LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - We’ll be watching three major areas where Saturday’s Arkansas-TCU game should be decided, and none necessarily revolve around quarterback play or the maligned Arkansas secondary.
Granted, the efforts of Arkansas’s Austin Allen and TCU’s Kenny Hill, who we last saw leading Texas A&M from two touchdowns behind to an overtime win over the Hogs in Jerry World two years ago, will go a long way to determining Saturday night’s outcome at Fort Worth. Everyone we’ve talked with so far seems to believe Arkansas still doesn’t have the pass defenders to stand a chance at stopping Hill and the Horned Frogs’ offense, not after Hill passed for 439 yards and completed 33 of 49 passes against FCS-level South Dakota State. He was also intercepted twice while the game was in doubt, but that statistic hasn’t been talked about because Hill also threw for five touchdowns.
It was thought in preseason, where most thoughts about college football teams appear to turn out wrong, that TCU’s early season strength would revolve around its defense and seven returning starters (eight if you count end James McFarland, who missed all of last season with a toe injury). Again, there is this perception, as with Arkansas, that even though a defense was torched last season, the years’ experience for lots of returning starters will correlate to better play. (Yes, we even ventured to think that might be possible with Arkansas, and no doubt sophomore Dre Greenlaw, above anyone else, is better). Any team that could both run and pass last year rolled TCU – Oregon even led 31-0 at halftime of the Alamo Bowl before deciding it didn’t have to compete in the second half, losing in OT to TCU’s seldom-if-ever-used backup senior quarterback – but the Horned Frogs had the offensive firepower to outscore most people.
However, no team should expect to start a new season as explosive as its last two after needing to replace a brilliant, Heisman-hopeful starter in Trevone Boykin at quarterback. Boykin was just awful in a redshirt sophomore season (2013), TCU coach Gary Patterson’s worst in his 16 in Fort Worth (4-8 overall), but in his last two years he was coached to his strengths by TCU’s brilliant offensive coordinating tandem of Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie. Gone, too, are the speedy running backs B.J. Catalon and Aaron Green, along with wideout Josh Doctson, a recruiting miss by everyone when he first signed with Wyoming but who blossomed into a star when he moved back home and joined the Frogs. TCU also had lots to replace up front.
Yet, at least for one week, there were Kenny Hill and the Frogs putting up 59 points and 662 total yards, albeit against a program they expected to roll.
No doubt Arkansas had the tougher challenge on paper, and yet Vegas expected the Razorbacks to win last week by 26 points. Taking Louisiana Tech and the points was the smart play if you happened to see either or both of Arkansas’s preseason scrimmages and the condition of the Hogs’ offensive line, however. What would anyone else be thinking, with the Hogs starting two players seeing their first offensive line action in a college game, and another starter who was second team at Texas before transferring during the summer to get a graduate degree at UA. La. Tech’s defensive game plan was to take advantage of those newcomers.
People also forgot that, as marvelous as Alex Collins was at making running yards out of nothing, he was also terrific in pass protection. And tight end Hunter Henry may have made every big catch for the Hogs last year, but he also learned how to be a stout blocker over the last two-thirds of the season. It was easy to notice a lot of whiffs by running backs and tight ends in the Hogs’ 21-20 survival against Tech in Fayetteville, and for all that first-time quarterback starter Austin Allen managed on the plus side, getting the Hogs in the right call is still a skill he has yet to master the way his big brother did last year.
All this aside, the three areas to look for Saturday, though, are these that no one has been able to fully answer with just one viewing of each team:
- As troubled as Arkansas’s O-line appeared in pass protection against Louisiana Tech, can it line up and push TCU’s much smaller defensive front for most of 60 minutes? Establishing a running game keeping the ball from Hill and TCU’s offense will be where the Hogs can get a winning edge. With more plays devoted to running, instead of the 33 or more pass calls for Allen last week, maybe we’ll see heralded, speedy freshman Devwah Whaley more.
- Louisiana Tech’s quick passing game negated some of what Arkansas’s defensive line could do, but when the Bulldogs couldn’t run and needed more than dink-and-dunk to get the ball down field late Saturday, the Hogs’ pass rush came up with the biggest play, a tandem sack by DE Deatrich Wise and DT Jeremiah Ledbetter. Against TCU’s rebuilt and young offensive line, will the Razorbacks’ defensive front, maybe the No. 1 strength of this team, control the line of scrimmage, harass Hill into mistakes, and provide another edge for the Hogs?
- Was Arkansas trying to goad TCU into thinking its kicking game coverages are no more improved that what we saw in the Liberty Bowl against the Big 12’s Kansas State? Because against LaTech, Arkansas not only showed it still can’t put a kickoff into the end zone, it also can’t cover the downfield “squib kicks” well either. The Hogs’ gave up a punt return of 32 yards and allowed 28 yards on average on four kick returns. Add in an interception return by Tech, and Arkansas surrendered 157 “hidden” yards, as some coaches refer to the stat, which can turn a game.
Rest assured, while a lot of speed in recent years has moved on, TCU is still plenty fast in its return games (watch receiver Kevontae Turpin, in particular) and will make Arkansas – if it hasn’t cleaned up in this area – pay dearly. Plus, big returns have a way of igniting the frenzy of a sellout crowd of 48,000 in beautiful, rebuilt Amon Carter Stadium, which has been constructed more vertically than, say, War Memorial Stadium, and at times recently has seemed as loud as some SEC stadiums with twice the turnout. We know; we’ve attended some of their bigger home wins the past three years.