State of the Hogs: Top 10 (Rutgers)

AJ Derby

In Bret Bielema's style of play, it's always what happens up front that counts. Arkansas takes a step up as far as physical play this week at Rutgers. Can the Hogs maintain that edge going forward? It's not just a key this week, but may answer some questions about the SEC schedule.

So much of the talk this week has been quarterbacks. Will Brandon Allen play for Arkansas? He's doubtful with a shoulder injury. Will Gary Nova go for Rutgers? He's probably can play this week after taking a hit to the chin that caused a concussion.

But it's the quarterback on the defensive side of the ball that might be just as important as Arkansas and Rutgers kickoff at 2:30 p.m. (Central) at Piscataway, N.J., for ESPN cameras. Yes, who is going to play middle linebacker against smash-mouth running?

Is that a key to the game? That was the question put to Arkansas coach Bret Bielema late in the week.

"I appreciate the question," Bielema said. "I think the middle linebacker is an important position in a 4-3, and both teams run a 4-3. They are going to be big parts to the game.

"The middle linebacker in a 4-3 is like the quarterback for the defense. He makes the calls, he gets everyone lined up right. He is the field general of the defense, coordinating everything.

"I think the middle linebacker has a lot to do with how you stop the run, with the fits and just organization. I think this game, when it's over, you'll look back and see that a lot of it was about how each team played defense. It's going to be a big part of this week."

So we'll start there with our keys to victory in our weekly Friday column. Just like quarterback, you may need a game program to figure out who is the man at linebacker.

1, ALL ABOUT LINEBACKER -- It's about the comings and goings at linebacker on both sides of the ball. Fortunately, for Arkansas, they are the one with the comings and not the goings. Fifth-year senior Austin Jones started the first three weeks, partly because his main competition in camp, sophomore Otha Peters, went down with a broken forearm. Peters returned last week. He should be able to split time with Jones and may be more of a physical inside linebacker to help battle Rutgers running back Paul James, a tough inside runner. On the opposite side, Rutgers is down a man at linebacker and he's a great one, team captain Jamal Merrell. He's been a steadying force beside redshirt freshman Steve Longa, the starter at mike linebacker for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers weakside linebacker Kevin Snyder is the beast of that group, a 6-3, 235-pound junior. Snyder leads the Knights with 20 tackles and is considered the team's best tackler.

2, QUARTERBACKS -- When it's not about the quarterbacks, it's still about the quarterbacks. It's been interesting to hear both head coaches talk about the game plan. Both say it doesn't change either for the defense or the offense no matter who is out there at quarterback. Bielema said Allen is a game-time decision, although he was wearing a sling until as late as Wednesday and has yet to try to throw a pass. He may or may not try to throw one Saturday morning at the hotel, but most expect Allen to miss this game. Nova has practiced and Rutgers practices are open. So the media in New Jersey covering the Scarlet Knights know that Nova is at least in the plan. Both Nova and backup Chas Dodd, a senior with starting experience, got equal reps this week in case Nova's concussion symptoms returned. AJ Derby took all of the first-team snaps for the Hogs. Austin Allen is the backup. Flood said, "We don't expect their plan to change based on who plays quarterback. We know Coach Bielema's background at Wisconsin and what they've done here through three games. They are going to run the ball. We won't really know the starter, though, perhaps until we see them in pre-game warmups." Obviously, the Rutgers staff will be watching to see if Allen can throw in warmups.

3, TIGHT ENDS -- Both teams play a traditional pro-style offense with heavy use of the tight ends. Arkansas has patched its tight end unit together the last three weeks. It was revealed this week that freshman Hunter Henry, who caught five passes in the opener, sustained a leg injury in the second game and was less than full speed last week when his snaps dropped. He's full go this week. Senior Austin Tate missed the first three weeks after undergoing shoulder surgery in the camp. He's back this week. That should take some pressure off of starter Mitchell Loewen for the Rutgers game. Bielema said Loewen won't have to handle 60-snap games anymore with Tate and Henry at full speed and thinks that raises the level of play of the entire unit. The Hogs didn't throw to the tight ends last week, but Bielema said that's back in the plan.

4, STOPPING THE RUN -- Arkansas has stopped the run in decent fashion this year, but there was one possession last week that raised alarms. It came when Southern Miss pulled its tight end and went with four wide receivers out of the pistol. The Golden Eagles turned to hand the ball off and gashed the Hogs with two nice runs. They caught the Hogs with only five in the box. Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge knows that's not the formation Rutgers prefers, but expects to see some of that this week anyway. Partridge said, "Every offensive coach steals a play or two that they see work against an opponent. We had to get that fixed in practice this week. You look at how you defend four wide and you have to make a decision to go light in coverage or light in the box. So we have to be prepared to adjust how we defend and get off blocks in the defensive front much better. I bet we see that formation this week." That's just part of the overall goal, stopping the run. Partridge said, "We know that's what this week is about and they know it. It's about like playing against ourselves." Bielema said, "This is a week of mirror philosophies. Stopping the run is important."

5, OUTSIDE MATCHUP -- Arkansas got burned on the outside last year against Rutgers. Big plays were the norm. That's the thing the Hogs have improved the most so far this season. The secondary, with corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines, are much improved over where they were 12 months ago. Mitchel was out with a concussion. Hines was a true freshman and had a tough time against the big, fast, physical Rutgers wideouts. Can Hines and Mitchel match Rutgers group of 6-6 Brandon Coleman and speedy 6-0 Quron Pratt? Conversely, Rutgers has had trouble in the secondary. There is little experience there, but can the UA wideouts do enough to take advantage of that weakness?

6, SPEED -- Normally, an SEC team would figure to have an advantage with speed. That might not be the case in all areas, especially factoring in the Rutgers defensive front. The Scarlet Knights are 260, 280, 260 and 260 across the front. But all are long and agile. They can run to the boundary. Arkansas has hurt all three defenses it has faced with the toss sweep with center Travis Swanson pulling. Is this the week that they stay between the tackles because of a size advantage in the trenches? Or does Arkansas have the speed in the offensive line to match the Rutgers quickness? Arkansas will have to match the Rutgers speed at wide receiver. Those are big areas of concern as the Hogs head to Piscataway.

7, SPECIAL TEAMS -- Rutgers has been suspect at placekicker. Kyle Federico and Nick Borgese have taken turns as the starter. It's back to Federico this week, but Floods hinted that there could be a change during the game if Federico doesn't perform. Arkansas is in the steady hands of senior Zach Hocker. Both Hocker and Sam Irwin-Hill are available to handle punting duties and they both could punt in the game. Hocker has been bothered by a sore leg, but seems to be full speed now.

8, O-LINE INJURIES -- Rutgers didn't have center Betim Bujari last week because of a head injury. He's back this week. Arkansas is fighting through injuries at offensive tackle where Grady Ollison, with Denver Kirkland as the backup, is trying to play through an ankle sprain and David Hurd re-injured his knee. Hurd didn't miss any snaps. Look for Kirkland to spell Ollison and possibly play the bulk of the game. Kirkland excels in pass protection for a freshman. He's not a liability in that area, as are most first-year tackles.

9, TRENCH PLAY -- Arkansas has won the battle up front in each of the first three games. Do the Hogs have an advantage here this week? It may be the key to the game. This is a step up in opposition and there are no clear answers to all questions about this area of the team. It's not just a key this week, but a key to where the Hogs are as they move into SEC play. Everything hinges on Arkansas being improved at the point of attack with better pad level under this coaching staff. Does that show up this week, or is it a sign that the Hogs are going to struggle moving forward against SEC opposition?

10, ATMOSPHERE -- The Hogs are leaving the state for the first time. Rutgers had sold all but 1,000 tickets as of Thursday afternoon. It should be a rocking atmosphere in High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway. Obviously, the Scarlet Knight fans wear red, but this week a black-out has been ordered and the team will wear all black. Fans are asked to do the same. Arkansas fans, in their traditional red, will stand out. It's the first Arkansas game in the Northeast in over 70 years. There will be some Arkansas fans there. How many? What will the crowd noise be? Can the young Arkansas quarterback handle it?

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