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Despite injuries, Arkansas can still run the ball. Can Mizzou stop the Hogs from doing it?

Friday’s game could be decided by the battle between Mizzou’s defensive front and Arkansas’ offensive line.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Give Arkansas this: the Hogs have fought pretty well down the stretch. Despite a disappointing season, despite all sorts of injuries, and despite constant “your coach is about to get fired” rumbles, they opened the LSU and Mississippi State games well and finished the Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina games well.

The LSU game is as close as they’ve come to an egg down the stretch, and they were still tied at halftime with the Tigers. They’ve fought. They just haven’t been very good.

Considering the injuries, the quality hasn’t been a surprise. Leading receiver Jared Cornelius was lost for the season in September. Longtime starting center Frank Ragnow went down midway through the season. Quarterback Austin Allen missed four games. Starting guard Ty Clary was recently lost for the season, and two other starting linemen (Hjalte Froholdt and Zach Rogers) picked up recent knocks that have rendered them questionable for this week’s game.

That’s basically the equivalent of Mizzou losing J’Mon Moore in September, Drew Lock for a month, and nearly every starting lineman at some point in the last month. That’s a lot, yeah?

That Arkansas ranks 57th in Off. S&P+ despite the injury (and despite the pressure of having to carry a defense that has been mostly awful) is semi-impressive. The Arkansas run game is very efficient, and the passing game has at least had its moments despite inconsistency. A lot of this game could be decided by how well the Hogs establish the run. It’s been a while since anybody did that against Mizzou.

Backfield

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Arkansas
Devwah Whaley
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

QB

  • Austin Allen (6’1, 215, Sr.) — 91-for-158 (58%), 1,114 yards, 8 TD, 4 INT, 17 sacks (5.8 yards per attempt, inc. sacks); 14 carries, 78 yards (5.6)
  • Cole Kelley (6’7, 268, RSFr.) — 87-for-151 (58%), 1,038 yards, 8 TD, 4 INT, 16 sacks (5.6); 38 carries, 174 yards (4.6), 2 TD
  • Ty Storey (6’2, 212, So.)

RB

  • Devwah Whaley (5’11, 216, So.) — 116 carries, 504 yards (4.3), 6 TD; 13 targets, 8 catches, 52 yards (4.0), 1 TD
  • David Williams (6’1, 229, Sr.) — 109 carries, 587 yards (5.4), 6 TD; 12 targets, 8 catches, 133 yards (11.1), 1 TD
  • T.J. Hammonds (5’10, 195, So.) — 31 carries, 258 yards (8.3), 1 TD; 4 targets, 2 catches, 64 yards (16.0), 1 TD

FB

  • Kendrick Jackson (6’0, 253, Jr.)
  • Hayden Johnson (6’2, 256, So.) — 6 targets, 5 catches, 49 yards (8.2)

I sort of feel bad for Allen. The senior completed 61 percent of his passes with a nearly 150 passer rating as a first-year starter in 2016, and he was already facing major turnover in the receiving corps (six of his top eight targets were gone) before Cornelius went down. His two most frequent targets this year combined for two catches last year, shades of 2015 Mizzou.

He’s had a solid run game to lean on, though. While four-star sophomore Devwah Whaley hasn’t had many open-field opportunities, he’s been decent between the tackles, and backups David Williams (a South Carolina transfer) and RB/WR T.J. Hammonds have had some explosive moments.

In the Hogs’ scoring drives over the last four games, the run game has been the driver of success. Arkansas averaged 6.2 yards per carry on those drives and, perhaps as importantly, only lost yardage on eight percent of carries. Creating third-and-manageable is important; of the 119 plays in these scoring drives, only eight were passes on third-and-6 or longer.

By the way, though the run game is important, beware the running back passing game. Halfbacks are only targeted about three times per game, but they’re catching 63 percent of passes and averaging 14.3 yards per reception, outstanding for backs (or receivers, for that matter).

Receiving Corps

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Mississippi
Jonathan Nance
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

WR

  • Deon Stewart (5’11, 162, So.) — 49 targets, 27 catches, 341 yards (7.0), 3 TD
  • Jordan Jones (6’1, 185, RSFr.) — 40 targets, 19 catches, 279 yards (7.0), 2 TD
  • De’Vion Warren (5’10, 181, Fr.) — (questionable for Friday with concussion issues)
  • Gary Cross (6’1, 185, Jr.)

WR

  • Jonathan Nance (6’0, 182, Jr.) — 58 targets, 37 catches, 539 yards (9.3), 5 TD
  • Brandon Martin (6’4, 219, So.) — 11 targets, 7 catches, 76 yards (6.9)

TE

  • Austin Cantrell (6’3, 264, So.) — 19 targets, 13 catches, 85 yards (4.5)
  • Cheyenne O’Grady (6’4, 253, So.) — 32 targets, 21 catches, 143 yards (4.5), 2 TD

TE

  • Jeremy Patton (6’5, 250, Jr.)
  • Will Gragg (6’4, 254, So.) — 5 targets, 5 catches, 61 yards (12.2)

With Cornelius lost for the season, the passing game has revolved around Nance (a JUCO transfer), Stewart (who had two career catches before this season), and Jones (a redshirt freshman). All things considered, it could be worse — the trio is averaging 7.9 yards per target, which isn’t particularly good but isn’t “Mizzou 2015” bad — and without Nance, a onetime Southern Miss signee, it would probably be a lot worse.

Nance had a huge catch near the end of the Ole Miss win, and his three receptions for 100 yards were a major reason why Arkansas nearly beat Texas A&M.

Hammonds’ emergence has been interesting. In the last three games he has 13 carries for 118 yards and two catches for 64 yards. Granted, most of that came against Coastal Carolina, but he’s an interesting, dynamic threat, and he could be used to create unique matchup advantages.

Mizzou also struggled with tight ends last week against Vanderbilt, and that’s another matchup Arkansas would be happy to exploit. Hog tight ends haven’t been particularly damaging (the four listed above have averaged a paltry 5.2 yards per target), but they’re targeted five times per game.

Offensive Line

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Arkansas
Hjalte Froholdt (51)
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

LT

  • Colton Jackson (6’5, 298, So.) — 9 starts in 2017, 12 career starts
  • Paul Ramirez (6’5, 308, Sr.) — 2 starts in 2017, 2 career starts

LG

  • Hjalte Froholdt (6’5, 311, Jr.) — 11 starts in 2017, 24 career starts (questionable with foot injury)
  • Jalen Merrick (6’4, 322, So.)

C

  • Zach Rogers (6’1, 309, Jr.) — 5 starts in 2017, 5 career starts (questionable with injury)
  • Jake Raulerson (6’4, 313, Sr.) — 8 career starts

RG

  • Johnny Gibson Jr. (6’4, 333, Jr.) — 11 starts in 2017, 16 career starts
  • Dylan Hays (6’3, 298, RSFr.)

RT

  • Brian Wallace (6’6, 337, Jr.) — 6 starts in 2017, 16 career starts

Earlier in the week, Bielema expressed optimism that both Froholdt and Rogers would play on Friday. If they don’t, then basically every remaining scholarship lineman will have to take the field. The pickings are slim.

With Froholdt and Rogers, though, this is a line that could cause Mizzou some trouble. It’s not amazing, but it’s as good as any Missouri has faced since the Georgia game. And if Arkansas establishes the run and is able to keep the ball away from Mizzou’s offense, that defines the game in a very happy way for the Razorbacks.