LITTLE ROCK — Boring to some, basics will decide the Arkansas-Florida game this evening.
The winning trifecta is run the ball, stop the run, and be on the positive side of the turnover ledger. Sweep those three categories and a W is in the offing.
Interpreting September stats to identify the winner of the first game in October is difficult. Both teams rely on the run — the Razorbacks’ play-calling is about 3.5-to-1 run vs. pass and the Gators are a solid 3-to-1 in the same direction. If either quarterback throws more than 25 times, the explanation might well be a desperate attempt at a rally.
Going with the most recent impression, Arkansas’ offensive line looked the part against Texas A&M with freshmen Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland starting at guard after being listed as the back-ups at tackle. They were not perfect — Kirkland graded out at 72 percent and Skipper eight points higher — but the move says Arkansas coaches are willing to make a change if unhappy with the status quo.
Arkansas ran for 201 yards against the Aggies, 100 more than the previous week vs. Rutgers, but defense is not the strength of the team from College Station. The only times the Aggies stopped Arkansas were on three possessions when the Razorbacks had a chance to take the lead.
Florida’s defense is better than the Rutgers unit that clamped down on Arkansas, but the wild card is how the presence of Brandon Allen would have influenced the game plan in New Jersey. The impressive numbers compiled by Rutgers were dismissed because of the opposition and what the Gators’ run defense did to Tennesse Kentucky, and Toledo doesn’t matter much, but holding Miami to 50 yards rushing catches the eye. The unbeaten Hurricanes have netted 792 rushing in their other three games.
The Razorbacks’ chances of running the ball go up if Allen can complete some passes on first or second down, but he will be under much more pressure than he was last week. Aggressive defense is the philosophy of Nick Saban disciple Will Muschamp.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will be creative. Against the Aggies, he called a smorgasbord of plays, including a shovel pass to Jonathan Williams and two throws to tight end Hunter Henry moving into a void created by the wide receiver running a deep crossing pattern. In effect, the Razorbacks put together a solid passing game without an established wide receiver because Henry and Williams caught four each for 176 yards and running backs Kiero Small and Alex Collins added three more receptions.
On the other side, Florida will take one look at A&M’s 150 yards rushing in the second half at Fayetteville and put a heavy load on Matt Jones, who had 28 carries for 176 on Saturday against Kentucky. Days earlier, Muschamp called in Jones and told the sophomore he was tentative running the ball and that he needed to “cut it loose and play.”
Going against Tyler Murphy, Arkansas will face a quarterback who will throw low-risk passes and run by design on occasion. Both Murphy and Jeff Driskel, the starter until he broke his leg, have had 17 carries this year — Driskel netting 38 yards after six sacks and Murphy putting up plus 120 with one sack.
A long run by Arkansas’ Williams or Collins would not be a surprise, but I expect more consistency from the Florida offense and that brings us to turnovers. “There is no bigger stat …,” Muschamp said this year.
He pointed out the Gators were minus 12 in 2011 and 7-6 for the season; plus 15 in 2012 and 11-2. In those two losses, the Gators were minus five. Against Miami a month ago, the Gators were minus four, negating a 200-yard advantage in total offense.
Unless Florida helps Arkansas, the Gators win.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.