You never know what mind games are being played when you talk to coaches and players each week. Just rest assured, there are games within the games in college football.
It can be that a smoke screen is being hung up for the opposition to read. There is real paranoia among coaches.
It’s like they worry that the other side has the ability to view practice with its own satellite. Or, one little false tidbit of information might skew the ability to formulate a good game plan.
For instance, it’s clear that there are some games going on with the health of quarterback Austin Allen. One day the word from Bret Bielema is that Allen’s sore shoulder probably isn’t healed enough to play this week. On Monday, the word was that Allen is probably still two weeks away.
Hence, it makes sense that Cole Kelley is the starter again this week as the Arkansas quarterback against Auburn. No one is complaining too much because the 6-7, 268-pound man-child completed 23 of 42 passes for 200 yards last week against No. 1 Alabama. Let him play again, the fans seem to be saying.
Then comes the word on Wednesday from Bielema that although Allen didn’t practice Tuesday, there was a session on the side where the fifth-year senior threw some passes. Bielema said he might be ready on Saturday. That doesn’t mean he’ll play, but there is some vagueness in all of that to make the Auburn preparation a little more complex.
If that wasn’t enough, I walked into the interview room Wednesday night thinking Arkansas defensive players would have a definite recollection of what happened last year against Auburn. The Tigers won 56-3 in a game that shocked everyone. Arkansas entered as the nation’s No. 17 team. The No. 21 Tigers were cruising at 21-0 in the first quarter. The only Arkansas score came on the last play of the first half, a field goal by Adam McFain.
The Tigers put up 543 yards rushing, the most given up by one SEC team against another. Wouldn’t that be worth putting on the white board to never forget?
Apparently, it’s not what the Hogs are talking about behind closed doors. It was guys like me who made them talk about it, although that might be what they are saying, not what they are telling guys like me.
“You certainly don’t forget it,” said Vernon Hargreaves, the inside linebackers coach for the Hogs. “But last year is last year. What we are talking about us just finding a way to win a game.”
Stopping the run would be the place to start. Auburn has a fine passing quarterback in Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham. He’s completing 65.5 percent of his passes for 1,510 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s thrown only two interceptions.
But it’s the running game that is the Auburn calling card. Kerryon Johnson, sometimes taking direct snaps, is the top threat. He averages 5.7 yards and has scored 13 touchdowns, No. 1 nationally.
“They can throw the ball, yes,” Hargreaves said. “But at the end of the day, they want to run the ball. It’s no secret. They have all kinds of formations, motions, shifts and personnel groups, but all of them are designed to create room in the running game. That’s what they do.”
Yes, the Tigers have a new offensive coordinator in Chip Lindsey. Don’t expect the plays to look any different. If Lindsey has brought in new plays, they are only variations on what head coach Gus Malzahn was already doing. It still looks like the single wing on steroids.
“It’s very similar,” Hargreaves said. “It’s a lot of the same things. The quarterback is new and he throws it better, but it’s the same plays.”
Defensive captain Kevin Richardson, who plays the nickel position, didn’t play in the game last season. He missed all but the first game with a torn pectoral tendon. He didn’t discuss the 56-3 game much on Wednesday.
“We know it happened,” he said. “We just want to show what we can do in this game. It’s not about that game. We want to put some new things on film and make people remember that, not last year.”
Freshman cornerback Kamren Curl was playing at Muskogee High School when last year’s beat down took place.
“I know about it,” he said. “We all do. All I know is that I’ve dreamed of playing in games like this. I’m excited.”
Now that the mental side has been covered, it’s time to look at the keys for the Razorbacks to slow down that Auburn running game.
DISCIPLINED EYES — It’s no secret that the run-pass option as executed by Auburn — with linemen taking advantage of the NCAA rules to roll downfield three yards — is the secret to the offense. Is it run or pass?
“That’s what they do,” Curl said. “It’s trickery. You have to be real disciplined with your eyes. The run-pass part of what they do makes you hold your position.
“They are going to run the Wildcat. Again, it’s about playing disciplined. You stay in your run fit. You have to play your position and everyone has to play together.”
Richardson said the Hogs have gotten a great look from the scout team in practice.
“It’s been a good week of practice,” he said. “They play games to make you take your eyes off the keys and follow that motion back. It can trick your eyes.”
MIND GAMES — Speaking of mind games, it’s been a part of this game ever since Bielema arrived at Arkansas. There have been accusations of players faking injuries to slow down the other team’s offense. There have been trick plays. And there have been discussions of up-tempo offenses being dangerous for the players because of increased risk with higher play totals. I wonder if that will come up when the two head coaches visit?
There was discussion from Bielema (and Alabama coach Nick Saban, too) in the first two years he arrived in the SEC. Lo and behold, Arkansas played some up-tempo against Alabama last week, with some success. There is some irony and maybe a little humor in that twist.
Offensive coordinator Dan Enos said that’s still in the Arkansas offensive package. It was installed to take advantage of a Allen’s experience at quarterback, but still utilized with Kelley, a redshirt freshman.
Last week against Alabama, Bielema had given game officials the heads up before the game that the Arkansas offensive plans included at least some up-tempo possessions, during which the Hogs would not substitute so that the Tide would not be allowed to change personnel, either.
“They held up the play once for Alabama to change personnel,” Bielema said, noting he then talked to game officials again to remind them not to hold the snap for defensive changes.
Neither Bielema nor Enos would reveal whether or not that would be the plan against Auburn this week, but it could include up-tempo.
“We’ve had it in,” Enos said. “We work on it. That’s (Bielema’s) call when we use it.”
DEFENSE — Simply put, the advantage in this game lies with the Auburn defense. It’s a similar concept (multiple 3-4) as played by Alabama. Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele spent time on Saban’s staff.
Auburn ranks 13th nationally in total defense and ninth in scoring defense, allowing 298.3 yards and 15 points. The Tigers have held the opposition to either zero or negative yards on 37.2 percent of their snaps.
The Hogs allow 374.3 yards per game. They have only 10 sacks and have forced only 25 lost yardage plays. Auburn has forced 47. If there is a good number to note for the Hogs, the Auburn offense has been tagged for 48 lost-yardage plays.
“Auburn is very similar to Alabama,” Enos said. “Steele is from that tree. The defensive line is good with their hands. They get in gaps.
“What I know, in this league, that’s what you sign up for. Every SEC defensive line is good. We thought South Carolina was good, but after the game we found out they were better than we thought.
“Since I’ve been here, there has not been a week where you say we’ve got a week off. You better take care of your body, get some rest and do the right things to be ready for a physical game each week.”
RUNNING GAME — Auburn has scored 19 rushing touchdowns and allowed just four on the ground. Arkansas has scored 11 on the ground and allowed 12. That last number is a slight improvement over last year when the Hogs allowed a school-record 39 rushing touchdowns. Auburn scored seven of those.
The Arkansas running game has been by committee. No one has found enough room to get into rhythm. Chase Hayden is the leader with 284 yards. Devwah Whaley is next at 264 and David Williams has 240. Midway through the season it would appear Bielema’s streak of 1,000-yard rushers is in jeopardy.
There is little doubt that the Tigers can get run happy. Why not when it’s been so good to Malzahn. But they got a little grounded against LSU last week. Auburn called 17 running plays on first down. That maybe allowed LSU to commit a little more to stopping the run.
Maybe Auburn will be more balanced this week against Arkansas. Will that help or hurt the Razorbacks?
THE KELLEY FACTOR
— Enos praised Kelley’s play against Alabama, although noting there were things to clean up like his interception.
“He played good,” Enos said. “He handled the environment. He communicated well. He made plays. We can clean up some things.
“But, he played with poise. He played with confidence. I liked his demeanor, how he responded. I loved the competitive nature. He stood in and took some hits and delivered some throws.”
The competitive fire was something Enos saw in Kelley in the recruiting process.
“There are things you recruit to,” he said. “First, how is the quarterback physically and what are his abilities? After you check all of those boxes, you look at the intangibles and the mental side. Will he compete?
“The best thing Cole did at Alabama, he competed to win the whole game. I guy like that you can build on.”
The communication between quarterback and coach was good during the game.
“I’ve been coaching or around quarterbacks for 27 years,” Enos said. “I’ve been in a lot of coach-quarterback dialogues. What is the quarterback seeing and can he tell the coach. What I’m saying is that the communication I got from Cole told me the moment was not too big for him. He was communicating what he saw and it was verified.”
As far as last play of the half and Kelley challenging the official, Enos said, “That’s why we recruited him, his competitive nature. He tries to make every play count and he thought the guy grabbed and held and wanted to talk to the official. I’ve rather have that than not.”
It’s clear that the players rally to Kelley.
“I did sense in fall camp that the team is confident in Cole,” Enos said. “He’s really likeable. The guys respect his work ethic. He tries to have a relationship with players, both sides of the ball. His attitude is infectious. He’ll joke about himself.”
CONFIDENCE — Arkansas has not won a Power 5 game since the trip to Mississippi State last season. Where does that leave the team’s confidence? One things is for sure, Kelley does not lack for confidence. It’s one of his strengths and his team seems to feed off of the Lafayette, La., product.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I’d say this, but I think my confidence is higher now — even higher than before the Alabama game,” Kelley said.
Told teammates and coaches like his confidence, Kelley said, “I think if the quarterback doesn’t have confidence, you wouldn’t expect the team to be confident in the quarterback.”
There wasn’t a better confidence boost than Bielema putting the ball in Kelley’s hands for the two-minute drill at the end of the first half. Kelley was disappointed he didn’t deliver on the goal line on a last-second pass to Cheyenne O’Grady. Alabama defender Ronnie Harrison was hanging over O’Grady’s back when the ball arrived. Kelley challenged the referee on the play as the teams left the field for halftime.
“Coach B showed a lot of confidence in me,” Kelley said. “I thought it was a great route by our receiver. I put the ball in a good spot. The only way the defender could have made a play on it was to be draped all over him. I talked to the ref. I was frustrated not to get that call.”
Just seeing Kelley confront the referee speaks volumes for his confidence. Not many freshmen would be ready for that sort of conversation on the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
SPECIAL TEAMS — Auburn gave up a punt return for a touchdown in last week’s loss at LSU, so the Tigers haven’t been perfect in special teams. But they may have the nation’s best placekicker in Daniel Carlson.
Carlson is 14 of 18 this season with a long of 54. He’s 3 of 5 from beyond 50 yards. He’s 9 of 10 in four SEC games this season. Carlson holds 12 Auburn kicking records, including 169 straight made PATs.
It’s not so good on the Arkansas side. The Hogs were the last team in the FBS to make a field goal. Connor Limpert has made both of his attempts after taking over from Cole Hedlund after the TCU game. Hedlund missed from 23 and 20 yards against the Horned Frogs. Limpert’s makes are from 48 and 30 yards.
However, Limpert missed an extra point in the Alabama game, so it’s not like he’s built a lot of confidence.
The Hogs have not had much luck in the return game. They have attempted just one punt return this season. There was a fair catch last week when there were 15 yards of clear sailing.
THE SERIES — Obviously, the game at Auburn last year wasn’t close, but this series has been tight generally. Auburn leads 14-11-1 with the Tigers winning six of 11 in Fayetteville. Counting an Arkansas victory in Little Rock in 1995 that put the Hogs in the SEC title game, the series is dead even, 6-6, in games played inside the borders of Arkansas.
Arkansas won the last game in Fayetteville two years ago when it outlasted the Tigers 54-46 in four overtimes. That was the catalyst in a strong Arkansas finish that saw the Hogs win six of seven games to finish 8-5.
No one is predicting that kind of a finish for the Hogs, but the schedule does get lighter after this week. At 2-4, the Hogs know a turnaround starts with the Tigers.
“I just know we have to get a win,” Kelley said. “It doesn’t matter how, just get a win. Every game is important, but we have to get things started and this is the week to do it.”
Bielema seemed to imply that the Hogs are due good fortune.
“We haven’t caught a break,” he said. “Sometimes, that’s all you need to get it going.”
— Arkansas hasn’t been the dominant team this season. They seem to be settling into the 3-4 defensive front with Sosa Agim leading the way. But the offensive line has been shaky and with lots of shuffling of personnel.
It would seem that Bielema liked some of the work last week against Alabama when Frank Ragnow moved from center to right guard, Zach Rogers took over at center, Johnny Gibson moved to left tackle (after playing right guard and right tackle) and Brian Wallace took over at right tackle.
Bielema wouldn’t confirm Monday if that would be his lineup again. He said, “I still like the lineup with Frank at center and Johnny at guard. We aren’t putting (left tackle) Colton Jackson out to pasture.”
So is that just talk to keep Auburn guessing on the Arkansas plans? Probably.
Enos knows that it won’t be easy this week. Auburn’s defensive front has battled through some injuries, but is strong.
“It’s about winning the line of scrimmage,” Enos said. “You look to see if you are playing on their side of the line of scrimmage, or they are playing on our side. We were overmatched against Alabama.”
THE HOME FIELD — Strange as it sounds, this is the first SEC game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium this season. Everyone understands the Hogs play Texas A&M at a neutral site in Arlington, Texas. That was technically the first home league game for the Hogs.
“We know it,” Richardson said. “We are excited to be playing at home.”
Bielema thinks that’s an advantage in several areas, perhaps when Auburn tries to change plays at the line of scrimmage.
“Their offense is built around communication at the line of scrimmage,” Bielema said. “So having a full stadium should help. Hopefully, our crowd makes it tough on them at the line of scrimmage.”
Clay Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . To subscribe to Hawgs Illustrated, call 800 757-6277.
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