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The big what if
Contemplating a world where the big bad Red Wolves go up against the state’s top Hogs.
Rivalry week gripped the college football world last Saturday. In states with populations or areas similar to Arkansas — Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Carolina — longtime intrastate foes squared off for annual bragging rights.
The University of Arkansas doesn’t schedule in-state competition, so nothing like Ole Miss-Mississippi State or Clemson-South Carolina erupts here. It’s widely believed the state’s other FBS program, Arkansas State University, couldn’t beat Arkansas often enough for an authentic rivalry to flourish. The numbers support this: since 2001, the UA and ASU have played the same opponent 21 times within the same season. Only four times did ASU lose to that opponent by an equal or smaller margin.
And not until this season did ASU beat an opponent that had, or would, defeat Arkansas. In September, Louisiana-Monroe beat Arkansas 34-31 in Little Rock. In November, ULM lost to ASU 45-23 in Jonesboro.
Breathe easy, Hog fan. I’m not about to indulge in wonky transitive property logic. I know that with enough if-thens, even an insane argument like Arkansas Baptist College-Is-Better-Than- Texas A&M looks rational.
Besides, injuries affected both games. Arkansas lost quarterback Tyler Wilson for the second half of the ULM loss. Then, three of ULM’s defensive starters missed the ASU game, along with four offensive starters — including star quarterback Kolton Browning. “I’m not making excuses,” says ULM head coach Todd Berry. But “obviously that affected our game plan. We still threw the ball around decent and moved the ball, but there was that extra dimension they didn’t have to prepare for.”
ASU’s ULM win, along with ranking ahead of Arkansas in national polls, doesn’t necessarily prove ASU is better than Arkansas this season. Instead, these events simply make speculating about a hypothetical showdown all the more fun. Especially if it happened at War Memorial Stadium.
Below is a prediction of how the game would have transpired if these programs played last week, with staffs and injury statuses as they were at season’s end.
UA Offense vs. ASU Defense
Tyler Wilson picks apart the Red Wolves with pinpoint passing. His main target is Cobi Hamilton, who has a field day against smaller ASU defensive backs like Chaz Scales and Don Jones, who plays only half the game because of a suspension. ASU starts off blitzing Wilson often but slows down after it is shredded a few times on short slants with Hamilton and wheel routes with Knile Davis. The Hogs’ offensive linemen, who average 303 pounds, consistently open holes against ASU defensive linemen who average about 280 pounds. Hog running back Dennis Johnson uses these to get to the defense’s second line, where the stout senior has a few epic collisions with ace linebacker Nathan Herrold.
As always, lack of consistent focus and turnovers plague Arkansas. RB Jonathan Williams makes a spectacular 36-yard run on a promising drive at the end of the first quarter, only to cough it up at the end. In the third quarter, Arkansas’ Mekale McKay catches a 40-yard pass and appears headed for the endzone when safety Sterling Young strips him on a blindside hit.
ASU Offense vs. UA Defense
In the first quarter, ASU’s offensive line looks overwhelmed by the size and strength of Arkansas defenders like Chris Smith and Trey Flowers. ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin can’t find a groove under constant pressure and is twice sacked. The tide starts turning on ASU’s fourth possession, as the Red Wolves exploit Hog cornerbacks who are giving 10-yard cushions to ASU receivers. ASU adjusts its protection to buy Aplin more time, and executes a fake reverse that leads to a 35-yard touchdown pass to J.D. McKissic after Arkansas freshman cornerback Will Hines loses his assignment. “You’ve got a very, very experienced quarterback in Aplin who is going to be able to find defensive weaknesses,” ULM coach Todd Berry says.
Arkansas tries to blitz Aplin off the edge, but ASU counters with speed sweeps featuring RB David Oku. Still, on inside runs, Arkansas mostly bottles up Oku and Rocky Hayes, who’d been averaging 11 yards a carry.
After shaky starts, both offenses heat up in the second quarter. It’s 14-14 at half.
Razorback fans outnumber ASU faithful in Little Rock, but the Red Wolf fans are extremely loud — even louder than LSU fans. Pre-game, the smell of Whole Hog barbecue sauce wafts in from a spot about 600 feet north of the stadium, where an enormous pig roast is underway. Some Razorback fans roll their eyes as they walk by; others spot cousins among the offending tailgaters and can’t help but catch up a bit.
There’s a lot of buzz heading into this game, which draws national attention. Most of the Razorback coaches, who are from other states where intrastate competition isn’t a big deal, don’t truly comprehend the magnitude of the event. To them, the game isn’t any more important than other non-conference matches.
Not so for the ASU staff, which features six coaches with an Arkansas background. Coach Gus Malzahn hypes up the game to his players as a chance to cement ASU’s reputation statewide as a legit major program. He tells them to use ASU’s longtime beta dog status to their advantage, that ultimately there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Both defenses are very young. Both offenses are explosive. The game would ultimately hinge on execution and play calling, two major problem areas for Arkansas all season. Except for the LSU game, the Hogs mostly regressed after a mid-season high point against Kentucky. Meanwhile, Arkansas State progressively improved. “It’s narrowed considerably to where it would be a tight ballgame, like Ole Miss and Arkansas,” longtime sportswriter Jim Harris says.
Malzahn’s shrewd playcalling is designed to deceive defenses, and Arkansas’ defense — especially its porous secondary and thin linebacker corps — are exploited too many times for its offense to compensate. ASU wins 30-24.
Insight from central Arkansas media men who cover both programs:
“I don’t think Arkansas could win in a shootout, and I think that’s what it would turn into.” - David Raath, FOX16 Sports Director
“I think it would be a bad matchup for the Hogs. ASU is the Sunbelt’s version of Texas A&M. Ryan Aplin would have a field day. Tyler Wilson would have his moments, but I think the Red Wolves would win 38-31.” - Steve Sullivan, KATV Channel 7 sports director
“State has the advantage right now, just because they have the confidence of winning six games and learning what they do well and what they don’t do well.” - Jim Harris, sportinglifearkansas.com writer