Todd Van Emst
Can Auburn's offensive line give Kiehl Frazier plenty of protection and open running lanes? Can the Tigers' D-line make life miserable for Tyler Wilson?
Before the season started, how many Auburn fans looked at the Arkansas game on the schedule and said, "That's going to be a must-win game," and how many of you actually thought it was going to be a winnable game? Arkansas started the preseason ranked No. 8. Auburn wasn't quite as highly thought of in comparison. Arkansas has a quarterback that many labeled a future first rounder and on the Heisman preseason watch list, a preseason all-conference running back and a preseason all-conference wide receiver. Who was going to stop that?
Turns out, all it took to derail Arkansas' SEC and national title contention plans was a young blonde woman and a motorcycle. Arkansas still has its playmakers on offense, but with a 1-4 record, the task of beating the Razorbacks doesn't appear to be as daunting. Appearances can be deceiving, though. Auburn has had its own share of struggles early in the season. That's why this game is now a must-win for both teams if either wants a shot at salvaging the season.
The Razorbacks are allowing nearly 350 yards per game through the air and have given up 950 yards rushing on the season, 160 yards per game. They haven't kept (or haven't published) statistics for missed tackles, but if you've watched them play this season you would know that it's been an area of concern for the Hogs. Auburn's offense has been a little underwhelming this year, somewhat understandable considering the Tigers are breaking in a new quarterback and a new system in which he's never played. Still, Kiehl Frazier is completing just 52 percent of his passes and has just two touchdowns to seven interceptions. Frazier and the rest of the Tigers' offense have to get better. Can they put the pieces together against Arkansas?
Offensively, the Razorbacks are putting up big numbers, pretty much as expected. Tyler Wilson is averaging just shy of 340 yards per game through the air with nine touchdowns, but he has thrown five interceptions and is only completing 55 percent of his passes. Watching him on tape, he doesn't seem to be the same quarterback as last season. It could be a lack of confidence and frustrations with the way the season has unfolded. Nevertheless, he has had more success versus Auburn the past two years than any other SEC team. Cobi Hamilton is still a threat on the outside and Knile Davis is still Knile Davis. Which Auburn defense will show up to defend these guys? Will it be the one we saw most of last year and at Mississippi State a few weeks ago, or the one that showed up against LSU and played respectably against Clemson? The Tigers' defense seems to be making strides in its first year under Brian VanGorder. Can it continue to improve and contain the Arkansas attack?
It is important to look at the matchups on the field to get a feel for how the game will go. The most important unit matchup to keep an eye on is between Auburn's offensive line and Arkansas' defensive line. Auburn's O-line is young, but so is the Hogs defensive front. Arkansas' starters have experience, but beyond that there is a lot of youth. Bryan Jones and Alfred Davis work the middle and are among the team's leading tacklers. However, they haven't gotten much push, having only two tackles for loss between them. Arkansas misses Jake Bequette and the 10 sacks he had a year ago. Chris Smith has gotten some pressure off the edge registering two sacks and five quarterback hurries, but for the most part, Arky's defensive front has not been as active behind the line of scrimmage as the Hogs would like. On the other hand, Auburn has given up 35 tackles for loss and nine sacks on the season. One of those trends will have to break this weekend. Here's hoping Frazier keeps his jersey clean. It will be important for Auburn's offensive line to give him time in the pocket to go through his reads and find the open receiver. The line should be able to open up some holes against Arkansas for Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason to run through. We all know what is possible when O-Mac is able to reach the second level, and Mason has been close to breaking a long run in a few games this season. With Arkansas' tackling woes, this could be the week for Mason to blow up if the line can open holes. When Auburn has put its mind to running the ball this year, the Tigers have found some success. Auburn will need to establish the running game in order for the passing game to open up. This matchup will go a long way in determining the success of Auburn's offense against Arkansas.
By taking a closer look at individual matchups, it's easier to see what Auburn has to do to win Saturday. What matchup should the Tigers be weary of? Is there a matchup Auburn can exploit?
Be weary of ...
Hamilton. The guy is a stud. He's a top-flight receiver with track speed, and he would be a matchup problem for just about anybody. When you consider that Auburn hasn't been especially stingy in the secondary in recent years, it makes him all the more dangerous. Jarius Wright and Joe Adams are gone and Hamilton is now the go-to receiver. He's amassed 31 receptions for 591 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 118 yards per game through the first five games of the season. It will be interesting to see how BVG decides to defend him. Hamilton is a solid route runner, and his size and speed make him a difficult receiver to man-up. However, Wilson is good enough to shred zone coverage. Hamilton is a deep threat with his speed, but he's not afraid to go over the middle, and Auburn has shown a weakness for defending crossing routes. You have to think Chris Davis will be tasked with checking Hamilton. But if Arkansas gets Hamilton one-on-one with one of Auburn's younger corners, like Joshua Holsey, you can expect them to test the freshman.
Auburn can exploit...
Arkansas' offensive line. Specifically, David Hurd and Jason Peacock/Brey Cook, the starters at the two tackle spots. Arkansas has new faces all across their offensive line. Part of the reason Wilson has struggled has been a lack of protection. He's been sacked just seven times, but he's been picking himself up off the ground on nearly every play. He's faced constant pressure and was even knocked out of the Louisiana-Monroe game. That knockout blow came from a linebacker blitzing up the middle, so you can probably expect to see Jake Holland and Daren Bates blitzing during this game. But where Auburn will get most of its pressure will be from the ends. Corey Lemonier is quite possibly Auburn's best player on either side of the ball. He and Dee Ford have given quarterbacks fits this season. The two have seven sacks and 10 quarterback hurries between them, five each for Lemonier. One way to slow down Hamilton is to pressure Wilson, and Auburn knows that. They should be able to dial up the pressure on Wilson with their ends. Arkansas will have to use quick passes, slants and crosses, and throw in a few screens to Davis out of the backfield to counter the pass rush. If they don't do that, it could be a long day for Wilson. Look for big games from Ford and Lemonier.