FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said he breaks down a defense by dividing them into thirds: Defensive line, linebackers and secondary.
The veteran coach then does a ranking of each level. The weekly routine helps Chaney figure out where his offense is best suited to attack an opponent.
But Chaney admittedly had some trouble with Florida earlier this week.
“They’re all very good,” Chaney said about rating each level of Florida’s defense. “They’re all very physical. (Florida) coach (Will) Muschamp has put together a very talented defensive group. They’ll be a formidable foe to say the least.”
Arkansas (3-2, 0-1 in Southeastern Conference) must find a way to break through if it has any hope of ending the program’s long-running history of disappointment against Florida (3-1, 2-0) tonight. The Razorbacks return Ben Hill-Griffin Stadium — the Swamp — for the first time since a controversial 23-20 loss in 2009, looking for their first win against the Gators since joining the conference in 1992.
The task won’t be easy largely because Florida’s defense that has been one of the nation’s best through the first month of the season. The Gators are loaded with depth, talent and athleticism, which has helped Florida lead the nation in rushing defense (53.5 yards) through four games. They also rank second in the NCAA in total defense (202.5 yards) and are tied for eighth in scoring defense (12.8 points).
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” said Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry, who was one of three freshman to start on offense for the Razorbacks last week. “They’re big, they’re physical, they’re fast. They have a really great defense.”
The group has developed an impressive ability to push offenses off the field, forcing three-and-outs on 48 percent of possessions (21 of 44 drives). Teams rarely move the chains on Florida, converting on just 8 of 45 third downs (18 percent). Florida has been consistent as well, holding opponents to 220 yards or less in every game.
Florida also has had success by putting pressure on quarterbacks (nine sacks) and forcing turnovers (seven interceptions, two fumble recoveries).
“They use their hands well,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “They’re powerful. Their linebackers run. I think they’re more than capable on the back end, which allows their front to be a little bit more physical, you know what I mean, because they’re a little bit protected behind them. It’s an imposing group.”
Arkansas offensive line coach said the stats don’t do Florida’s defense justice.
He joked that the group looks even better than the numbers on film.
“There’s no a weakness on their team,” Pittman said. “There’s a reason why it’s 53-and-half yards rushing and 202 total yards. They’re good and they play hard.”
Arkansas is eager to test its hard-nosed mentality against the Gators, though.
The Razorbacks bring their ground-and-pound approach to Gainesville, Fla., averaging 237 rushing yards a game. Physicality has been Arkansas’ calling card and the Razorbacks know their strengths face a big challenge against Florida, which hasn’t allowed more than 66 rushing yards in a game this season.
Muschamp said Arkansas will be an important barometer for his group as well.
“We haven’t faced anybody that’s had the physicality they’re going to play with on the offensive line, the quality backs, the matchups outside,” Muschamp said. “We need to play well on the edges and we need tackle well and play blocks.”
Arkansas does carry confidence into the Swamp thanks to its offensive performance in a 45-33 loss to Texas A&M last week. The Razorbacks struggled to move the ball the previous two games, but nearly matched the Aggies strike for strike last week.
Quarterback Brandon Allen’s return from the shoulder injury was the biggest reason for the added productivity.
The sophomore did throw two costly interceptions in the second half, but said he’s prepared for the challenge at Florida.
It’s not his first start against a top-notch defense. He was under center when Alabama beat Arkansas 52-0 last year. But it is his first road game as a starter.
“Just having that experience under my belt, it’s not going to be any kind of shock to me going and facing a good defense,” Allen said about his experience last year. “I’m prepared. I’m excited for what I think our offense can do against them.”
Arkansas has the distinction of playing the first night game in the Swamp in two years, which should only heighten the hostility in the stadium. The Razorbacks are trying to make amends for their first road experience under Bielema, which ended with a disappointing 28-24 loss at Rutgers two weeks ago.
The game was marred by Arkansas’ fourth quarter collapse after leading 24-7.
Bielema is hoping his team learned from the experience as another test looms.
“We didn’t handle the moment well,” Bielema said. “I always talk to our players about handling the moment and moments change. Moments come about in every day life. They come up at home games. They came up in Little Rock and obviously it showcased there in Rutgers. We were up by a significant margin and kind of lost track of what we were doing and how we were doing it.”
There’s no doubt the environment played a role in the collapse and Arkansas’ ability to handle it will be key. But Chaney remains more concerned about something else.
Florida’s defense has made life tough on everyone so far this season.
“The No. 1 challenge is the 11 dudes they put out there on defense,” Chaney said. “I mean, that’s where all my energy’s at. The crowd is always loud, and it’s creative and it’s fun and it’s an environment. But those 11 people they play on defense are the only thing I’m focused on.”