The Arkansas Razorbacks got a break last week from what has been a brutal 2013 season and just in time.
The Hogs had been outscored 104-7 in the previous two outings against Alabama and South Carolina and badly needed a week off to address some very pressing issues. The defense hasn't been able to stop anybody, and the struggles of quarterback Brandon Allen have slowed down the offense considerably.
With two weeks to make adjustments and prepare, the Razorbacks welcome the 11th ranked Auburn Tigers Saturday.
Under head coach Gus Malzahn, the Tigers have been resurrected after a miserable 2012 campaign. After defeating Texas A&M on the road, Auburn beat up on Florida Atlantic, 45-10, last weekend and are riding high coming into Fayetteville.
The implications will be much bigger for an Auburn team with dreams bigger than just a return to a bowl. But, Arkansas still has a lot to play for as well and can act as the spoiler.
Here's everything you need to know about Saturday's gridiron match.
Time: 6 p.m.
Place: Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville, Arkansas
Radio: Arkansas Razorbacks Radio Network and Auburn Sports Network
Line: Auburn by 10 according to vegasinsider.com
QB Brandon Allen
With the way the defense has played this year, forcing the Tigers into some mistakes could be the Hogs only shot at keeping quarterback Nick Marshall and the Auburn offense out of the end zone.
The problem is that Arkansas is nearly dead last in turnovers forced with eight total while giving up 14 itself. This Razorbacks defense is a bend-don't-break unit. However, it seems it has been breaking a lot. If the Hogs are to make this a game and have a shot at the upset, they must create turnovers and keep the Tigers offense off the field.
Slow Down Auburn's Run Game
Auburn is 13th in the country in total offense (511.0 yards per game), including ranking fifth in rushing YPG at 315.4. Tre Mason is the only back that is in the top 30 in the FBS in rushing, but the Tigers have three other guys with over 400 yards, including Marshall (81 carries, 461 yards and five touchdowns).
Arkansas has had lots of trouble with dual-threat quarterbacks in the past. Allowing Marshall and the backs to get going would open up a can of worms.
Marshall has been a pleasant surprise for Malzahn, but the team had a scare when he injured his throwing shoulder against Florida Atlantic. Backup Jeremy Johnson has taken equal snaps in practice this week according to AL.com, though Marshall has practiced all week. Whether he starts is expected to be determined around game time, but Arkansas expects him to play.
If the Hogs can't slow down Auburn's rushing attack, it will give Marshall one-on-one opportunities against an Arkansas secondary that has been suspect. The Tigers passing game hasn't been great (96th FBS), and the last thing the Razorbacks need to do is let Marshall gain confidence with his arm.
Yes, Allen himself is a big key to this game for Bielema's Hogs.
He's struggled all season with his accuracy (44.9 percent) and decision making with a nearly 1-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Allen has completed less than 50 percent of his passes in five out of seven games, including his 28.0 mark at Alabama two weeks ago.
His inability to make plays with his arm has had an adverse impact on the running game. The Hogs possess a dangerous duo in freshman Alex Collins and sophomore Jonathan Williams, but opponents are stacking the box to stop them because Allen has posed no threat through the air.
No one is saying he has to go out and work miracles, but he can start with having a game where he doesn't make a mistake and completes over 50 percent of his passes. Just doing that would help the offense tremendously versus Auburn.
QB Nick Marshall
With Allen slumping, Auburn could quickly take away his hopes of turning his fortunes around by pressuring him and forcing Allen to make irrational decisions.
The Tigers are tied for 33rd nationally with an average of 2.5 sacks per game. They are also tied for 12th in tackles for loss per game (7.8) and have five guys with over 4.0 TFL—with Dee Ford leading the way at 7.5 TFL and 6.0 sacks.
Allen already has had trouble putting the ball where it needs to be, and if Auburn can consistently pressure him, he could be in for another long day.
Run the Ball Effectively
With Marshall expected to play, the Tigers want to minimize him having to throw the ball after he injured his shoulder. They can do that by continuing to stick to their bread and butter—running the ball.
Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant all are viable options out of the backfield. Mason leads the way with 753 yards on 129 carries and nine touchdowns. The trio has combined for 1,714 yards and 18 touchdowns.
The Razorback rush defense is falling by the wayside (70th FBS) and is coming off a game where it gave up 352 yards to Alabama. Malzahn loves to throw and call trick plays, but he'll want to keep it simple and run right at the Hogs.
The Razorbacks have proven that if they get down early, they don't have the firepower or the mental toughness to come back.
In fact, you can go as far as to say that if a team gets a two-to-three touchdown lead, Arkansas gives up. Look at the Alabama and South Carolina games for example. Both put up points early, and the Hogs never responded—being pounded 104-7.
The Tigers don't want to let the Razorbacks hang around and get the crowd behind them, or an upset could begin to brew.
RB Alex Collins
For as bad as the Arkansas offense was against Alabama, Collins had a respectable game, rushing for 77 yards on 18 carries. That's a great number considering there was absolutely no passing attack whatsoever.
Auburn has a good rush defense, but it's not on the level of the Crimson Tide's. Collins has been the best offensive player for the Hogs, ranking 23rd nationally with 797 yards. He has great vision and has been one of the few Razorback players that is a delight to watch.
A big game from him would help Allen and the passing game and keep a prolific Auburn offense off the field.
With opponents beginning to run the ball whenever they'd like, the linebackers and defensive line's performance will be something to follow.
Defensive ends Trey Flowers and Chris Smith anchor the D-line and have been able to get into the backfield. But, they can't do it themselves. The line is getting beat off the the snap often and providing gaping holes for backs to run through.
The linebackers haven't been good either. Tackling has plagued the unit—something you have to do if you want to compete in the nation's best conference. Auburn's run game is one of the best in the country, so Bielema needs the front seven to be physical and make plays.
You're probably tired of hearing about this guy, but as a quarterback, his role is intricate to the success of the offense.
Simply put, Arkansas needs Allen to be a game manager. That's it.
That means making good decisions, throwing the ball when he needs to and being consistent. At this point in the season, we're just looking for signs that Allen is making strides and not further regressing. A good game against the Tigers would greatly help his confidence going forward and maybe, just maybe, set up for a nice home stretch.
WR Sammie Coates
Marshall hasn't posed a huge threat throwing the ball, but if he does, more than likely it is to wide receiver Sammie Coates. He leads the team, and it isn't even close, with 536 yards and four touchdowns on 21 catches.
Coates is averaging an eye-gouging 25.5 yards per reception and is the only receiver on the team with over 200 yards. The Arkansas secondary will have to keep tabs on him throughout the game, or Coates could come up with some big plays.
With Marshall expected to play, the Hogs will have their hands full. Though he will be dealing with a shoulder injury, Marshall has made teams pay with his legs on read-option plays.
He's third on the team with 461 yards and has five rushing touchdowns. Marshall is averaging nearly six yards per carry and having a slew of backs with him in the backfield hasn't allowed teams to focus in on him.
He may not run the ball as much because Malzahn won't want to take a chance of re-injuring that shoulder, but Marshall will still be a guy to watch for Auburn.
The senior defensive end is having a great final year. He is tops on the team with 6.0 sacks and 7.5 TFL and has been a huge part of an Auburn defense that has consistently made plays in the backfield.
Ford is tied for seventh in the nation in sacks per game and will provide a big challenge for the Razorbacks offensive line. Arkansas needs to protect Allen to allow him to make better decisions, but Ford should have something to say about that.
Head coach Bret Bielema
As bad as the Razorbacks passing game has been, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney told HawgSports.com that it is making strides:
I think we're coming around in the passing game a little bit. We did some things that we're more comfortable with that we're trying to get done. Trying to hone up some part of it. We've been pretty bad at most aspects of it lately, and we're trying to clean up some stuff. Simplify some stuff and just get back to some basics about throwing and catching and hitting some targets and protecting.
The Hogs have won four of the last five meetings against the Tigers, but as defensive coordinator Chris Ash said to HawgSports.com, this Auburn team isn't the train wreck it was last year:
Last year's so far away from what they are right now. Auburn's a completely different team. Last spring, I looked at Auburn when we were first here kind of studying the SEC and their offenses. When you see Auburn's offensive line right now compared to last year, it's not even close. It's not the same team. That film doesn't help us much right now.
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson told ESPN.com that the Hogs are going to give the Tigers a different look than they've seen this season:
It'll be a little bit different. There’s going to be some subtle adjustments. A lot of things you see against the spread is defensive backs running all over the place. Against a team like this, linebackers playing the gaps and some of those other safeties dropping down are really going to have to be perfectly fit, because their running backs, once they find a crease, they can really run.
This is an important game for both teams. For Auburn, it's a chance to stay in the SEC West race and for Arkansas, it's a chance for a season-defining win in what has been an otherwise forgettable season.
Auburn is running the ball at will, while the Hogs can't stop it. Any time a team can run the ball effectively, especially on the road, it puts itself in prime position to win the game. Usually home-field advantage is a big factor, but the Razorbacks haven't capitalized on it against good teams all year.
When it comes down to it, the Tigers run game is just too powerful for a Hogs rush defense that has been gashed recently.
With Auburn being able to run the ball, it's going to open up the rest of the offense and overwhelm Arkansas. The Hogs offense just won't be able to keep up and put up enough points to make up for the defense.
A winless SEC season is becoming a real possibility. A win here for the Hogs could salvage 2013 and set up for a nice home stretch, but that seems more like a fantasy than a reality at this point.
Auburn 30, Arkansas 17