On Sept. 13, the Northern Illinois Huskies will travel south to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks. It will be the second meeting between the two teams. They last met 20 years ago, on November 12, 1994, when Arkansas edged out a 30-27 victory over NIU. Anytime a MAC school plays an SEC school it's usually not pretty. But this time, it might be different as Arkansas has had a tough time the last few years.
Arkansas Razorbacks 2013 Season Rewind:
After a poor 2012 season that saw the Razorbacks go 4-8 with losses to Louisiana-Monroe and Rutgers, Arkansas changed coaches, hiring Bret Bielema and expected a turnaround. What they got was not pretty. It started out well, as they won their first three games against UL-Layfayette, Samford, and Southern Miss. But the bottom would fall out as they lost their last NINE games, finishing 3-9. Now, they did play six teams in top-18 but really none of those games were competitive (they had losses of 52-7, 52-0, and even lost to Rutgers AGAIN!). It was the first time since 1992 that they had only won three games and it was their worst season (based on winning percentage) since 1952 - when they went 2-8.
It a wonderful display of imagination, Arkansas' mascot is a red pig/razorback hog named...Razorback, you know just like their team. They didn't even give him a proper name. They just saw what he was and decided to call him that. Frankly, I'd rather have him be called like Gillette or Shick...something edgy (get it? Their razors...ok, I'm sorry). However, if this is how he always travels, I'm totally cool with hanging out with him. All the time. Please?
Arkansas hails from the NFL, oh, excuse me, the SEC (what's the difference?). They are stuck in the hardest division of all time - the SEC West, where the face teams like Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, the 49ers, and Seattle Seahawks (although those last two might have been part of realignment this season). All-time against SEC teams the Huskies are 1-10, with their only win against Alabama in 2003. Their last game against an SEC team was in 2007, against Tennessee, which they lost 13-9.
The Razorbacks play at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, which they call DWRRS for short. Located in Fayetteville, AR, DWRRS has been very kind to Arkansas fans, as they boast a 70.4% win ratio at home. All-time they are 432-177-15 in 624 games at home. DWRRS has a PowerBlade HP turf and seats over 72,000 comfortably. The stadium opened Sept. 24, 1938 and has since gone through numerous expansions/renovations and two name changes (originally Bailey Stadium until 1941, then Razorback Stadium for 60 years, 1941-2001).
Last Bowl Appearance:
It's hard to believe an SEC team hasn't made a bowl game in two years, but it's true. The 2011 season was Arkansas last post-season appearance, when they beat #6 Kansas State 29-16 in the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 2012.
Bret Bielema is now in his second year at Arkansas. Previously he coached Wisconsin for six years, where he went 68-24 in the cold. Overall, he's 71-33, with nearly a third of his losses coming last season. As NIU fans (should) know, the Huskies played his Wisconsin teams three times (2007, '09, and '11) and lost all three games (by a combined score of 30-121).
Five Key Players:
Alex Collins - sophomore RB (5'11, 216lbs)
Jonathan Williams - junior RB (6'0 223lbs)
Alan Turner - senior S (6'0, 201lbs)
Braylon Mitchell - senior LB (6'3, 231lbs)
Hunter Henry - sophomore TE (6'6, 251lbs)
Arkansas, er, Bret Bielema runs the ball...a lot. Using a pro-style offense last season the Razorbacks gained over 2500 rushing yards and only 1782 passing. But they have two runningbacks that can tear you up, so I understand why. Alex Collins averaged 5.4 yards/carry on his way to 1026 yards and four scores. Right behind him was Jonathan Williams who gained 900 yards on 150 carries (6 yds/carry) and scored four times as well.
When he's not handing the ball off, Brandon Allen throws the ball sometimes. Last season almost half of his passes were caught (49.6% completion rating) and he gained 1552 yards, had 13 TDs, and 10 INTs. When he did complete passes, they were to his tight end, Hunter Henry and to WR Javontee Herndon (31 reception, 437 yards, four TDs), who graduated. Henry, who is still playing, caught 28 passes for 409 yards and four scores. Their best WR is now Keon Hatcher, a 6'2 junior, who had 27 grabs, 346 yards, and two touchdowns last year.
Overall, the offense was pretty bad - averaging just 20.7 points per game (107th in the NCAA) and 148.5 passing yards. They did run well, as expected, gaining just under 209 rushing yards per game but even that couldn't save them in the SEC.
They lost one of their best defensive players in Chris Smith, who had 36 tackles and led the team with 11.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks, and six QB hurries. He also forced a fumble and, between his sacks and TFL, opponents lost 84 yards.
To replace that kind of production, the Razorbacks will look towards Alan Turner and Braylon Mitchell. Turner, a senior safety, led the team in tackles with 97. He also had five pass breakups, two picks, and a QB hurry. Mitchell, a senior LB, had 77 tackles (second to Turner), 3 pass breakups, 2 QB hurries, 2 TFL, a sack, and forced a fumble.
Overall, the defense struggled in 2013 - giving up 413 yards per game and almost 31 points per game. The Razorback allowed 178.4 rushing yards per game and 235 passing yards per game. They also had a hard time getting turnovers, just 14 all season (eight INTs and six fumble recoveries).
Arkansas lost their kicker, Zach Hocker, who was 13-15 last year. Instead they have senior John Henson, who missed his only attempt last season. Or they could go with their punter, Sam Irwin-Hill, who is listed as a kicker/punter on the roster. Last season, he only punted. But he had 46 punts, averaged of 44.3 yards per punt, got 20 inside the 20-yard line, and had a long of 79! Whoa.
Korliss Marshall (a 6'0, 203lb sophomore RB) returned most kicks for the Razorbacks last season. He averaged 22.2 yards per attempt and had a long of 87 yards. They'll need a new punt returner, as Herndon, who graduated, returned every punt last year (he averaged 7.4 yards) for the Razorbacks. As far as return defense goes, Arkansas struggled against punts - allowing 13.2 yards per punt return, giving up one TD and a long of 58 yards. On kicks they fared better, but not much, allowing 24.2 yards per return with a long of 52.
It's going to be a track meet out there. Both teams run the ball a ton - and both excel at it despite using different styles (pro-style versus spread). We'll say their even, though the Razorback probably have the edge. So it'll come down to the better defense and who can play QB better. Since NIU still hasn't named a QB, we have no idea how they'll do there. On the other side, Arkansas' QB was pretty bad last season. So we'll mark that even. Defensively, you'd expect the SEC to have better players than the MAC. Arkansas wins that. Plus they have home field advantage and NIU will be on it's third straight road game, and second one over 600 miles away (Arkansas: 650 miles from DeKalb, UNLV: 1700 miles). Advantage Arkansas.
Overall I expect this to be a relatively close game, I even had a teacher at the University of Arkansas recently tell me that they believe NIU will win. But I've been told never to bet against the SEC...even if I really, really want to. Hopefully I'm wrong, but