Arkansas' old-school run appeals to Tigers

BATON ROUGE, La. -- To heck with the misdirection plays and spread offenses that dominate LSU’s schedule. The Tigers know that effectively defending Saturday’s opponent starts with slowing down Arkansas’ downhill running game.

While Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is known for pulling a trick play out of his hat once in a while, the Razorbacks’ offensive identity is fairly straight-forward. They typically attempt to pound opposing defenses with tailbacks Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams running behind a bruising offensive line.

“You get to show what you’ve been doing all summer with [LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy] Moffitt: strength and training and running, being physical,” strongside linebacker Lamar Louis said. “Old-school football, that’s what I like to call it. Pretty much the football we’ve been playing since we were younger. So I like games like this.”

LSU’s defense got off to an awful start against opponents’ running games, regardless of whether they ran traditional schemes (Wisconsin) or read-option spreads (Mississippi State and Auburn). However, the Tigers turned things around during their three-game winning streak and the progress continued even in last week’s overtime loss to Alabama.

In the past four games, LSU has largely shut down opponents' rushing attacks, surrendering 109.3 yards per game and just one touchdown. That’s a complete turnaround from its first three games against Power 5 opponents (Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn), when opponents averaged 289.3 yards per game on the ground and totaled seven rushing scores.

The Alabama game might have been the season’s high-water mark for LSU, as the Tigers limited the Crimson Tide’s talented backfield duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry to a combined 72 yards on the ground, and Louis also forced a Yeldon fumble that allowed the Tigers to kick the go-ahead field goal with 50 seconds left in regulation.

“I think the whole game we were very physical,” defensive tackle Christian LaCouture said. “Alabama’s a physical team. We had to counter that with being very physical, as well.”

That mentality will be necessary again on Saturday.

Williams (137 carries, 877 yards, 10 TDs) is fourth in the SEC with 97.4 rushing yards per game and Collins (134 carries, 840 yards, 10 TDs) is fifth at 93.3. They run behind an offensive line that averages 328.4 pounds per man, making the group heftier than most offensive lines in the NFL.

And they come right at you -- which shouldn’t seem too unfamiliar to a group that practices against a Les Miles offense every day.

“We’ve seen it all spring with our offense, the way they run the ball, so it shouldn’t be too complicated for us,” middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith said.

A word of caution, though: Arkansas’ passing attack is more dangerous this season with a healthy Brandon Allen at quarterback. The Razorbacks attempted 40 passes for 246 yards in a 14-13 loss to Alabama and 44 passes for 238 yards in a near-miss against top-ranked Mississippi State.

It’s easy to get so caught up in defending Collins and Williams that Allen can catch a defense by surprise with a play-action pass for a big gain.

“That’s what they’re setting you up for,” safety Jalen Mills said. “You know that they’re a big run team, but then again, you see where the quarterback may have a lot of passing yards. That’s where guys are biting for the play-action and then he’s hitting you over the top.”

The Razorbacks seem unlikely to win on Saturday by throwing 40 passes against LSU, which boasts the SEC’s top pass defense (163.5 yards allowed per game), however. The Razorbacks’ hopes of ending a 17-game SEC losing streak likely hinge on their ability to move the ball on the ground -- and LSU’s defenders expect the Razorbacks to come straight at them.

“[We need to] knock their heads back, make sure they know that we came to play,” LaCouture said of the LSU defensive line’s approach, which will come in handy again this week.

“Alabama’s a very physical team. We knew that coming in, so we knew that we had to attack the line of scrimmage, first and foremost, push the offensive line back into the running back’s face and make them go sideways so guys like Kwon [Alexander, LSU’s starting weakside linebacker] could make plays. And if they come up the middle, that’s when we make our plays.”