J.R. and Henry: New Beginning in Nashville?
Dubbed “Separation Saturday” by ESPN, last Saturday was a feast of big time college football. Seven games across the nation involved ranked opponents playing, including two in the SEC: Auburn vs. LSU and Tennessee vs. Florida.
But the funny thing about the games in the SEC is that Separation Saturday showed how evenly matched the teams were. A 7-3 Auburn win over LSU, and a 21-20 win for Florida over Tennessee, demonstrated that those elite programs in the SEC are nearly indistinguishable on the field.
In the same way, Vanderbilt and Arkansas played in Nashville, with the Hogs prevailing in an exciting 21-19 game. Just as Auburn, LSU, Florida and Tennessee are comparable programs in talent and depth, so too are Arkansas and Vanderbilt.
In our preview column last week, we predicted that Arkansas would win a tight game, 14-13. This was based in part because we believed that Arkansas had overall more talent than Vanderbilt. After watching the game, now we’re not so sure. There is no doubt that Mitch Mustain and Darren McFadden, along with an improving receiver corp bolstered by talent brought in after the hire of Gus Malzahn, provide Arkansas the advantage at the skill positions. In fact, Arkansas is comparable with any team in the SEC at the skill positions in talent.
But the defense showed again on Saturday that there is so little depth on that side of the ball that a few key injuries and transfers turn a promising defense into one that gets shredded on the ground by a team that was averaging 69 yards a game rushing. Now, the linebacker situation has become so desperate that a second-team free safety, Matt Hewitt, who weighs 205 pounds, moved to linebacker on Sunday and was named the starter the same day.
In the same way, the loss of Darius Vinnett to injury and Michael Coe’s transfer (both former starters) have weakened the secondary greatly, particularly in nickel situations where an extra defensive back is required on the field. If Vanderbilt’s quarterback was only marginally accurate, there would have been no stopping the Commodores offense.
As for Arkansas’ offense, how much fun is it to watch Mitch Mustain? He is a special talent, and as good as advertised. He did make some freshman mistakes and ill-advised throws, but his passes were crisp, on target, and allowed his receivers on several occasions to actually get yards after the catch, a novel concept from years past. It’s fun to watch him winding up to throw the deep ball, because when he does, it just feels like somebody will be open. Our offense is fun to watch on the field again.
And let’s just get this out of the way. We have wondered in past columns, like other Hog fans, whether Malzahn really was in control of the offense. After Saturday, we believe he is. Hopefully, it will become even more evident in games to come.
On Saturday, the problems with the offense had nothing to do with playcalling or with scheme. They had to do with the offensive line. For the third straight week, the offensive line failed to control the line of scrimmage. Against USC it’s understandable. But against Utah State and Vanderbilt it is an ominous sign with some of the best defenses in the SEC coming up.
And the bad thing about the problems on the offensive line and the defense is that they may not be fully fixable this year. This offensive line is a veteran group. Those guys should be coached to be on top of their game right now. Maybe the change in offensive scheme is increasing the learning curve, but it seems to be run blocking, particularly at key times, that fails the Razorbacks, just like last year. Last year against Vandy, Arkansas failed to score from inside the 5-yard line on four straight runs. In the same way, with Arkansas leading 14-13 and driving inside the Vanderbilt 30 in the second half, a fourth-and-one play resulted in a loss on a McFadden run. The offensive line was completely blown up on the play. It’s great to pile up a ton of yards on the ground, but good offensive lines get the tough yard when they have to. And that was a problem last year, and is so again now.
Meanwhile the defense just doesn’t seem to have the players to plug into the holes exposed by Arkansas’ first three opponents. There has been very little contribution from any non-starter on the defensive line. Now, the Hogs are moving a backup from a thin secondary to a starting position with the anorexic linebacking corp. It’s time to start playing the freshmen at that position too. By the end of the year, it will pay off, just like it did last year with Freddie Fairchild, who the Hogs miss greatly now with him sidelined by a knee ligament tear.
All in all, it was a win, and Arkansas finds itself tied for the lead in the SEC West. But ask yourself this question: Do you think Vanderbilt, from the SEC East, could contend in the SEC West this year and for years to come? If so, you should feel good about the progress of the Razorback program.
J.R. and Henry blog their sports column on Little Rocking every Monday and Thursday.