(Sports Network) – The 12th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks open up SEC play this weekend, as they travel to Athens to battle the Georgia Bulldogs.
Bobby Petrino’s Razorbacks have begun the season with a pair of lopsided victories, making light work of Tennessee Tech (44-3) and UL-Monroe (31-7). Arkansas is regarded as a real contender in the SEC West and has now won seven of its last eight games dating back to last season.
Mark Richt’s Bulldogs are seeking a quick turnaround, after faltering in their SEC opener last weekend in Columbia, dropping a 17-6 decision to South Carolina. The loss followed a 55-7 drubbing of Louisiana in the season-opener.
Georgia holds a 9-3 edge in the series with Arkansas and has won the last six meetings, including a thrilling 52-41 shootout last season.
After two games, Arkansas boasts of the SEC’s top offense, averaging a hefty 509.0 yards. A significant portion of that has come from the arm of standout QB Ryan Mallett, who engineers a passing attack that is posting 361.5 yards per game (first in the SEC and fifth nationally). Regarded as one of the top signal-callers in the country, the 6-6 Mallett has completed a hefty 73.1 percent of his passes thus far, for over 700 yards with six TDs. Greg Childs has been the go-to-guy downfield and leads the team with 16 receptions, for 172 yards and two TDs. Joe Adams has been explosive as well, averaging 23.8 yards on his nine receptions (214 yards), with two more scores. The ground game takes second-fiddle in this offense, although both Knile Davis (7.8 ypc) and Dennis Johnson (9.2 ypc) are electrifying at times.
While Arkansas has been solid offensively, Petrino knows the unit can be even better.
“We do feel like we need to be a lot more consistent. We need to stay away from negative plays so we don’t get behind the sticks and stay away from penalties, take care of the ball better, and run the ball better. Those are the things we’re really going to work at.”
The Arkansas defense has been equally impressive in the early going and currently leads the SEC and ranks fourth nationally in total defense (187.5 ypg), while ranking second in the league and fourth nationally in scoring defense (5.0 ppg). With 19 TFLs and five sacks on the year, the Razorbacks have certainly made some plays upfield. Junior middle linebacker Jerry Franklin leads the team in tackles with 15, including three TFLs. Senior LB Anthony Leon (13 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks) and sophomore LB Ross Radner (10 tackles, 5.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks) have really been disruptive forces in the oppositions’ backfield and complete a solid LB corps for Arkansas.
Petrino is pleased with his defense.
“I’ve been very excited and pleased with the way that our defense has been playing. The knowledge of the schemes; the speed we have been playing with; how fast we’re getting to the football and the effort we have been playing with.”
The Bulldogs will be without the nation’s top wide receiver for four games and the loss of A.J. Green last week against South Carolina really hampered the offense’s effectiveness. Redshirt freshman QB Aaron Murray has played to mixed reviews this far. After erupting for four TDs (three passing) against Louisiana, Murray was just 14-of-21 against South Carolina, for 192 yards with no TDs. In all, Georgia managed just 253 yards of total offense and was held to its lowest scoring output against USC since 1904. Without Green on the outside for a couple more games, Murray will need to rely even more on Kris Dunham (eight receptions, for 159 yards, one TD).
Richt knows the key to the offense is better balance.
“The more balanced we can be in our offensive game the better we will be. We need to block and run better and work on getting more yards after contact. We also have to learn our personnel better and continue to improve up front.”
The Bulldogs dropped their SEC-opener because they were unable to stop South Carolina’s ground attack, namely freshman Marcus Lattimore. The young Gamecock abused the Georgia defense for 182 yards and two TDs, more than enough to earn USC the victory. Junior LB Justin Houston had a huge game, finishing with 10 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble. Redshirt sophomore safety Baccari Rambo led all tacklers with 12 stops in the game and he currently leads the team with 18 stops on the year. Tightening things up is a must, although it will be Arkansas’ passing attack that Georgia needs to be concerned with this week.
Georgia gets this game at home, but stopping Mallett won’t be easy. The Razorbacks can play a wide-open style or batten down the hatches and play stingy defense. Either way, if Arkansas is to take the next step in terms of SEC legitimacy, it must wins games like this one.