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September 24, 2009

Matchup: Arkansas at Alabama

It won't be two players going at it on the field, but in terms of matchups this will be the pinnacle of the University if Alabama's regular season.

Bobby Petrino, offensive whiz and master of offensive game-planning vs. Nick Saban, the equivalent on the defensive side especially when it comes to the secondary. When the Razorbacks have the ball, it'll be strength on strength, and college football's equivalent to a chess match between grandmasters.

"I think it's a great matchup," Crimson Tide senior cornerback Javier Arenas said. "Two awesome coaches."

The overused clichés aside, it's actually not a matchup that Alabama has to win to be successful Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium because the No. 3 Tide has numerous advantages elsewhere.

While much has been made of sophomore quarterback Ryan Mallett's impressive start, and deservedly so, it's been offset by the porous defense.

Specifically, Mallett has completed 38 of 61 passes (62.3 percent), for 717 yards, for six touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer efficiency rating of 193.49 leads the nation, while his 361.5 yards of total offense is fifth. As a team, Arkansas is second in passing offense, total offense and passing efficiency, and eighth in scoring offense (44.5 points).

"Lot of points," junior linebacker Rolando McClain said.

On the flip side, the defense has already yielded 31.0 points per game and 367.5 yards of total offense, which both rank near the bottom of the SEC. During last week's 52-41 home loss to Georgia, the Razorbacks gave up 530 yards of total offense and 20 first downs, with all six touchdowns 20 yards or longer.

The bad news for Arkansas fans is that Alabama is better than Georgia, both offensively and defensively, and has a lot more depth. Consequently, that leaves one major concern for the Tide, Petrino's passing prowess.

"When they get five times more yards throwing than they do running, you have to adapt and play a little bit more coverage and try and take away what they do best," Saban said. "I think there is a balance in all that. I don't think you can compromise and just not be sound against the run and not have all the gaps, because they have two good runners now, and if you do that they are going to come out of the gate on you and they are good space players. I think you have to play the situations in the game, but I also think that you do have to emphasize coverage and be able to play the passes, especially so that you don't give up big plays.

"I think the last game they played, both sides had lots of big plays."

Well, Alabama had a lot more with four interceptions, two for a touchdown, 328 rushing yards and handed Petrino his worst loss as a college head coach, 49-14.

Additionally, rain and thunderstorms are forecasted for the area Saturday (70 percent chance as of Thursday afternoon).

SEC rankings Alabama Arkansas
Scoring offense 4 (42.3) 3 (44.5)
Scoring defense 6 (15.0) 11 (31.0)
Total offense 4 (512.3) 1 (538.0)
Total defense 1 (185.3) 11 (367.5)
Rushing offense 2 (267.7) 12 (110.5)
Rushing defense 1 (42.0) 7 (118.5)
Pass offense 5 (244.7) 1 (427.5)
Pass defense 4 (143.3) 11 (249.0)
Pass efficiency 4 (155.9) 1 (184.0)
Pas defense effic. 9 (103.4) 12 (173.6)
Interceptions 12 (1) 6 (3)
Sacks 1 (10) 8 (4)
Sacks against 4 (3) 2 (2)
First downs 2 (25.3) 11 (23.0)
Third downs 5 (46.3) 12 (25.0)
Opp. third downs 3 (30.2) 9 (34.6)
Time of possession 1 (33:07) 7 (29:16)
Turnover margin 10 (+0) 2 (+3)
Red zone 6 (89.5) 1 (100.0)
Red zone defense 4 (75.0) 9 (100.0)

When Arkansas runs

Running back Michael Smith was Arkansas' bright spot against Alabama last year, with 91 rushing yards and six receptions for 67 yards, but is having injury issues with a shoulder problem.

"He'll be good to go," said Petrino, who has some other options as the position.

One thing Arkansas does very well is complete passes to running backs, who have nine catches for 84 yards this season (9.3 average), but the Razorbacks are last in the SEC in rushing yards and probably won't be able to do much on the ground against the Tide, which has given up just 1.52 yards per carry.

"We're going to play the same way we've been playing," sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "We're going to come into (the) game against Arkansas with the mentality that we can't let them run on us."

Gone from last year's Razorbacks are standout center Jonathan Luigs, who won the 2007 Rimington Trophy, and Jose Valdez. It's your typical huge Arkansas line, everyone's 6-4, 315 pounds or bigger, but appears to be better in pass blocking than the run.

When Arkansas passes

Although Mallet is more than adept at throwing downfield, he's a pro-style quarterback who's not very mobile, playing his first Southeastern Conference road game. Alabama will likely bring pressure from a variety of different places and do everything it can to confuse the tall quarterback or at least make him hesitate and give the pass-rush a chance.

"I think it's a big key," Saban said about the front seven. "I don't think you can commit people to extra rushers all the time to try and get pressure on the quarterback to try and effect the quarterback because you are going to be thinner in the back end, in terms of your coverage. So to be able to get pressure with four guys rushing is really important. I didn't think we did a very good job of that last year in the game we played against them."

Expect a lot of nickel and dime packages and zone coverage, but also for Alabama to unleash Marcell Dareus, Hightower and Eryk Anders by any means possible. If they can get Mallett out of the pocket his effectiveness will dramatically drop.

"Coach Saban does a great job of discussing things and blitzing people at the right time," McClain said. "That's what makes it special. Guys work had and they buy into the system. We're just having success right now because we're all working so hard"

When Alabama runs

Arkansas is averaging only 3.3 yards per carry, but Alabama like to wear opponents down and pound away with multiple running backs.

The Razorbacks returned all four staring defensive linemen and defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard already has 3½ tackles for a loss and at least half a tackle for a loss in 10 straight games. Look for Arkansas to line him up across sophomore right guard Barrett Jones quite a bit.

Senior middle linebacker Wendell Davis leads Arkansas in tackles with15, but the Razorbacks have yet to force a fumble.

"Alabama has a really good offensive line," Petrino said. "Like any other SEC team, they are going to establish the running game first. They have a very good offensive line, good quarter back, and great running backs. They are just an all-around good team."

When Alabama passes

While the college football world has been impressed by Mallett start, consider this statistic: Greg McElroy has completed 20 of 22 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter. In three games he's already set the Tide record for most consecutive completions (14), and tied the mark for completion percentage in a game, minimum 10 attempts (86.7).

Since halftime of Virginia Tech, he's 40-for-51, 553 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Plus, Julio Jones (bruised knee) is expected back.

Meanwhile, the Razorbacks were awful in pass coverage against Georgia.

"We did some bad things," defensive coordinator Willy Robinson told Arkansas reporters Wednesday. "The same group of guys who did some bad things also did some really good things. We aren't going to panic. We have a lot of football left. One thing they did do on a consistent basis was fly around to the football."

Special teams

Except for Dennis Johnson's returning the season-opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown against Missouri State, and a successful reverse for a big return, Arkansas' special teams have not been very good. True freshman Dylan Breeding has a big leg, but is inconsistent. Meanwhile, Arenas' 20.5 punt-return average leads the SEC buy a wide margin.



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