A week after a grueling loss to top-ranked Alabama, No. 19 LSU travels for the first time in 49 days to play Arkansas, another physical football team that values ball control.
To find out more about Arkansas, we bring you our Pick 6 series – a Q&A with a beat writer covering LSU’s opponent – for another week. Tom Murphy, who covers the Razorbacks for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, kindly joined us to answer our questions about Bret Bielema’s bunch.
1.) Under Bielema, Arkansas has been known to close the season strong. As an unranked team, it’s beaten five ranked teams in November since 2014, including LSU twice. Have you been able to put a finger on the reason for the late-season success?
For starters, I believe Bret Bielema and his staff do a great job of coaxing maximum effort from the players, for the most part. Specifically, the 2014 team, which was riding a 17-game SEC losing streak, was fueled by vocal leaders like defensive captain Trey Flowers, who was in tears after the Razorbacks lost 17-10 at No. 1 Mississippi State. Arkansas knew it was pretty good that season, but couldn't break through with losses like 14-13 to Bama and losing its 10-0 lead in Starkville.
Arkansas turned in outstanding defensive efforts in the 17-0 win over LSU and a 30-0 shutout of Ole Miss that followed. The Razorbacks would be 7-1 in November since that loss to Mississippi State if not for a 51-50 loss to the Bulldogs last year, when a missed block on a 29-yard field goal led to a blocked kick on a potential game winner in the final minute.
2.) More to the point, why do you think Bielema’s teams match up so well with LSU?
I don't know if there is a specific issue or two that would confirm that assertion. The 2014 team was super motivated and I'm not sure if the Tigers enjoyed playing on a cold, wet evening in Fayetteville. One thing's for certain, the Razorbacks have done a good job of limiting Leonard Fournette in the last two games, with his combined 100 rushing yards the lowest of any two-time opponent, I believe.
By doing that, Arkansas pressured the LSU quarterbacks to beat them, and Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris didn't get that done. Last year's game featured a couple of explosive plays by Dominique Reed and Alex Collins, as well as a touchdown that sprang from a sack-strip by linebacker Dre Greenlaw.
3.) Bielema said he was responsible for certain personnel changes to the Razorbacks defense, calling for them on the Sunday after the Auburn loss. How did those move benefit the Arkansas defense, which held Florida to 12 rushing yards and forced two turnovers?
The most important move was that of Jeremiah Ledbetter from 3 technique to defensive end to better leverage the edge. Additionally, freshman McTelvin "Sosa" Agim played well in his first start at the 3 tech for Ledbetter. End Deatrich Wise Jr., who was a big spark behind Arkansas' 6-1 finish last season, has been slowed by a hand injury, but he provided value as a third-down pass rusher last week.
Finally, Randy Ramsey came in as the Sam linebacker against Florida and played well with a sack and some pressure. I also think the Razorbacks were just flat footed in the loss to Auburn while playing their eighth consecutive game. Clearly they were fresher against Florida.
4.) Rawleigh Williams III has rebounded from a neck injury last year that could have cost him his football career. He’s closing in on 1,000 for the season with four games to play. How impressive has his year been to you?
The first few weeks he played well, but you could see he missed a cut here and there or wasn't patient enough with the blocking scheme and wasn't breaking a ton of tackles. A great example is the Texas A&M game, when he bounced a carry from the 2-yard line wide for a 7-yard loss in the arms of Myles Garrett when replay showed he could have followed an inside crease into the end zone.
All that said, he still had a big 137-yard game in the win at TCU and two more 100-yard games before unloaded on Ole Miss for 180 yards. The last few weeks Williams has been patient behind the blocking schemes and has run through a bunch of tackles. Freshman Devwah Whaley is also coming into his own to provide a 1-2 punch.
5.) Arkansas’ Johnny Gibson received the first start of his career at right guard and eventually moved to left guard due to Hijalte Froholdt’s leg injury. Overall, though, the offensive line play was improved against Florida. What do you think was the difference in that unit’s production?
A week off and the supreme motivator of bouncing back from embarrassment both played a role. Center Frank Ragnow had a massive game against Florida with a handful of big blocks and no pressures allowed on 32 drop backs. The Razorback line had several penalties, including a couple of big ones, but they played physical, won a lot of man-to-man battles and paved the way for 223 rushing yards.
6.) Razorback quarterback Austin Allen, who is third in the SEC in passing yards, injured his knee against Auburn and did not practice during the bye week. He returned against Florida and completed 15-of-26 passes for 243 yards with a touchdown and an interception. How healthy is he at this point?
I'd say healthier than in the Florida game but not as mobile as before his injury vs. Auburn. Knee sprains take a while to get really right. Arkansas did not move the pocket a lot with him, but he was mobile enough when needed. Allen started 3 of 11 for 68 yards, with a pick six, through the first series of the second quarter. He heated up after that, with 12 of 15 passing for 175 yards the rest of the way. LSU's defensive front will be the sixth with great credentials that Allen and the Arkansas O-line has faced, and they have had leakage against each of those units.