It is South Carolina week for the Hogs in SEC play, and sticking with the recurrent theme of the Razorbacks' 2009 season, it is another must win game.
The Hogs are 2-2 in games that have been labeled must win games by coach Bobby Petrino so far this season. The wins came over Texas A&M and Auburn, and the losses came to Ole Miss and Georgia.
So far 2009 has been an up and down season for the Razorbacks. It has been up and down with injuries and consistency, and it has been up and down with wins and losses.
Overall the Hogs have appeared to be a much improved team despite their record speaking to the contrary, but it is the up and down that has made it difficult to see what to expect from the Hogs from week to week.
The up and down nature of the season also is the cause of why it seems every week the Razorbacks are in a must win game situation.
The Hogs are sitting at 4-4 overall and 1-4 in conference.
Clearly this team is in need of an SEC win and needs to get on a roll, but South Carolina coming to town is a difficult task.
Steve Spurrier brings in a team with six wins and already bowl eligible, while they are coming off a disappointing loss to Lane Kiffin and the Tennessee Volunteers last weekend.
The Gamecocks rank second in the SEC in passing offense right behind the Hogs. The Hogs rank last in nearly all pass defense categories. Spurrier will game-plan to come in and exploit the weaknesses the Arkansas secondary has shown all season.
The keys will be whether this secondary can stand up to the challenge and whether the defensive line can get pressure on the South Carolina quarterback.
The Carolina defense ranks near the top in the nation in passing defense and also in the top 20 in total defense. People tend to think of offense with Coach Spurrier, but the defense is the strength of this team.
Will Arkansas be able to step up to the challenge and execute their offense against South Carolina?
That is the lingering question. The Arkansas offense ranks near the top of the SEC but against top defenses have had trouble with execution. Games against Alabama, Florida, and Ole Miss uncovered some troubles with offensive execution. These defenses' ability to pressure Ryan Mallett and put the Razorbacks in third and long situations at a high rate slowed the offense down.
The Razorbacks are last in the SEC in third down conversions and near the bottom of the rankings in the country in the category.
The key to the Hogs keeping themselves out of these third and longs this week is that the run game has to get on track. Offensive balance is the key to keeping the stingy South Carolina defense on its heels. The Hogs cannot be one-dimensional and rely solely on the passing attack.
In the blowout win over Eastern Michigan this past weekend, the Hogs rushed for nearly 300 yards and passed for around 280 yards. While this was a cupcake game on the Razorbacks' schedule, if that game's production built the confidence to get the running game on track, it could mean the difference in this South Carolina game for the Hogs.
The other offensive key for the Hogs will be the young Mallett's ability to take what the defense is giving him. Execute the offense and do not try to win the game every throw and force big plays.
The Razorbacks lead the SEC and are one of the top teams in the nation at making the big play happen. However, Mallett needs to understand when to make the big play and when to take what is right in front of him.
That is something Mallett did well in the blowout win over Eastern Michigan last weekend. In fact, Mallett set the Razorbacks' single game completion percentage record with only two incomplete passes.
On the defensive side of the ball, it has been well documented all season how much the Razorbacks defense has struggled. They have shown inconsistency and then flashes of great improvement on and off all season.
Against Texas A&M, Auburn, and Florida, the defense played far above their rankings and statistics. In these games the Hogs defense swarmed the quarterback, forced turnovers at a high rate, and played soundly in their technique.
However, even in these games where they performed well, they gave up the big play. The Razorbacks rank last in the SEC and are one of the worst teams in the country in allowing the big scoring play. Even against softy Eastern Michigan last week the Hogs gave up the big embarrassing plays.
The players and coaches attribute it to lapses of focus and concentration. Whatever it is, the Hogs need to find a way to put an end to it.
If the Razorbacks could find a way to not allow the big play for the first time in a game this season against South Carolina, that could go a long way to helping them get a win this weekend over the Gamecocks.
Enough of the keys and stats about this game. The next way the Hogs need to win this game is on sheer heart and determination.
Two weeks ago the Hogs went to Oxford to take on a struggling Ole Miss team. On that day the Ole Miss Rebels won the game with this sheer determination and heart. The Rebels clearly wanted the game more than the Hogs and outplayed them all day. It is the Hogs' time to do this.
It wouldn't be the first time this season the Hogs won on determination and heart. The Hogs' record is 2-1 in the A&M, Auburn, and Florida games this season, but they are 3-0 in outplaying those teams in heart and determination. The Hogs need to add South Carolina to that list this weekend.
The Razorback Nation home crowd could come into play, but it will be up to the players and coaches to show this determination this weekend. In the press conferences on Monday the players and coaches spoke of this being a must win game. They talked about what they need to do better and what South Carolina does well.
As the week goes on, we will see the same hoops being jumped through and the same statements being made that you expect on game week against a tough opponent.
The Hogs will speak of this being the "next" game and the most important game. They will speak of wanting to win this game and then the next and the next and the next and the next so they can go to a good bowl game. All these things are true and will be true answers to the questions asked by the media.
But the question that needs to be asked is, will you outplay, outhustle, and do whatever it takes to beat South Carolina on Saturday?
The answer to that question will only come game time on Saturday. The four quarters the Hogs battle the Gamecocks on the field, and the final score that shines on the scoreboard at the conclusion of the game, will be the Hogs' answer.
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