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Razorbacks struggles with Troy might help prep for Tide

Petrino goes into Bryant-Denny with an 0-3 record.

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Let the caterwauling commence in earnest now.

All the grievances after the Razorbacks' back-to-back wins to open the season are no longer illusory. If a Sun Belt conference team can waltz into Fayetteville and easily beat the spread, rack up 450-plus total yards and expose so many defects on this Hog team, then we are surely on the Highway to Houndstooth Hell via Tuscaloosa, no?

But for two yanked field goals and a whiffed potential TD reception, Troy would have been more than a common seasonal pest Saturday night. The Trojans, at times depicted by the awful CSS broadcast team as some kind of Paul Crewe-led band of miscreants, crept within 10 points on a pick-six in the third quarter and had a chance to draw closer. As atrocious as Arkansas was over the final three periods, Troy was actually quite good in that same span. 

To be fair, Troy actually is quite good. Corey Robinson is on the O'Brien watch list and may be more adept than any SEC opponent's signal-caller, given that Stephen Garcia is criminally overhyped (or criminally something) and Tyler Bray is still a shade erratic. The Trojans have a bevy of able receivers. Their defense plays fast and loose. Lost amid the rancor over the Razorbacks' showing is the fact that Troy regularly gives high-level opposition fits, led Clemson at halftime before fizzling late and has won 41 games the past five seasons.

This, of course, cannot routinely pardon the Razorbacks' malaise. What we witnessed was unsettling, chiefly because all engine components had substantial, crippling breakdowns at some point. After Arkansas opened a 31-7 lead in the third quarter, Zach Hocker pushed his kickoff out of bounds to set Troy up for a two-play scoring burst. Later, Joe Adams did an Ed Scissorhands on a dying-duck punt, one of two fumbles he lost in a span of 10 minutes.

The absence of a consistent pass rush was a mild blight on the first two blowouts, but it really reared its garish head against the Trojans. Robinson was rarely under duress, possibly because Willy Robinson feared his common namesake's ability to fling on the run, but Troy's tackles stood up alarmingly well to what little pressure they faced. Once the ball went aloft, neither Isaac Madison nor Darius Winston provided enough of an impediment (at least not within the rules) to the Trojan flankers snatching it out of the air.

Offensively, things went awry after a sharp first quarter. Tyler Wilson missed short throws and made suspect decisions. Adams and Chris Gragg had prolific receiving numbers, but with Greg Childs and Jarius Wright sidelined, the junior quarterback appeared to lack confidence in his second tier (Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton, Marquel Wade, et al) and when he hesitated he was promptly decked. If pass "protection" continues to be scattershot then Brandon Mitchell will see action against the Tide out of necessity.

It was, in short, a forgettable game. But for the coaches, such a listless display has great utility. Hammering Troy by seven touchdowns would have appealed to our aesthetic sensibilities; beating the Trojans by only 10, though, may well have been the most ideal prep for what's on the horizon.

Alabama will not replicate Troy's 3:1 pass-to-run ratio. It will instead lean heavily on Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy out of conventional power sets and, on occasion, offensive coordinator Jim McElwain will trot out the wildcat/wild-elephant/single-wing/running-back-takes-the-damn-snap. That qualifies as spice in the Tide's methodical attack, which is built on a Tecmo Bowl playbook but executed with Madden-level precision. Quarterback A.J. McCarron is being bottle-fed at this point: In the Tide's win over Penn State, he logged only 163 yards on 31 attempts, with most of his throws being short drag or crossing routes.  

That sort of ball control invigorates a Bama defense already flush with NFL talent and big-game experience. The Tide has yielded less than 300 total yards per game, on average, in each of the past three seasons. Arkansas rolled up 301 before halftime in last season's 24-20 loss but only 120 the rest of the way, which also proves that nobody makes the proverbial halftime adjustment quite like Saban does.   

How Arkansas counterpunches is the fulcrum on which the game will tilt. Bobby Petrino is 0-3 against Alabama, the defeat of a year ago leaving a nasty scar. The Razorbacks have not won at Bryant-Denny Stadium since a fluky overtime victory in 2003, when the Hogs had eased into the Top 10 nationally and Alabama was reeling after a loss to Northern Illinois. The program's record there is 1-5 since Danny Ford's unlikely two-game winning streak in the late 1990s. 

Arkansas still itches for that landscape-changing road victory. Here's hoping that one messy win over a Sun Belt team somehow serves as the catalyst for it.

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