games of the season was an incremental fraction of his passing ability because of the shoulder separation, Arkansas would be better served this game being able to pound it with three very good and fresh running backs and springing the passing game on the Tigers when they are least suspecting.

KANE: Let’s talk Brandon Allen, since you brought him up. I wrote in a recent column that I’m “In” on him this year, more or less. I think he’s eligible to improve big time and all he has to do is be efficient and not make mistakes for this team to double its win total from a year ago. What say thee, Jim Harris?

JIM: Despite his shoulder injury last season, which limited him to not even being able to throw during the week of games — he told me a couple of weeks ago that the first time he was able to actually throw outside of a game was two or so weeks after Thanksgiving — Allen showed dramatic improvement in his passing during the Hogs’ last three games of 2013 (at Ole Miss, in LR vs. Mississippi State and at LSU, with an open date between Ole Miss and MSU). We really have to break Allen’s season down last year into three parts: the 2 1/4 games before his shoulder injury; the five games that followed the shoulder injury and the game he missed at Rutgers; and the last three games. In starts against Louisiana-Lafayette, Samford and Southern Miss, he hit on 59 percent and was stellar against ULL; not so much against Samford because of Samford’s great defensive game plan and a knee injury no one knew about involving his top target from opening week, tight end Hunter Henry. Allen was just 2 for 5 with an INT against USM before breaking his shoulder. His passing in that middle stretch was in the low 40 percent range, including 44 percent in his first game back from the injury, against Texas A&M. But down the stretch he hit 60 percent of his passes, again in those last three games, which in each case also included mostly well-conceived game plans by OC Jim Chaney that let Allen do what he was best capable of doing. While Allen was blamed by some for losses to A&M and Florida (because of pick-6s) and big losses to South Carolina and Alabama because of overall ineffectiveness of the offense, the truth was that Arkansas had offensive line problems all year (despite two running backs gaining more than 900 yards, UA’s average per rush was poor). However, despite that manpower deficiency, Allen put Arkansas in position to win both the MSU and LSU games. In fact, we was similarly solid in his role to the way Clint Stoerner guided Arkansas as a sophomore in 1997, a team that finished 4-7 and 1-2 in the final three games but with noticeable improvement. All that was lacking for Brandon Allen was just one “signature” win that would get the fans off his back, and the defense ruined that at LSU in the last two minutes, letting the Tigers cover 99 yards in a quick drive.

Rare is the SEC quarterback who can star as a true freshman (which is why I say, forget Rafe Peavey this season), and in most cases, except for the very talented, redshirt freshmen rarely make their mark. Third-year sophomores placed in the situation Allen was last season, with the talent (or lack of it) surrounding him and manning the defense, would have struggled. However, Arkansas has seen juniors with significant playing experiences and scars from past year’s struggles rise up to heights not considered: take Ron Calcagni in 1977 or Clint Stoerner in 1997 for great examples. It took Barry Lunney Jr.’s fourth actual year in the roster (he never redshirted, so he was a senior in 1995) to grasp the game completely and be the difference in an Arkansas team being mediocre or special. That ’95 team won the SEC West.

Not saying Arkansas is going to win the West in Allen’s fourth year, but what I’m saying is, he’s not going to be the reason for their failure. There are still too many holes in the roster from gosh-awful recruiting in Petrino’s last two seasons (while they were winning 21 games even) for Arkansas to be a solid, week-in and week-out contender. Arkansas is not in the talent situation Auburn found itself in last year in turning around an 0-8 league mark into a 7-1 division title and SEC Championship Game win over Missouri.

In the one August practice I saw, I noticed Allen displaying a lot of zip on his mid-range throws of 25 yards or so, and a few beautiful lasers to receivers such as Drew Morgan and Keon Hatcher. He’s not going to make defenses drop their safeties 25-plus yards to respect the 70-yard missile throws that Ryan Mallett could unleash, but I can see Arkansas having good success on deep, accurate passes up to 50 yards. They’ll have to have that to open up the running lanes for those great backs and to take some of the pressure off the developing line. I also am sure Jim Chaney will have some designed QB runs for Allen; he said as much at media days, indicating he’d like for Allen to account for two first downs rushing each game. I know, fans will say, “Why have him run? He’ll get hurt.” I’m banking on last year’s dive and shoulder injury as simply a freak occurrence; Allen hasn’t shown brittleness in the past, and in fact has shown quite a bit of guts to come back both from the shoulder and then from taking a spike in the shin against Auburn and still returning to the game as quickly as he could.

KANE: As you note, Jim, time was, college quarterbacks really didn’t come into their own until their junior seasons. You saw it at Arkansas regularly, especially with those quarterbacks — like Calcagni and Stoerner — who developed some scar tissue from previous regimes. They made big leaps as junior starters, and I think that maturation timetable still applies to a certain extent, especially when you’re talking about kids who are still growing physically, mentally and emotionally. But, yes, times have changed and the old rules no longer universally apply. Now quarterbacks win Heisman Trophies as redshirt freshmen. Thanks to our obsession with football having filtered down to the high-school and junior-high levels (and below; have you seen “Friday Night Tykes”?), players today are way ahead of the old pace. They go through seven-on-seven drills in summer, attend elite quarterback camps and effectively prepare to play football year-round. That said, let’s look at what Brandon Allen, now a junior, has had to endure since he arrived on the UA campus from neighboring Fayetteville High: a redshirt year under Bobby Petrino, who subsequently has revealed himself as both mad genius and plain mad man; a year under John L. Smith & Co., which, really, no football player should be subjected to; a season with a new coaching staff that quickly goes sour when Allen injures his shoulder and never fully recovers. Along the way, there’s no telling how much confidence he lost in himself. But here he is, after a strong spring and fall, with the unrestricted endorsement of his head coach and, it seems, the faith of his teammates. Another thing: Even with the injury and learning curve of 2013, Allen had his moments, as you point out. The way he finished the season was especially encouraging and mirrors the team as a whole. He seems like a tough kid with enough skill to quarterback an offense with Collins, Williams and Marshall at running backs. Plus, Brandon Allen is due some good luck, on and off the field.

JIM: Okay, Kane, with you having been watching all this from Louisville the past year, what do you make of the “real” Bret Bielema-Gus Malzahn rivarly, the one these coaches take great pains to say doesn’t exist? I had forgotten about the fourth-and-3 “swinging gate” play that Arkansas ran — Bielema had asked the SEC office into looking at Auburn leaving its trick PAT formation that looks at first like a swinging game out of the game film it sent to Fayetteville — and who can forget the Auburn player appearing to take a dive (though everyone says he really was hurt, yet it took 10 seconds for the pain to hit him apparently) to stop the game late in the third quarter last year?

KANE: From a distance last year, I found the “rivalry” laughable, especially when Auburn kept winning and Arkansas kept losing. Bielema played the gnat to Malzahn’s elephant’s rear. If Gus didn’t have roots in Arkansas, would he even have bothered to care? But on closer inspection, I suspect something is there. It may be as simple as two coaches with two wholly opposite offensive philosophies; neither can relate to where the other is coming from. Indeed, each is so wedded to what he does, and how he does it, that he views the “other side” as not just illogical but dangerous. Or at least Bielema seems to indicate as much. From a fan’s perspective, it gives the game a little more grist, doesn’t it? What’s the old saying in boxing — styles make the fight. Here we have opposing styles, immovable-object vs. irresistible-force stuff, if not quite Ali-Frazier just yet. If Bielema can rebuild the Razorbacks in Wisconsin’s image, then we might have a rivalry worthy of the name, a contrast in styles similar to Stanford and Oregon in the Pac-12. How fun was that game to watch last year? And people so readily take sides, too! Old School vs. New School. Smash mouth vs. finesse. Smoking or non-smoking, paper or plastic? Which one are you? There’s a personality test in this somewhere.

As to the personal nature of the Gus-Bret stuff, my instinct is just that they annoy each other at this point. It’ll remain gnat vs. elephant’s butt until Bielema’s Razorbacks start playing for championships. Then maybe the mutual annoyances can blossom into something really meaty. Here’s hoping.

I’ll leave you with the last question, Jim. Fill in the blank. After Saturday’s game, Hog fans will be ________________ about the season ahead.


JIM: excited.

Arkansas may not win, but the Hogs have had seven months to prepare for this game. They should compete in it until the final gun, and hopefully it’s not one they confiscated from Michael Dyer. All kidding aside, they should be able to react to Auburn’s zone-read plays better this year. One week makes it tough to prepare, but not a month or most of a year. Auburn will surely have some wrinkles Arkansas isn’t expecting. If they lose 35-17 like last year, so be it, but I think Arkansas will compete. I’m stunned the line remains 20.5 points, but maybe I’m just too ingrained in Arkansas and what I know about Arkansas and am underestimating just how great this Auburn team could be, considering the recruiting classes that were brought in post-2010, their national championship season, and how much overall team speed Auburn should have compared to the Razorbacks.

I say “excited” but I also want to add that even if Auburn covers this spread, Saturday’s Razorbacks are still a long way off from the team that will be tangling with Georgia in Little Rock in mid-October, and it will not yet be the team that will be playing in November seeking a bowl bid, simply because the best players on this team are freshmen and sophomores in need of much more seasoning. Consider that Bret Bielema will be playing more freshmen in his two-deep and on special teams Saturday than he did last year; meanwhile, 32 players who were on the roster when he arrived have either graduated or are gone. The good news is, there are a handful of juniors and seniors who are pretty good players, starting with senior defensive end Trey Flowers and junior RB Jonathan Williams. I again hesitate to push the “next year” line on Hog fans before even the first game is played, but this season is geared toward building the program under Bret Bielema to a breakthrough 2015 and beyond.

Thanks, Kane. I really enjoyed this. Arkansas fans should be fired up to read your takes on the Hogs this year on SportinglifeArkansas.com. And they can catch me weekly on KTHV Channel 11’s “Hogzone” at 10:30 p.m. every Saturday and on Wednesdays at about 6:50 p.m. We’ll also be doing weekly chats on Twitter (#slachat) every Tuesday night from 8 to 9 p.m.

winning at auburn


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