This past Saturday the Arkansas Razorbacks took a huge step forward under Bobby Petrino. The Hogs found a way to beat a good South Carolina team and in doing so, beat an SEC team to match last seasons win total of five overall wins and two SEC wins with three games remaining in the season.
The Razorbacks have shown clear improvement in Petrino's second season and winning a game that was labeled a must win shows team leadership and maturity is growing.
People tend to forget the Razorbacks are one of the youngest teams in the SEC and early in the rebuilding process under Bobby Petrino. There are 11 freshman and sophomores starting for the Razorbacks and an even larger number of contributors.
In this crucial win for the Hogs, there were five keys to why the Hogs were able to get the victory.
First has to be the play of redshirt sophomore quarterback Ryan Mallett. Everything starts with the quarterback in Bobby Petrino's offense and so naturally the same holds true here.
Mallett was 23-27 passing for 329 yards and 0 interceptions against the No.3 pass defense in the nation. He picked a part the South Carolina defense in his most impressive game as a Razorback to date.
That says a lot when Mallett has already had numerous huge yardage games and multi-touchdown games.
The reason for this success is Mallett finally has learned to take what the defense is giving him and that showed with his completion percentage. He set the Arkansas single game record with this percentage. I have to make a double take and mention again South Carolina bolstered the No. 3 ranked pass defense in the nation coming into the game.
Mallett was rewarded for his performance by being named SEC Offensive Player of the Week and most importantly, handed his team a win.
For the season Mallett is the No.1 rated quarterback in the SEC and the No.8 quarterback in the country with a rating of 156.7. He has thrown for 2,480 yards, 18 touchdowns, and only three interceptions.
Second on the list, is the reemergence of tight end DJ Williams. There is not a more unselfish player in the country or a more deserving player out there.
Williams was a Mackey Award finalist last season. He entered the season as one of the top rated tight ends in the country, but the numbers have not been adding up so far this season.
However, don't tell Williams or his teammates he has been unproductive this season. Williams has focused on becoming a more complete tight end. That focus has been centered on improving his blocking. It was the talk from the coaches even before spring practices had begun.
Nothing tells this story better than Williams' comments following the Hogs win over the Gamecocks when he focused in on a few blocks that he missed over the big plays he made in this game receiving.
William's day included seven receptions for 137 yards, including a 69-yard play at the end of the first half that set up an Alex Tejada field goal that tied the game at 10 a piece going into half time.
If Williams continues to emerge as a more complete blocker and a threat in the passing game, the Hogs offense will be one of the most difficult to defend the rest of the season and into next year.
Arkansas' Red-zone Defense
The Hogs rank first in the SEC in red-zone defense and on Saturday, this was a huge key to the Hog's win.
On South Carolina's first scoring drive, Spurrier and the Gamecocks went for it on fourth down and converted inside the five yard line. The Hogs then proceeded to stuff the Gamecocks and force them into a field goal. Prior to getting down in the redzone, the Gamecocks were moving the ball both with the run and the pass.
South Carolina showed poor time management and had some costly penalties, but the Hogs success holding teams to field goals or no points in the red-zone for the season continues to play a crucial role in winning games.
Later in the game with the Hogs holding a slim 17-16 lead, South Carolina marched down the field and looked to score and regain the lead. In what was the biggest turning point of the game, Jarrell Norton turned on a Garcia pass to the end zone and came up with a momentum changing interception. The Hogs then marched 80 yards to score again and had the momentum the remainder of the day in going on to win 33-16.
Third Down Conversions
It is not a secret, the Razorbacks have been awful all year on third downs. However, on Saturday the Razorbacks went 10 of 16 with many crucial third down conversions to keep scoring drives alive.
Much of this has to do with my first two keys of Ryan Mallett and DJ Williams, but the running game deserves credit as well.
Looking at the stats, you would think the Hog's running game was stuffed all day, but they ran the ball well and set up third and shorts the majority of the day. The running backs were also very involved in the passing game and yards after the catch.
This key lead the Razorbacks to a victory over South Carolina and will be instrumental in the teams continued success the rest of the season.
If the Hogs hope to win out their remaining games and reach a good bowl game, they will have to continue this uptrend of converting third downs and being in manageable situations to keep the chains moving.
Home Field Advantage
The home crowd got up for what was an early breakfast time game and came out to make a difference. The crowd was loud, wild, and involved in the game from the opening kickoff.
The Hogs are now 5-1 on the season at home and look to be turning home field into a real advantage. This is something that over the years had started to seem like less of a factor.
Coach Bobby Petrino's high octane offense has brought a new life to fans and the players have started to hold home field with pride and a swagger.
During the preseason, Petrino stressed holding home field advantage and on Saturday the young Hogs did just that.
The Razorbacks have two more home games remaining out of their final three for the season and so reaching seven wins seems attainable with possibility of eight wins if they win out the regular season.
The Razorbacks have come out of the 2009 season thus far, improved and are currently riding momentum into the home stretch of the season. All these keys to the Hogs victory Saturday over the Gamecocks need to continue for the Hogs to finish the season strong and reach their goal of being a team that will contend for the championships.
If the Hogs continue to excel in each of these areas, there will be many reasons to celebrate for the Razorback Nation and the celebrations could consist of a date with a January first bowl game.
Image Courtesy of ArkansasRazorbacks.com