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Petrino kicking the tires in Hog debut


Non-conference games result in casual analysis that tends toward hyperbole in one direction or another. This past weekend should be an apt illustration of that truth, with folks polishing their pitchforks in Oxford and reassessing their more reasonable expectations in Knoxville. It follows that any conclusions you can draw from a dominant performance against Tennessee Tech are speculative at best, specious at worst.  

That doesn't mean Hog fans shouldn't be encouraged by a few things. We even have a handful to be discouraged about. But it pays to be cautious.

Coach Bobby Petrino might as well be wearing a lab coat and safety goggles on the sidelines. He's tinkering with a machine. Lord knows most people take a Corvette for a test drive and immediately want to open it up. Petrino's still kicking the tires.

He arrived on campus intent on establishing a running game, and to this day it's the only inconsistent aspect of the Hog offense. The running backs were banging their heads against a wall all through the first half, picking up a measly 51 yards on 13 carries. Broderick Green played a lot tougher than he has in the past, but he's yet to find the open field.

Smaller conference coaches like to talk about "maximizing personnel" — spreading the ball around and playing to the strengths of each of your players. This offense prizes the way that approach prevents defenses from keying in on a superstar, and if Petrino seemed unusually committed to rushing the ball last weekend, it was only to flex particular muscles in a live situation.

For a while, it looked like each of the running backs was going to score a touchdown. After the running game finally got going, only Knile Davis failed to reach the end zone, but even he was instrumental in a drive that got Cobi Hamilton there.

Even though Joe Adams got the most touches, the passing game works in essentially the same way. Every one of the five main targets will have his big game this season. It's not quite a meritocracy — nobody doubts any of the individual talents at the Hogs' disposal — but more a shared responsibility. The Hogs can pass the superstar mantel around week to week. It is a measure of the character and closeness of the Razorbacks, as well as the faith they have in their coaches, that a prima donna simply couldn't have a place on this offense.

But it's the defense, and rightly so, that most people will want to mull over this week. Last week was the finest performance of the Willy Robinson era: the first time his defense held an opponent to single digits, the first time his defense hasn't given up a touchdown, and the first time his defense has given up under 200 yards total offense.

After the defense missed two tackles that resulted in a 39-yard pass to the one-yard-line on Tennessee Tech's first drive, I joked on Twitter that "Steve Caldwell's mustache just grew back of its own accord." And something like that did happen. A change took place in the defense after that goal-line stand. They played well for the remainder of the game, overcoming the two failed fourth-down conversions on offense, and helped along by the excellent field position given them by Alex Tejada and the kickoff team.

Anthony Leon seems to be assuming the role of an Eric Norwood-style hybrid defender: a dangerous blitzer, able to both drop back in coverage and stuff the run. I'd wager his eight tackles and two sacks are just the beginning. And though the D-Line was noticeably depleted, with Zach Stadther's absence a mystery and Pat Jones sidelined by injury, Alfred Davis and DeDe Jones made mincemeat of the very heavy Golden Eagle line.

There's a lot to be said about not looking past non-conference competition, but that bromide gets tedious when you try to imagine how to prepare for a team from the Sun Belt. No one can protect themselves from nightmare scenarios. The best you can say is that the Razorback secondary will get more exercise next week against the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Senior quarterback Trey Revell is mobile and fairly accurate, which should provide a greater challenge to both the linebackers and corners and will be valuable experience heading into Athens. The Warhawk offense, which gave up roughly 350 yards per game last season against mostly mediocre competition, is quite simply doomed, and we can only guess which playmaker is going to drive the stake through their heart.

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