With War Memorial Stadium’s mystique and alleged efficacy dying by the year, it was at least comforting to watch Arkansas finally devour a purported cupcake there. Bret Bielema boosted his Little Rock record to 2-3, with those two wins coming against Football Championship Subdivision schools, after the Hogs pummeled Alcorn State 52-10 on Saturday.
The game’s predictable outcome and snoozer pace at 11 a.m. on a gorgeous fall day didn’t come without benefits. Noah Johnson, the Braves’ deft redshirt freshman quarterback, did gash the Hogs on the ground a couple of times, proving that the Trevor Knight Lesson Plan still hasn’t been fully adopted by Robb Smith & Co. It’s been a persistent murmur among the fan base for a while now — “Mobile quarterbacks kill us!” — but it takes on a heightened sense of importance this weekend. And it’s not just because Alabama is, you know, the best damn team on the planet, yet again.
Jacob Coker and Blake Sims were both reasonably mobile, and A.J. McCarron before that could surprise with an occasional bit of good footwork, but the Tide’s new frosh signal-caller, Jalen Hurts, is the most pure “dual-threat” quarterback that Lane Kiffin has had to work with. He’s of average build at 6-foot-2, 215 or so, but he’s elusive and unafraid to extend plays with his speed.
The Hogs have been ultra-competitive the last two years against the Kiffin-led offense. The Tide’s last trip to Fayetteville had them stinging after a loss to Ole Miss, and the Razorbacks were mired in a lengthy conference losing streak, but the game ended up 14-13 because Arkansas was nowhere near figuring out how to close a game. A shanked point-after and an early fumble out of the end zone kept that from becoming an upset of substantial magnitude, but it also buoyed the Hogs for the rest of the year as they unleashed the same physical defense on LSU and Ole Miss in consecutive home shutouts, and then pummeled Texas for the program’s first bowl win in three years.
Last year in Tuscaloosa, Dan Enos’ offense had not yet taken flight, so the Razorbacks again struggled to make headway against a Tide defensive front that has simply stripped the run game away from a team that relies so heavily upon it. That said, a game effort again by Robb Smith’s defensive unit had Arkansas within shouting distance of another monumental upset until a long scoring bomb from Coker to Calvin Ridley late in the third quarter gave Bama a lead it would not relinquish in a 27-14 victory.
What Arkansas has learned from these losses, at least theoretically, is that Kiffin is stubborn as a play-caller. He took a deep shot despite the Hogs having a pretty salty pass rush and Coker having been erratic downfield to that point. With Hurts being more adept at moving in and out of the pocket, it affords the brash offensive coordinator a bit more slack in the leash, especially because Hurts does have a stable of reliable targets led by Ridley and tight end O.J. Howard, who unleashed two seasons of frustration on Clemson in the national championship game and seemingly won’t be regressing to afterthought status.
Thus presents a quandary for Smith as he tries to game-plan. This Bama team lacks backfield experience but is again imposing along the line, and strong on the edges. Seeing how Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw struggled to spy or stay in their so-called lanes against Texas A&M, it is scary as hell to think what a guy like Hurts can do if he gets to the edge on designed runs or scrambles. It also does not help that another true freshman, tailback Josh Jacobs, has been effective at dragging tacklers (granted, those guys from Kent State and Kentucky are probably easier to drag) while former No. 1 tailback Damien Harris has spent much of the last two weeks recovering from an injury he sustained against Ole Miss.
Defensively? Well, stop me if you’ve read this before, but the Tide are big, fast, nasty and smart. They have depth, too, which means that they are hustling five-star guys in and out of the lineup commonly, and that affords Nick Saban an incredible luxury, which is changing the scheme almost on the fly. Enos can obviously anticipate that blitzes at Austin Allen will be a regular thing, from multiple positions, because the Hogs’ OL has been a source of consternation and instability so far. Against Alcorn, it looked like Brian Wallace was gaining comfort in his post, but make no mistake, this will absolutely require the best effort by both lines yet, because that is the core of the modern Alabama dynasty.
It’s a night game on ESPN, and it will boast the Hogs at No. 16, the highest ranking they’ve attained under Bielema. A sellout crowd will be throaty and impactful, much as it was two years ago when a team struggling just to escape the SEC West cellar nearly upended the Tide. That kind of zealous turnout and that kind of inspired effort would do the trick this time around.