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September 26, 2013

Can Arkansas keep up with A&M on the scoreboard?

The availability of starting quarterback and former Rivals.com four star Brandon Allen looms over the matchup of Arkansas and Texas A&M Saturday night. Allen appeared to have separated his shoulder when he dived in for the Razorbacks' first touchdown of their 24-3 win over Southern Mississippi two weeks ago. He missed the rest of the Southern Mississippi game as well as Arkansas' loss to Rutgers last week.

Backup A.J. Derby has been adequate in Allen's absence. However, there's no denying that the Hogs are missing something when Derby is playing as opposed to Allen. The 6 foot 4 Allen is the son of former Arkansas defensive line coach Bobby Allen and he has the mind of a coach's son, a good arm, and good footwork and mechanics. In addition, Allen is more mobile than Derby and can move around in the pocket.

Even so, the loss of Allen may be mental than physical. Last week against Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights put eight people in the box versus Arkansas dared the Hogs to throw down the field. With too many men to block at times, Arkansas' running game (the basis of their offense) was inconsistent from down to down and they never got any big gains out of it. In addition, they were unable to get Rutgers out of that alignment by throwing the ball down the field.

Nonetheless, Arkansas has lost a number of quality receivers from their previous teams including Michael Adams (who tortured A&M in 2011) and Cobi Hamilton (who had a big game versus A&M in 2012). Guys like Keon Hatcher offer speed at the position but so far they have depended a great deal on play action to get themselves favorable opportunities in man coveage, opportunities that weren't there last week. Although Derby misfired on a few passes, the Hogs' receivers struggled to get separation even in play action situations. The Hogs' longest pass plays came on a fake punt and an option pass.

Even so, discussing Arkansas' passing game (no matter who plays quarterback) is a sideshow compared to the main attraction which is the Razorbacks' running game. Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema brought a power running game with him from Wisconsin and the formula he is using in Fayetteville is the same as the one he used in Madison…big offensive linemen, big backs, and diversity in formations to leverage opponents. The Hogs will line up with a 21 personnel, 12 personnel, and employ two tight ends with one on a wing outside of the other. They will even use unbalanced lines at times much like Alabama did two weeks ago against A&M. They will show essentially a four man surface to one side of the center (two linemen and two tight ends) and then run a play with pulling linemen back the other way. Even though they are built to run inside zone by playing tall and leveraging opponents where they want to go, they also pull their linemen to both the playside and across the center. They don't spread the field very much and reduce their formations with wideouts, fullbacks, and tight ends within the hashes and adjacent to in line personnel.

It starts up front with an offensive line that features four players at 310 pounds or better led by center Travis Swanson and left tackle Dan Hurd. Swanson is mobile enough to pull to lead off tackle plays and get to the second level on scoop blocks. Hurd moves better laterally than right tackle Grady Ollison, who is a sophomore and who struggled last Saturday from both a strength and mobility standpoint. Tight ends Mitchell Loewen, Hunter Henry, and Jeremy Sprinkles are young players and as such lack the strength associated with more experienced players to control defensive and outside linebackers. In addition, as a whole, you'll see Arkansas' offensive linemen grab a lot with their hands on the outside shoulders of the opponent due to their overall lack of foot speed.

Sophomore Jonathan Williams is listed as the starter, but freshman Alex Collins has gotten the bulk of the work so far and is the most productive of the two. Collins is a powerful back who doesn't look anything at all like a freshman physically and he doesn't play like one either. He was a Rivals.com four star coming out of high school and runs with good pad level for a young player, has great feet, and squares up to the hole. He's the ideal runner for Arkansas' offense. Due to Arkansas' inability to back Rutgers off the line of scrimmage, he didn't break any long runs but still totaled 63 yards on 16 carries. Williams is 220 pounds, compact at 5 feet 11 inches, and strong.

The Aggies flip flop their ends and tackles along the front and so any number of matchups are possible. Kirby Ennis has played the best of any A&M defensive lineman this year and he needs to be able to command a double team from Swanson and Arkansas' guards. This will probably be the key matchup along the front because he needs to be able to protect freshman Mike linebacker Darian Claiborne. Claiborne is smart and can run but can't do so with a 310 pound lineman on him. The Razorbacks' guards play tall, but so does A&M tackle Alonzo Williams and the Aggies need him to avoid getting turned on inside zone and to get penetration when those guards pull and run away from him. Ends Gavin Stansbury or Julien Obihoa should have the upper hand against Ollison, the right tackle, but playing against Hurd on the left side will be a challenge. Arkansas runs most successfully to its left behind Hurd and if they can do so consistently then they may be able to set up play action for the big gains they were missing versus Rutgers. Nate Askew's long arms and overall size should enable him to hold up well against Arkansas' young tight ends in the run game and both he and Deshazor Everett have the athleticism to cover them well underneath.

In the secondary, the Aggies are predominantly a three deep look with a safety in the box and the corners allowing short gains but nothing deep. Derby will probably have the ability to complete passes in front of them and move the chains enough to make A&M fans uncomfortable. However, run support is the order of the day this week and with Everett at safety and Tramain Jacobs at corner, A&M can tackle. Howard Matthews is much more comfortable with Everett alongside him at safety and he needs to be able to play centerfield and hold up deep.

The Aggies don't need to necessarily shut down Arkansas' running game as much as they need to avoid long runs between the 20s and allow the Razorbacks to convert red zone situations into touchdowns via the ground game. The Aggies were much better in the red zone versus SMU but the Ponies had a young offensive line and were missing their starting runner. No such luxuries await this week.

At some point, the Aggies need to get back to being closer to the run defense they were last year. They took a step forward last week with the changes in the back seven as Claiborne, Askew, Everett, and Jacobs make A&M a better tackling team than they were in their first three games of the season. Claiborne and Askew need to be sound in their run fits this week as well. It's up to the front four to free up linebackers and safeties to put Arkansas in third and medium or long situations so that they can get off the field. If Arkansas is able to rotate Collins and Williams and consistently gain the five to six yards a carry that A&M has been giving up this season, then not only can they go play action which helps a suspect passing game out but more importantly they reduce the number of possessions in the game.

With A&M having scored touchdowns on 27 of its first 49 possessions to open the season, ball control is not so much about keeping A&M's offense off the field but rather limiting the number of opportunities they have. This is especially important because the Aggies have scored on their first possession in every game but one in which Johnny Manziel has been the starter. That's a tribute to the A&M staff's ability to set up a game plan and also the focus that Manziel brings into any game no matter the importance of the contest and as Alabama showed it takes a special team to weather that kind of storm.

Bielema would probably like to go into the fourth quarter with A&M having just about three possessions a quarter. That's on pace for 12 possessions in the game which means that A&M may still be in the 20's at that point in time as occurred against Alabama (which is much better defensively). However, if the Aggies are on pace for 14 or 15 possessions by that time, then the Aggies will be somewhere in the 30's or perhaps even the 40's. If Allen can't go (and even if he probably does), Arkansas and Bielema are caught up in the Johnny Manziel/Mike Leach conundrum...having to outscore someone when you lack the system, personnel, and philosophy to do so no matter how good your defense is.

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