September 13, 2007

Alabama-Arkansas: How they match up

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John Parker Wilson played one of his best games of the season at Arkansas last year, and gets the Hogs at home this time around against a defense that lost significant talent. Whatever factors conspired to hamper Wilson's performance at Vanderbilt last week, however, must not resurface Saturday if Alabama is to win. A big pass play early in the game would help loosen things.


Casey Dick's numbers against Troy were pedestrian (11 of 20, 108 yards), but also mistake-free (no interceptions). That's exactly what coach Houston Nutt will be looking for Saturday from Dick - just enough to occasionally make Alabama pay a price for a loaded front, but more importantly avoid miscues that send the running game to the sideline.


Through two games, the returns on Alabama's offensive line have been positive. The run blocking has been especially strong, and will need to be up to the task Saturday against an Arkansas defensive front that returns standout tackle Marcus Harrison from suspension. The Razorbacks disguise things defensively more than most, something Alabama's line should have enough experience to handle.


The Razorbacks have one of the league's elite centers in Jonathan Luigs, but are lacking in experience elsewhere after losing most of the starting offensive line from a year ago. Two hallmarks of Nutt offensive lines - experienced or not - are size and aggressiveness. Guard Mitch Petrus is the shrimp of the group at 6-4, 295 pounds, and senior tackle Nate Garner stands 6-7, 320.


Terry Grant makes his primetime television debut with a two-game average of 153.5 yards. Anything over 100 for Grant Saturday would represent notice around the league that Alabama's offense has achieved the balance it lacked a year ago. Arkansas' physical style may dictate more load-sharing among Alabama's other backs, as Alabama coach Nick Saban has often mentioned the need to keep Grant fresh. Banged-up backups Jimmy Johns (ankle) and Glen Coffee (shoulder) practiced Wednesday.


Darren McFadden and Felix Jones are the toughest challenge of the season for Alabama's defensive front, and not just the season to date - that's the entire schedule. Each comes off a 1,000-yard season in 2006. McFadden softens defenses with a physical style, yet can beat a secondary in a footrace. Jones is smaller, but still likes to run North-South. Neither will be caught from behind in this game.


DJ Hall needs 34 yards to become Alabama's all-time leading receiver in the yardage category, and if his past performances against Arkansas are any indication, he's a good bet to set the mark in the first quarter. Matt Caddell and Mike McCoy have played the most after Hall, followed by a parade of fourth-receiver candidates participating in what appears to be game-day auditions. A breakout game for someone other than Hall may be the tonic the Alabama passing game needs.


Last year it was linebacker Freddie Fairchild who missed the Alabama game with an injury - this year it appears to be Marcus Monk. Though it hasn't been confirmed to a certainty, all signs point to the standout receiver sitting this one out with knee trouble. That's a significant blow to Arkansas' ability to throw over the top of a stacked defense, but 5-foot-7 dynamo Reggie Fish is a dangerous open-field threat who can't be forgotten.


While Alabama's defensive line still appears to have a long way to go from a pass-rush standpoint, it's better against the run that it is often given credit for. Bobby Greenwood and Wallace Gilberry are no small reason why the Crimson Tide stifled Vanderbilt's rushing attack last week. Watch for noseguard Lorenzo Washington to see more action on third down than he did last week.


Marcus Harrison's return from suspension gives Alabama's offensive front the biggest challenge it has seen from a defensive tackle thus far this season. Ends Antwain Robinson and Adrian Davis are somewhat short on size, but neither lacks athleticism. Robinson is considered the line's best talent, but it was Davis who stood out against Troy (six solo tackles, two for loss, pass break-up.)


Alabama's inexperience here could prove to be a problem against Arkansas. It will be interesting to see if Prince Hall, who is at his best against the run, will garner more playing time than he did a week ago. Don't be surprised if run blitzes and other calls designed to get the linebackers into the backfield are employed often. Against Arkansas' offensive backfield, defenders are better off attacking than playing read/react.


Weston Dacus is the senior leader of this group, and showed it in the opener with nine tackles and a sack against Troy. Getting Dacus blocked will be critical for Terry's Grant's rushing efforts. Freddie Fairchild is a young talent with high potential who missed last year's Alabama game. Ryan Powers is a 210-pound freshman who should be on a steep learning curve Saturday.


The nickel package that has seen extensive action through two games will likely be sidelined for much of the Arkansas game. Safety Rashad Johnson made his first career interception last week and is active in run support. Corners Simeon Castille and Lionel Mitchell are one of the league's better tandems in coverage, but their coverage skills won't be challenged as often as their tackling skills against this offense.


Sophomore cornerback Jerell Norton led Arkansas in tackles against Troy with 10, and broke up three passes. On the other side, senior Matterral Richardson has excellent size for a corner and would start for almost every team in the SEC. Like Alabama, Arkansas isn't quite as strong in coverage at the safety spots. Look for the Razorbacks secondary to be challenged early.


Kicker Leigh Tiffin and punter P.J. Fitzgerald both improved from game one to two, while the return game has done major damage in both games. Fitzgerald can go a long way toward helping Alabama's defense with the field position he would create with a few long punts. Last week's twin punt returner formation will return to Javier Arenas flying solo.

Special Teams

Felix Jones took a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown against Troy, and will be a challenge for Alabama's kickoff unit. Alex Tejada opened the season impressively with a 4-for-4 effort, but wasn't challenged distance-wise. Jeremy Davis, whose poor performance kicking field goals against Alabama nearly cost Arkansas the game, is punting this year and hit a 49-yarder in the opener.


Prediction: Arkansas 28, Alabama 24

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