This year the Arkansas Razorbacks have shown something that they have lacked as a whole. In previous years the Hogs have had talented players such as Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Peyton Hillis, Matt Jones, Clint Stoerner and Cedric Cobbs, who have individually shown tremendous amounts of heart. But this year that trait has flown from the entire team like King Fahd's fountain. From the top of the roster to very bottom. And from my years of playing I can tell you something right now. Heart is something you can't coach.
First and foremost, the Hogs will have to protect Ryan Mallet.
Plain and not so simple.
Over the coarse of the season the Arkansas Razorbacks have done a fair job of protecting Mallet, a redshirt sophomore gunslinger who has an obsessive urge to win. As the statistics will show, in games that the offensive line has no protected Mallet he has not had success distributing the ball, throwing off the timing of the on the brink power that is the Arkansas offense.
As a few commentators have pointed out over the season, in games that Mallet has been sacked three or more times the Hogs have come up short on the scoreboard. Although that trend was close to being bucked in the season finale against LSU. If the o-line can shut down pressure up the middle and allow Ryan Mallet to step up in the pocket and check down through his progression, then it could potentially be a long day for the ECU defense.
Next, the Hogs will have to step up on defense and cut back on giving up big plays. Granted that trend has decreased over the past five games. And there is no way to stop big plays all together but blown coverage, missed assignments and just plain slacking off are detrimental to the success of the defense.
With the defense having a break to come in 100 % healthy, the play of linebacker Jerry Franklin, defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard, defensive end Adrian Davis and hybrid bandit Jerell Norton will be key in a Razorback victory. Defensive Coordinator Willy Robinson will more than likely have a tailor made scheme designed specifically for Patrick Pinkney and Dominique Lindsay. With a plethora of man as well as zone blitzes, Pinkney should, if the assignments are followed and executed correctly, be under pressure all night. Arkansas has had success stopping running backs all season and with Lindsay being one of the smaller backs the Hogs have seen this season, I don't see the Pirates trying to pound the ball. With that being said I think that Willy Robinson will key on the Pirates passing game and incorporate packages that will provide the Hogs with the chance to tee off on Pinkney.
All year the Razorbacks have approached "run the ball to open up the passing game" in a completely different way. The Hogs have thrown the ball to open up the passing game. If Arkansas can come out and have success running the ball early on and keep the defense honest, draw the defense into the box, then Mallet should be able to check into play action and utilize the stable of weapons in the receiving corps.
Then again, the Hogs have a stable of running backs as well.
With what seems like a running back for every situation, the Hogs are fortunate enough to have a handful of backs to stick in the game. If Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino encounters a 3 and 1, enter Broderick Greene, if the D-line is showing a weakness up the middle, enter Ronnie Wingo Jr. If those guys need a breather, Coach Petrino can close his eyes throw a rock over his shoulder and hit a running back that can step in, without a decrease in talent. From Knile Davis to De'Anthony Curtis or Brandon Barnett to Dennis Johnson. Given the chance the aforementioned backs can score from anywhere on the field.
Basically what I'm saying is that, there is no guarantee that Arkansas will win. But if the Hogs can do these 3 things, then I don't see them losing. I know that East Carolina isn't going to come all the way to Memphis and lay down because their facing an SEC team. East Carolina will come in with a, for lack of a better term, "Boise State mentality" and feel have a high confidence level.
And they should.
The Pirates flat out beat Houston. They earned their spot in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl the same as Arkansas did. My opinion comes straight from the fourth quarter. Do I think that East Carolina can hang in there and make Bobby Petrino sweat ? Of course. Do I think that Arkansas will be reeling and fighting all the way to the final gun ? Not so much. If the Arkansas Razorbacks can protect Ryan Mallet, establish a running game early on and play sound defense, then the Hogs will win without a doubt in my mind.
The sole reason I think that Arkansas will come out victorious on January 2, 2010 is the simple fact that the Hogs have shown me more heart than any other team in the nation. And that is why I believe the Hogs will bring back another piece of hardware for the trophy case.
But then again, this is America and everyone has the right to be as wrong as they like.