September 22, 2006

BOL Breakdown: Alabama at Arkansas

The Alabama Crimson Tide (3-0, 1-0 in SEC) will take to the road for the first time this season when it travels to Fayetteville for an SEC Western Division showdown with the Arkansas Razorbacks (2-1, 1-1). Saturday's winner will remain in the hunt for a spot in the SEC Championship game, while the loser will need a lot of help and an upset or two of its own to get back into the title chase.

BOL senior writer Travis Reier provides an in-depth look at this week's match-up.

Alabama running game vs. Arkansas run defense: After rushing for 78 yards on 14 carries against ULM last week, Kenneth Darby said he was beginning to feel more comfortable. Kind of odd that a back with 543 career carries would need a few games to settle in, but the important thing is that Darby appears to have found his stride. After pressing in the first six quarters of the season, the senior has been more patient over the last six.

Edge: With most of its starting front seven returning intact, Arkansas' defense was supposed to be extremely stingy against the run in 2006. Defensive tackles Marcus Harrison and Keith Jackson have posted impressive tackle numbers, but their production hasn't translated into unit-wide success against the run. Vanderbilt ran for 240 yards on the Hogs last week and Southern Cal ran for 192 in opener. Arkansas has given up five rushing touchdowns in three games and ranks 10th among SEC defenses against the run. The biggest concern for Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring involves finding a capable replacement for Freddie Fairchild at strongside linebacker. Fairchild, who brings to mind a young DeMeco Ryans, was lost for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL in Week Two. On Monday, Razorbacks head coach Houston Nutt announced that safety Matt Hewitt was moving to SAM. Despite having never played the position, Hewitt is listed as this week's starter. I'd tell you to keep an eye on Arkansas weakside linebacker Sam Olajubutu, but he isn't hard to find. The senior recorded 12 tackles and two sacks against the Tide a year ago. Alabama mustered 128 rushing yards in last season's win over Arkansas. Slight edge to Alabama here.

Key match up: Alabama center Antoine Caldwell and guards Justin Britt and B.J. Stabler and Marlon Davis vs. Arkansas defensive tackles Marcus Harrison and Keith Jackson.

Alabama passing game vs. Arkansas pass defense: A lot of the hoopla this week has centered on John Parker Wilson making his first road start. You never know how a young quarterback will respond to playing in front of a hostile crowd, but Wilson hasn't shown signs of going fetal in Fayetteville. For Wilson, this week will be similar to the previous three, with Arkansas focusing on taking away the run. But for Wilson's receivers, it will be much more of a physical test than what they've seen to date. Simply put, Arkansas' corners will attempt to beat them down at the line of scrimmage. If Keith Brown, DJ Hall and the rest of receiving corps can't beat the press, it won't matter what Wilson does. If they can, look for those guys to pickup a lot of yards after the catch. Southern Cal gashed the Hogs by throwing to the tight end and fullback in the Trojans' 50-14 win. USC tight end Fred Davis and fullback Ryan Powdrell combined for 131 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Seeing as how the offenses at USC and Alabama resemble one another from a philosophical standpoint, look for more of Le'Ron McClain, Tim Castille, Travis McCall and Nick Walker in the passing game this week.

Edge: Arkansas defensive backs have yet to record an interception this season, but that doesn't mean they haven't played well. Due in large part to the play of cornerback Chris Houston, the secondary limited two of the nation's top receivers -- Southern Cal's Dwayne Jarrett and Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett -- to 35 and 31 receiving yards, respectively. Much like Alabama's Ramzee Robinson, opponents have gone away from Houston this season. We'll call this one even.

Key match up: Alabama's wide receivers vs. Arkansas' press coverage.

Mike Shula's first offensive play call will be: Draw to Darby.

Don't be surprised if: Darby has his first 100-yard rushing game of the season.

Arkansas running game vs. Alabama run defense: A load. That best describes an Arkansas offensive line that returns four starters and averages 317 pounds per man. And forget about offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's background with the spread offense, if Nutt is going out, he's going out with the ball in the hand of tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Malzahn brings additional formations and some shotgun to the offense, but the Hogs will lean heavily on the running game Saturday. After basing out of a three-man front in the first three games of the season, look for more four-down from Alabama's defensive line this week.

Edge: Like the Hogs, Alabama heads into this one with concerns at strongside linebacker. Senior starter Terrence Jones sustained a shoulder injury in last week's win over ULM and is questionable for the Razorbacks. If Jones can't go, Zach Schreiber and Demarcus Waldrop are next in line, although weakside starter Juwan Simpson could also see some reps at SAM. Edge to Arkansas.

Key match up: Alabama defensive tackles Jeremy Clark, Dominic Lee and J.P. Adams vs. Arkansas center Jonathan Luigs and guards Stephen Parker and Robert Felton.

Arkansas passing game vs. Alabama pass defense: We have yet to see Malzahn's complete version of the spread, and as long as Nutt is in charge we likely won't. Sure, the Razorbacks are in the shotgun more these days than they've been in the past, but a complete transformation to Malzahn's attack won't be taking place anytime soon. In addition to being comfortable in his old high school coach's system, Arkansas quarterback Mitch Mustain has the luxury of being familiar with a couple of former prep teammates -- wide receivers Damian Williams and tight end Ben Cleveland. With Mustain making his third career start, it's doubtful that Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines will give the true freshman the same look twice in a row on passing downs. The Razorbacks' pass protection has been good for the most part. Like Alabama, Arkansas has given up three sacks this season.

Edge: So who draws the assignment of covering Marcus Monk? Depending on the formation, it could be Robinson or Simeon Castille. As good as the 6-foot-6 junior is, Alabama's corners are talented enough to man him up. And when he has deep support, safety Jeffrey Dukes' great range will help against Monk's size and leaping ability. The wildcard here is Arkansas fullback Peyton Hillis, who has been hampered by deep thigh bruise this week. Although his numbers through three games have been fairly modest (six catches for 54 yards), he's a threat when coming out of the backfield. Edge to Alabama.

Key match up: Alabama cornerbacks Ramzee Robinson and Simeon Castille vs. Arkansas wide receivers Marcus Monk and Damian Williams.

Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's first play call will be: Zone to McFadden.

Don't be surprised if: The Hogs rush for more than 200 yards.

Special Teams: With Terry Grant (shoulder) out for the remainder of the season, DJ Hall will join Javier Arenas back deep on kickoff returns for the Tide. Alabama ranks eighth in the SEC in kickoff returns. Jamie Christensen's return to kickoff duties led to an excellent performance by UA's kickoff team against ULM. Special teams coordinator Dave Ungerer will continue to start Simeon Castille back deep on punt returns, but Ungerer will work Arenas into the mix as the game wears on. Placekicker Leigh Tiffin and punter P.J. Fitzgerald have performed well at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Now we'll see how they respond to life on the road.

Edge: Arkansas punter Jacob Skinner is averaging 40.8 yards per punt. Five of his 16 punts have pinned opponents inside their own 20. Alabama ranks tenth in the SEC in punt return average. After missing a field goal and an extra-point against Utah State, Stephen Arnold was replaced by sophomore Jeremy Davis in the Vanderbilt game. Davis made good on all three of his PATs last week. Meanwhile, Brian Vavra is back to handle kickoffs. Vavra has one touchback on 11 kickoffs this season. Hillis is the Hogs' top punt returner. The junior currently ranks third in the SEC, averaging 13.4 yards per return. If he can't go this week, flanker Cedric Washington is in line to take Hillis' place. Even with Jones joining London Crawford back deep, Arkansas' kickoff return unit is averaging just 19.17 yards per attempt through three games. Alabama gets the nod.

Game prediction: In the immortal words of Dave Rowe, college football soothsayer, the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win this one. Based on their play in the first three games of the season, that would be the Tide, which owns a +5 turnover margin (compared to the Razorbacks' -7). Alabama 23, Arkansas 21.

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