After a spirited three weeks of fall practice, game week is finally here for Bret Bielema and the Razorbacks. The Hogs open the season in Fayetteville against the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, with the 3:00 kickoff being televised by Fox Sports Net (FSN).
I know what you’re thinking…Sun Belt opponent, from Louisiana, early in the year. Could it happen again? Could it really happen again??? The answer is yes, if the Hogs don’t have their minds right.
Last year’s opener against Louisiana-Monroe was a shocking barometer for what 2012 would look like for the shell-shocked Hogs. This same Ragin’ Cajuns team, who took Florida to the wire in Gainesville, went on to manhandle ULM later in the season 40-24.
Louisiana is led by head coach Mark Hudspeth (18-8 overall, 3rd year), who has been impressive in his first two years in Lafayette. Before Hudspeth arrived, the Cajuns hadn’t topped 6 wins in over 18 years and had posted only four winning seasons in their last fifteen. The Ragin’ Cajuns have been bowling the last two years under Hudspeth and have won both times in the New Orleans Bowl.
This year, Hudspeth’s squad is picked by most to win the Sun Belt Conference. That won’t be easy as the SBC has some quality at the top in Arkansas State, ULM and Bobby Petrino’s Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, who will all be vying for the title.
On offense, Louisiana is multiple, incorporating both spread and option principles while still playing with a tight end most of the time. When quarterback Terrance Broadway (6-2, 205, 4.4) took over midway through the season last year, the Cajuns started running more and more of the pistol formation to give the young quarterback more room to operate. The Hogs will see a lot of that Saturday.
After starting slow when thrust into duty due to injury in 2012, it took Broadway a few games to get it rolling. But when he did, he was fantastic – throwing for 2,842 PaYds, 17TDs, while rushing for 769 RuYds and another nine scores. He is electric in the open field and completed over 65 percent of his passes a year ago.
Three starters return in the offensive line, including senior All-SBC center Andre Huval (6-2, 290). Despite not having a 1,000-yard rusher last year, UL led the league in rushing (201 YPG) thanks to Broadway. Junior running back Alonzo Harris (881 RuYds, 10TDs, 5.2 YPC) is tabbed by Phil Steele to be an All-SBC performer this year.
On defense, the Ragin’Cajuns operate out of a 4-3 look. New defensive coordinator James Willis – a former Auburn and NFL linebacker – takes over a unit that finished at the bottom of the SBC, allowing just over 459 YPG. Willis has worked under some great defensive coaches in Tommy Tuberville (Auburn and Texas Tech 2006-2008, 2010) and Nick Saban (Alabama 2009), and should improve this unit over time.
UL’s leading tackler from 2012 returns – linebacker Justin Anderson (6-2, 220, 105 tackles) is three-year starter at MLB. Safeties Rodney Gillis (5 Ints in 2012) and Ole Miss transfer Darius Barksdale (6-0, 200, 4.4) are solid players who have garnered some All-SBC preseason honors this year.
Louisiana does have some meat up front on the defensive line. Nose tackle Justin Hamilton (6-3, 300) and tackle Brandon McCray (6-5, 318) might prove to be a good opening test to see if the Hogs can get a push up front in the running game.
As for the Hogs, it’s all about containing Broadway, who was recently announced to be on the Davey O’Brien Award and Manning Award watch lists. That and seeing how their own quarterback, Brandon Allen, fares when they turn the lights on.
The Fayetteville forecast for Saturday calls for sunny skies with a high in the low-90′s. The Hogs are favored by 10 1/2.