I got in touch with the Arkansas bloggers at Razorbacks Expats for a little Q&A action. Read on for insider info on Bobby Petrino, Casey Dick, and the rest of the Hog crew. My answers to their questions are here.
1. The Hogs have shown some improvement over the past few weeks. You guys started off slow, eking out wins over weak opponents and getting blasted by a few elite teams, but you've bounced back with solid wins over Auburn and Tulsa. What has been the key to Arkansas's resurgence? Are you happy with the job Coach Petrino has done and with the direction the team seems to be headed in?
Part of the Hog's improvement probably has to do with a young team gaining more experience and growing more comfortable with Petrino's system. Running back Michael Smith's emergence as a top-notch offensive threat has been a big help as well. And, there had to be a psychological uplift to getting past the Murderers' Row portion of their schedule (consecutive games against Texas, Alabama and Florida) and facing a long, season-ending stretch of games in which they have a chance to at least be competitive.
As far as Petrino, we're definitely happy with the job he's done so far. As we said, he inherited a very inexperienced team, and they've shown noticeable improvement. Perhaps most impressively, he and his staff didn't lose the team during the very ugly start to the season.
2. We've been very pleased with how our defense has performed this year, but the improvement you guys have shown on offense this year has us a little worried. We know you pass the ball a lot, which plays into our hands to a certain degree, but you also have a good tailback in Michael Smith. How will you attack our defense, and what kind of success do you expect to have?
Try as we might, we haven't been able to persuade Petrino to let us sit in on his staff meetings, so we're unable to report on the Hogs' specific plans, but considering that you guys have the best pass defense in the conference, we expect the Hogs to rely heavily on Michael Smith. He had an off game last Saturday against Tulsa, but pretty much carried the team in the several games before that.
Statistically, Arkansas is one of the better passing teams in the SEC, but this aspect of the team has been inconsistent. Quarterback Casey Dick especially has had an up-and-down season, but he looked great last week (he was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week on Monday), and the Hogs' young receivers continue to improve (more on that below). Still, it's hard to see the Hogs winning if Smith has a sub-par outing. We expect to see him have a good game.
3. While your defense has played a little better lately, you've been gouged a few times and, although you created a few key turnovers to keep the score relatively low, you even gave up over 500 total yards to Tulsa. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your defense, and how do you expect Spurrier, Stephen Garcia, and the Gamecocks to attack you? What kind of game do you expect to have Saturday?
It's hard to say that the Razorback defense has a real strength. After all, this is a unit that ranks last in scoring defense, last in total yards per game, last in rushing yards per game and 10th in passing yards per game. There have been some signs of improvement lately, though. According to one article we read the other day, after allowing 38 points per game in their first five contests, the Hogs have allowed only 22.3 points per game in their last four. Total yards allowed has dropped from 388 to 365.5 during that same stretch. And after forcing only three turnovers in the first five games, the defense has forced 11 in the last four. Granted, the level of competition has declined somewhat during this recent stretch.
Looking at South Carolina's offensive stats, we'd expect you guys to primarily come at us through the air. And given the teams' various strengths and weaknesses, we're looking for a fairly low-scoring affair.
4. Do you have any major injuries right now that may affect the outcome of this game?
Well, Darren McFadden has a bad case of turf toe, so it looks like he'll be out. Aside from that case of wishful thinking, there's nothing too major outside the normal stuff that all teams have at this point in the season. Our starting defensive ends, Damario Ambrose and Adrian Davis, both have hurt knees and might not play. All-purpose defensive guy Jerico Nelson and offensive guard Grant Cook might also be out.
Other than that, we worry a bit about Michael Smith. He's been great for us this year, but he's a little guy and, because he's our best offensive player, he tends to get a lot of carries. So he's always a bit at risk to get banged up.
5. Carolina fans know all about players like Casey Dick and Michael Smith, but since you have a young team this year, we're not very familiar with some of your other guys. Tell us a little about one lesser-known player that you expect to be a key performer Saturday.
Actually, we'll give you three for the price of one. The Hogs have a couple of up-and-coming freshman receivers - Jarius Wright and Joe Adams - who have both shown good potential this year. As young guys, they've been inconsistent but have each had some big moments. Wright had a breakout game against Tulsa with 112 receiving yards, for example.
Casey Dick's favorite target is probably sophomore tight end D..J. Williams. He's big and fast, and has shown signs of being a serious playmaker in Petrino's offense. Our guess is that out of the three guys listed here, you'll probably be hearing his name the most over the next couple of years..