The Razorbacks' Road to New Orleans

By poguemahone on December 22, 2010 at 1:00p

When the University of Arkansas hired Bobby Petrino in the wake of Houston Nutt's tumultuous departure, it's doubtful that either Hog fans or the AD themselves knew exactly what they were getting. Here's a coach who inherited a solid-if-unspectacular Louisville program from John L. Smith in the wake of the latter's departure to Michigan State, and turned the Cardinals from an upper-tier C-USA team to a BCS bowl winning Big East outfit in a matter of years. But here also was the coach who had bailed on his first shot at the big time, failing to complete a full season as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, to take the job in Fayetteville. How did he inform the players who had toiled under him for 13 games in Atlanta? With no more than a note in the locker room.

It was under such mixed auspices that Petrino inherited a program whose greatest recent success had been an upset over title-bound LSU just a year prior. But Darren McFadden and Felix Jones were both gone, leaving perpetually overmatched Casey Dick - and occasionally, younger brother Nathan - as the showrunner(s) in one of the most complex, pro-style offenses in the entire country. Predictably, Petrino's first season did not go well: the Hogs finished 5-7, 2nd in the conference in passing offense but 10th in rushing and dead last in total defense.

In 2009, that was all supposed to change. Gone were the Dicks (last time, I promise), and arriving was Ryan Mallett, a lead-footed, howitzer-armed pocket passer; a disgruntled transfer from Michigan's new experiment with the spread-option offense. Mallett was a perfect fit for the system, tossing 30 touchdowns to just 7 picks in his first year as a starter. Despite that success, the Hogs still finished with a meager 8 wins. Yet again, the lack of a consistent running game and anything resembling a defense had submarined Arkansas' hopes of competing for an SEC title: the Hogs finished 10th in the SEC in rushing offense again, and dead last in total defense. Again.

Petrino and the team had experienced some success, but 2010 needed to be a big leap forward for the entire program to instill confidence in its stability among fans and to remove the doubt clogging many outsiders' minds.

With Ryan Mallett and the majority of the best skill position players back, expectations were high for the Razorbacks in the preseason. They opened the season with three wins, two over patsies, the third a last-second thriller at Georgia, pushing the Hogs into the top-10 in the national polls. Following the emotional win in Athens, the Hogs hosted what some considered to be a season-defining tilt against the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. Things went well for Bobby Petrino's team in the early going, with Ryan Mallet hitting a wide-open Ronnie Wingo on a 43-yard scoring toss 50 seconds into the game. It wasn't pretty, but the Hogs built a 20-7 lead and held it into well in the third quarter. Then it all fell apart. Trent Richardson's touchdown grab with :44 left in the third brought the Tide within six, and a Bama field goal in the fourth made it a tenuous 20-17 Arkansas lead. Mallett didn't respond well under pressure for the first time all season, tossing his second pick of the day to Bama safety Robert Lester, which set up the go-ahead Tide touchdown. With the opportunity to snatch glory from the jaws of defeat in the game's waning moments, the junior signal caller threw his third and final pick of the day to seal the Bama win.

It's not like Mallett was the goat. He was the bulk of the team's offense, throwing 38 times for 357 yards and getting just 64 yards from his cobbled-together ground game. But the Hogs still sat at 3-1 with dates looming against Texas A+M and streaking Auburn and frustration already mounting, having squandered away their first chance to grab the SEC west's spot in the SEC championship game by the throat. The Hogs took care of business against the Aggies, and headed into the road date at Auburn with a 4-1 record.

Mallett looked fine in the opening moments at Jordan-Hare Stadium, calmly directing the Arkansas offense down the field to take a 7-0 lead. But after suffering a concussion later in the half, he had to watch from the sidelines as back-up Tyler Wilson went toe-to-toe with the Tigers for three quarters. The Hogs even held a 43-37 lead with 14 minutes left in the fourth. It was then that Cam Newton and Auburn put the foot on Arkansas' neck, scoring 28 unanswered points to close the game. Arkansas' SEC West title hopes were more or less dead in the water. With nothing to play for, some teams might have gone in the tank.

But Arkansas responded rather well: after getting a couple breathers against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt that allowed the running game to find its feet, Mallett and company traveled to Columbia, South Carolina, looking to unleash newly-discovered weapon Knile Davis on the SEC's #1 rushing defense. And unleash him they did: Davis toted the rock 22 times for 110 yards and 3 touchdowns, the best game on the ground that any single non-Cam Newton player had had all season against Ellis Johnson's defense. Davis' success in part was aided by the fact that Mallett had little trouble moving the ball through the air against the SEC's worst passing defense: he finished 21 of 30 for 1 touchdown and 302 yards, his lone mistake being a meaningless pick in a 41-20 trouncing of the Gamecocks. One other black mark on the game: Greg Childs, the team's leading receiver, tore a patellar tendon and was out for the remainder of the season.

The Hogs got another week off against UTEP before traveling to Starkville to take on an improved Mississippi State team. Mallett was more or less a cyborg in decimating the Bulldog defense, completing 17 of 26 passes for 305 yards and three scores in a double-overtime 38-31 win. He finished the day with his second best yards/attempt average while Knile Davis ran wild, carrying the rock 30 times for 187 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Hogs were on the precipice of 10 wins, a mark they hadn't matched since Darren McFadden's breakout season in 2006.

They would have to get that tenth win the next week against rival LSU. The streaking Tigers entered the game at 10-1, ranked 6th in the country and three weeks removed from a seemingly season-defining win over the Alabama Crimson Tide. The two teams played an even first half until two LSU defenders collided in coverage at the end of the 2nd quarter allowing Arkansas' Cobi Hamilton to take a Mallett pass 80 yards to put the Razorbacks up 21-14 at the break:

LSU battled back with a pair of 3rd-quarter field goals to close the gap to 21-20, but couldn't muster enough offense for the comeback after the Hogs increased their lead to 31-20 with 6 minutes left in the fourth. Mallett wasn't perfect in the 31-23 win, finishing with 320 yards, three touchdowns and a pair of picks. The Tigers didn't have an answer for Knile Davis either, as the emerging star racked up 157 yards on another 30-carry day, completing what might be the ideal offensive effort for a Bobby Petrino-coached team.

So what turned Arkansas from a 4-2 BCS also-ran into a BONA FIDE BCS BOWL team?

The emergence of Knile Davis was undeniably one of two key developments. You've seen the statistics. In Arkansas' two losses, the team averaged 101 yards rushing; a number skewed by a pretty good day (138 yards) against Auburn but still a good 50 yards below the national average. They were held under 100 yards rushing three times in their first four games. With Davis in the backfield, the Hogs gashed South Carolina, moved the ball at will against a solid LSU defense, and sliced through almost everyone else on their post-Auburn schedule with ease. 

But that's only half the story; the other half was the emergence of the rushing defense: while Knile Davis was tearing up the Gamecock defense, the Arkansas D made life a living hell for prodigal South Carolina freshman Marcus Lattimore, who finished the day with 11 carries for 30 yards. Mississippi's spread-option attack needed 42 carries to get to 185 yards, and Mississippi State's needed 70 (!) to get to 262, a big number, but still under 4 yards a pop. LSU was simply shut down on the ground.

So yeah, the rushing defense isn't putting up '09 Bama or '08 USC numbers. Moving beyond raw total defense numbers, Football Outsiders ranks them as the 26th overall defense in the country, and the fifth toughest the Buckeyes have played after Miami, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. It's better than it has been in years prior, and was good enough to get Arkansas over the hump in the SEC, giving them their best season since the glory days of McFadden and Jones. Most importantly, it has crushed teams like LSU and South Carolina which came into the game thinking they could simply run the ball to take pressure off of their inconsistent passers. Still, it can be had, as Alabama and Auburn showed, and that's encouraging. Even so, Pryor is going to have to make plays with his arm to give the Buckeye offense a chance of keeping pace with the Hogs. In the end, Razorback defense's continued improvement, along with the arrival of Knile Davis and the continued excellent play of Mallett make Arkansas a dangerous bowl opponent, and a thoroughly worthy one that, which will provide a great litmus test for this edition of the Buckeyes.


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The_Lurker's picture

Honestly, Ryan Mallett going up against Devon Torrence scares the hell out of me. But I am optimistic about the OSU ground game. In Boom I trust.

poguemahone's picture

The only comfort I can offer is that Mallett has been shaky against the better secondaries he's played. Last I checked, he has a 7/5 TD/INT ratio against top 20 pass defenses.

Of course, I'm not sure Ohio State has seen a passer even half as good as Mallett, so that may mean bunk. Hopefully, Ohio State isn't planning on leaving either Torrence or Chekwa alone in coverage too often, because I can't see that ending well.

Bucksfan's picture

The closer this gets to kickoff, the less overly optimistic I become.  Our front needs to get to Mallet, and they haven't necessarily been elite in that category all year.  Our secondary is tops in the nation, and are EXCELLENT at taking the football away.  But like you mention, Mallet is far and away the best QB they've seen all year.  Their rushing game is underrated as a result, and altogether it's just an efficient pro-style attack that should provide what amounts to an NFL tryout for our defense.

I don't particularly see the Arkansas defense bringing anything special to stop the Ohio State offense.  As long as the O-line protects the running lanes, and gives Pryor a little time, they should find their successes.

It may turn out to be a very Tressel-like game plan.  Keep the ball out of the opposition's hands, get the points you can, get TD's if you're lucky, much like the Rose Bowl.  At least this team has that experience, unlike Arkansas.

Natty Light's picture

i still don't understand the praise our pass defense gets, cause they've never impressed against a good passer.  maybe tolzein the last 2 years, but this year he didnt have to pass to win.

chekwa apparently can put up good combine stats and the others are reasonably talented, but i poop my pants every time a ball is thrown at chekwa in single coverage, and our pass rush is a letdown this year. 


good news is the secondary seems to be good at keeping things in front of them, or at least interfereing if they get beat deep (chekwa)


btalbert25's picture

There wasn't a lot of confidence in the Buckeyes going into the Rose Bowl last year either.  I just have a feeling we're going to see a win here.  The O-line hasn't been bad this year, Boom has been excellent the 2nd half of the season, Pryor is better than people give him credit for and The secondary has it's moments.  Torrence has been burned from time to time, but he's played great ball at times too.  Checkwa is loved by everyone but a portion of Ohio State fans.  Cam is going to play out of his mind to leave on a good note.  Rolle and Homan are going to bring it.  Not to mention the improvement/breakouts that usually happen in a bowl game.   Hankins and Philly Brown may have a coming out party infront of a nation audience. 

Mallett is a great QB to be sure, but he has committed some pretty big bonehead mistakes this year as well.  I'm optimistic about this game.  I'm not calling for a blowout but I would be surprised if they don't pull this one out and end the 0-9 skid. 

The_Lurker's picture

One thing in our favor is that TP should be fully healthy for the bowl game. Mallett does tend to make 2-3 really boneheaded plays per game. We have to be ready and take advantage of that.

ColdBuckeye's picture

"The Tide took care of business against the Aggies, and headed into the road date at Auburn with a 4-1 record."

Do You mean Hogs instead of Tide?
poguemahone's picture

Yep. Thanks for pointing that out.

Ultrabuckeyehomer's picture

This game scares the hell out of me.  I really don't want to count on Mallett making 2-3 really bad decisions for us to win.  Here is the problem: they have a great air attack that is more than complimented with a runnng game, and we don't have a single elite one-on-one cover guy. 

If we can stop the running game without loading the box, we can win.  If not, we are F*****. 

I do not think getting pressure on Mallett is the key at all, its completely shutting down theirr running game with a base defense.  Then, we can make sure that our DBs are not on an island and keep everything in front of us.

Sure, sacks would be nice, but not even close to necessary. What is necessary is that they have 50-75 yards rushing.

luckynewman13's picture

We haven't really produced a lot of sacks as a team in recent years, we're probably not going to start now.

luckynewman13's picture

basically, we are the more talented and experienced team overall, so there are really no excuses. Mallet could do some damage against our secondary and that is to be expected, but if Posey, Sanzenbacher, Stonebrunner, and Herron can just show up to the game, then having a completely healthy Pryor to boot might just be indefensable.

I am CRAZY nervous for this game, not because I think the Razorbacks are an elite team, but because Ohio State MUST win this game (at least to me, I don't think I could live through an offseason of SEC 0-10 talk, so I don't know how the players will be able to handle it) and the fact that this is a must win may be psychologically too much for them. John Cooper had better teams than Michigan several times, but they were just in their heads, every year Michigan KNEW it was going to win that game going in and it translated on the field. If Ohio State can't pull this one off, we may have to start wondering if Cooper's issues with Michigan just transferred to the SEC when Tressel was hired (I know he's only 0-3 and I don't care about the 2002 Outback game, but 0-4 will start to raise eyebrows in my opinion).

I hope Tressel finds a way to keep the boys loose before the game, because I will be on anti-anxiety meds.

The_Lurker's picture

Sacks are less important than just getting pressure. We have very few sacks, but honestly how often have Heyward, Williams, etc. just been around the QB this season? Lots.

I'm a bit more worried now that SportsByBrooks is naming names in tatgate and they are throwing out TP, Boom, Brewster, Adams, Jordan Hall, among others. Can anyone imagine us winning this game with Bauserman handing off to Saine? Granted, it's all just speculation and rumor at this point, but I'm getting nervous about it.