By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: In their regular-season finale, the No. 8 LSU Tigers will travel to Fayetteville to take on SEC rival Arkansas in the Battle for the Golden Boot.
Les Miles and his squad may not be in line to compete for the SEC championship but the campaign has still largely been a success for last season's national championship runnerup. After a 41-35 scare from Ole Miss, the Tigers have won back-to-back games and are currently 9-2 overall and 5-2 in conference play. This matchup is only the fourth road game of the season for LSU which can earn its third consecutive 10-win season with a victory.
Miles is certainly pleased with his team's efforts this season but still laments about what could have been.
"I think this team is fighting and doing exactly what we have asked them to do. I think that they are as competitive as can be," Miles said. "I have to be honest with you. It is very positive to win 10, but I wish that it was 12."
As for Arkansas, the Razorbacks' much anticipated season was derailed when head coach Bobby Petrino was let go amid controversy before the year began. Under interim coach John Smith, the Razorbacks, who were ranked as high as No. 8 in the polls early in the season, have stumbled to a 4-7 overall record, including a 2-5 ledger against SEC foes. With a 45-14 loss to Mississippi State last weekend the Razorbacks were eliminated from postseason eligibility for the first time in three years.
This is the first series matchup in Fayetteville since 1992. LSU won that matchup 30-6 and owns a 35-20-2 record overall against Arkansas.
On offense the Tigers are an old school team that likes to run the ball and utilize a short passing game. On the season, LSU is the fifth most prolific rushing team in the SEC (188.2 ypg), but ranks just 11th in passing (206.4 ypg). With that type of production LSU is near the middle of the pack in the SEC in terms of total offense (394.5 ypg).
There are a stable of running backs for Miles to utilize in the offense. The lead rusher is Jeremy Hill who has racked up 554 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Also in the mix are Kenny Hilliard (448 yards, 6 TDs), Michael Ford (395 yards, 3 TDs) and Spencer Ware (360 yards, TD). Last week against Ole Miss it was Hill who carried the load with 77 yards and three score on the ground, but the Tigers have had a different leading rusher four times this season.
With the team pounding the ball on the ground, quarterback Zach Mettenberger has not had to put up a ton of numbers. On the season, Mettenberger has completed 59.0 percent of his passes for 2,272 yards and 10 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Mettenberger has not always had enough time in the pocket as he has been sacked 23 times this season. Mettenberger doesn't throw downfield very often, as he averages just 7.6 yards per pass attempt, the ninth lowest average in the conference.
"The opportunity to hit those underneath routes just requires a defensive deployment of width. When you widen a defensive front, it allows you to attack," Miles said of the offensive scheme, "You find people that are deployed and defending the pass, we should have the opportunity to gut them some."
In terms of pass catching threats for the Tigers, Odell Beckham (36 receptions, 561 yards, 2 TDs) has been the top receiver in terms of total yards, while Jarvis Landry (44 receptions, 461 yards, 3 TDs) has been the more reliable receiver, especially on the underneath routes.
It's no secret that the strength of the Tigers resides on defense. While the offense manages games, the defense dominates. On the season LSU is the third ranked defensive unit in the SEC, a conference jam packed with punishing defensive squads. LSU is surrendering just 281.0 yards of total offense per game, while constantly making plays on the ball with a league-leading 17 interceptions.
On the front line Sam Montgomery (12.0 TFLs, 7.0 sacks) and Anthony Johnson (10.0 TFLs) have proved to be difficult linemen for opposing offenses to stop. Kevin Minter (101 tackles, 13.5 TFLs) flies all over the field and always seems to be able to make stops, while Craig Loston and Tharold Simon have each collected three interceptions.
The fall off on the offensive side of the ball has been a long one for Arkansas. The Razorbacks were the top ranked offense in the SEC last season in terms of total yards and scoring, but this season the Razorbacks are just sixth in total yards (416.4 ypg) and 12th in scoring (24.5 ppg).
Also falling this season is the draft stock of quarterback Tyler Wilson. Largely considered to be one of the top signal callers not only in the SEC but the country, Wilson has had a solid season but not the type of year that has sparked a great deal of positive talk. Wilson has throw for 3,028 yards and 20 touchdowns, while completing 62.5 percent of his pass attempts to go along with 12 interceptions.
Wilson has not spread the ball around particularly well to his receivers. That has really benefited SEC-leading receiver Coby Hamilton, who has turned in a spectacular season with 80 receptions for 1,237 yards and five scores. No other player on the team has more than 22 receptions or 300 yards.
The running game also deserves some of the blame for the Razorbacks' fall from the offensive elite of the conference. The Razorbacks are picking up only 120.1 yards per game on the ground which is the lowest mark among SEC teams. Dennis Johnson (727 yards, 8 TDs) has been the most productive, while Knile Davis (346 yards, 2 TDs) has really been limited.
Such meager offensive numbers have been compounded by one of the conference's worst defenses. Other than Tennessee, there is no team in the SEC worse than Arkansas in both total yards allowed (419.4 ypg) and scoring defense (31.4 ppg). The Razorbacks have not been nearly has opportunistic as the Tigers with just 12 forced turnovers this season which has accounted for a league-worst -17 turnover differential.
The defense could be even weaker this weekend with second leading tackler Rohan Gaines (72 tackles) dealing with an injury, although he is listed as probable. Ross Rasner (79 tackles, 7.0 TFLs) is the lead stopper while Trey Flowers (12.0 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) and Chris Smith (11.5 TFLs, 8.0 sacks) are more than capable of getting to the quarterback.
This game would have been a classic matchup of strong defense versus prolific offense when looked at on the schedule in August. LSU has lived up to its end of that bargain and will be able to man-handle the Razorbacks to keep the 10- win train rolling.