By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
ORLANDO, Fla. – Arkansas will bring its smash-mouth style of play to Gainesville on Saturday night hoping to notch Bret Bielema’s first Southeastern Conference win against No. 18 Florida. Perhaps even more significantly, the Razorbacks will be looking for their first ever win over the Gators in SEC play.
Bielema has implemented his his pro-style, run-first offensive approach from Wisconsin at Arkansas with great success so far. The Razorbacks (3-2, 0-1 SEC) are churning out 237 yards per game on the ground in 2013, with freshman tailback Alex Collins leading the way – the rookie has hit the century-mark on the ground four times in his first five collegiate games. Sophomore Jonathan Williams has also been a difference maker with a 6.4-yard per carry clip and three touchdowns.
That’s the good news for Bielema and company as they prepare for the Gators (3-1, 2-0 SEC) this weekend. The bad news? Well, that includes Florida’s nasty defense, which leads the nation in stopping the run and ranks second in total defense. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the game will be taking place under the lights at The Swamp, where Florida has been almost untouchable over the past two decades, especially at night.
When asked to describe what comes to mind when he thinks of nighttime games at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Monday, Florida head coach Will Muschamp only needed one word.
“Loud,” he remarked. “I’ve been on the other sideline, there is a difference.”
Since 1990, the Gators have emerged victorious nearly 80 percent of the time when playing inside the friendly (or unfriendly, for opponents) confines of The Swamp, the best home winning percentage in the nation over that span. The Swamp has been even more intimidating at night, with the Gators winning 81.6 percent (40 of 49) of their games starting at 6 p.m. or later over that same span.
Saturday’s game with Arkansas is slated for a 7 p.m. kickoff, which bodes well for the Gators.
While the environment will be tough to deal with, the most daunting task Arkansas will have in front of itself this weekend is moving the ball against a Florida defense that has been downright dominant. The Gators rank first in the SEC in yards per carry allowed by a wide margin, surrendering just 2.43 yards per rush compared to the league’s next best average of 3.51. UF’s performance against the pass is similarly impressive, with a 4.8-yard per pass allowed average that casts a large shadow on the league’s next best number in that category (6.2).
In a league that has exploded with offense this season – no team is averaging fewer than 5.5 yards per play – Florida is still suffocating its opponents with defense and allowing its offense to ground it out and win despite ranking toward the bottom of the league statistically. Even after losing one of the nation’s most gifted defenders last week in tackle Dominique Easley, Florida stymied Kentucky to the tune of 173 total yards on 3.7 yards per play.
Bielema had no shortage of praise for the UF defense when asked what sets the unit apart at his weekly presser Monday.
“Physical up front play,” Bielema said without hesitation. “Obviously they lost a very good player in [Easley], but across the board up front they use their hands well, they’re powerful, their ’backers run. They’re more than capable on the back end, which allows their front to be a little more physical. It’s an imposing group.”
That group will test the Razorbacks’ rushing attack, and it will also try to fluster quarterback Brandon Allen, who threw for 282 yards and three touchdowns a week ago against Texas A&M in his return from injury. Despite coming out on the wrong end of a 45-33 loss to the Aggies, Allen’s play inspired optimism moving forward.
"The thing that I was really engaged about was I saw a feisty, aggressive, angry, competitive young man Saturday night that can win a lot of football games," Bielema said.
Likewise, Muschamp has been pleased with the performance of backup quarterback Tyler Murphy, who was thrust into the limelight following Jeff Driskel’s season-ending leg injury against Tennessee.
“Life is full of opportunities and you never know when you’re going to be presented with one,” Muschamp said. “And he certainly is taking total advantage of his and has done an outstanding job.”
Arkansas has an opportunity to accomplish something that it never has on Saturday with a victory over the Gators, which would also put a halt to the Razorbacks’ current two-game losing streak. Bielema and his players will try to grab hold of that opportunity and remain in contention in the SEC Western Division while Florida looks to remain unbeaten in league play.
You can catch the showdown between the Gators and the Razorbacks on ESPN2 Saturday evening.
Saturday’s clash in Gainesville will mark the 10th meeting between Florida and Arkansas historically…The Gators hold an 8-1 record in the previous nine meetings, which includes one meeting in the SEC Championship Game (2006)…Florida is 3-0 against the Razorbacks in Gainesville, and also holds a 3-0 record against Arkansas in Fayetteville…Arkansas’ only victory in the series came in the inaugural meeting in the 1982 Bluebonnett Bowl, and the Gators hold a 2-1 edge in the series when the game is played at a neutral site…Since losing the first ever meeting with Arkansas, the Gators have claimed eight consecutive wins in the series…Florida has outscored Arkansas 333 to 158 in their nine meetings, which averages out to a 37 to 17.5 points per game advantage for UF.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2009 – Florida 23, Arkansas 20 (Gainesville, Fla.)
2008 – Florida 38, Arkansas 7 (Fayetteville, Ark.)
2006 – Florida 38, Arkansas 28 (Atlanta, Ga. – SEC Championship)
2004 – Florida 45, Arkansas 30 (Gainesville, Fla.)
2003 – Florida 33, Arkansas 28 (Fayetteville, Ark.)
A LOOK AT THE LAST MEETING
Arkansas traveled to Gainesville on Oct. 17, 2009, to take on the top-ranked Gators, who were led by quarterback Tim Tebow and head coach Urban Meyer. Florida entered the game with a 15-game winning streak, and the Gators narrowly extended that streak to 16 games thanks to a game-winning field goal in the closing seconds from kicker Caleb Sturgis. Tebow threw for 255 yards and a score for the game, while also adding 69 yards on the ground. Florida speedster Jeff Demps racked up six yards per carry on nine attempts for the Gators and found the end zone once as well. Ryan Mallett threw for 224 yards and a touchdown through the air for Arkansas, with Greg Childs hauled in four passes for 135 yards and a score. The Gators would go on to win the SEC East that season.
PLAYMAKERS – OFFENSE
Florida – Tyler Murphy, Redshirt Junior, Quarterback
Murphy was thrown into the fire against Tennessee in week four when Florida starting quarterback Jeff Driskel went down for the year with a leg injury. Since that point, Murphy has led the Gators to wins over the Volunteers and last week at Kentucky, accounting for four total touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) while completing over 71 percent of his passes and throwing only one interception. Murphy’s biggest challenge for the Gators is managing the game – making good decisions and avoiding turnovers – and allowing Florida to grind it out on the ground, which has been the preferred method of attack under Will Muschamp. If the Gators can pound the football on the ground, Murphy will have opportunities in the passing game when offensive coordinator Brent Pease decides to go to the air; Murphy has taken advantage of throwing opportunities in the limited playing time he’s had (9.0 yards per pass attempt this year). While he may not be the Gators’ biggest playmaker, the inexperienced Tyler Murphy will be a key to their success against the Razorbacks on Saturday night.
Arkansas – Alex Collins, Freshman, Running Back
Collins has wasted no time making an impact in Fayetteville, leading the SEC in rushing through five games. The freshman has racked up 597 yards on the ground with a six-yard per carry average for the Razorbacks, who have churned out over 235 rushing yards per game this season as a team. Collins, who has registered four 100-yard rushing games in five tries and scored three touchdowns, will face his toughest test yet on Saturday against the Gators’ top-ranked rushing defense, which has allowed just 2.4 yards per carry in 2013. The Razorbacks hope the young back can continue to make explosive plays: Collins ranks first in the SEC with 17 runs of 10 yards or more, including five of 20-plus, two of 30-plus and one of 50-plus. Florida has only surrendered 53.5 rushing yards per game on the ground this year, while Collins is racking up 119.5 per game on his own, so it will be a battle of strength versus strength. Moving the ball on the Gators has been difficult for everyone since Muschamp took the reins in Gainesville, and the same will prove to be true for Arkansas this weekend.
PLAYMAKERS – DEFENSE
Florida – The Gators Defensive Line
While the Gators boast the nation’s best defense, they are now without the services of standout defensive tackle Dominique Easley for the remainder of the season. Easley, who is widely regarded as one of the best defensive linemen in the nation before tearing his right ACL, leaves big shoes to fill in the middle of the Gator D-line. Florida has made a few shifts along its defensive front without Easley in the lineup, which include Damian Jacobs moving into a starting role and Darious Cummings switching to nose tackle. Florida did not suffer without Easley against Kentucky last week, allowing the Wildcats a paltry 48 rushing yards on 21 attempts, but the defensive line will face a bigger challenge against Arkansas’ powerful rushing attack. Ronald Powell and Donte Fowler Jr. have been difference makers off the edges, and Jacobs, Cummings, Leon Orr and company have proven they can make up for Easley’s absence by committee. If the Gators can stunt the Razorbacks on the ground Saturday it will make life very difficult for quarterback Brandon Allen, who will have his hands full trying to throw against Florida’s elite secondary that includes Louchiez Purifoy and Vernon Hargreaves III on the corners.
Arkansas – Chris Smith, Senior, Defensive End
Smith has held down the Arkansas defensive line thus far in his senior year, recording seven tackles for loss and six sacks, which is good enough for third in the NCAA. Smith has inflicted significant damage to opposing offenses when he has been able to get to the quarterback, ranking second nationally with 51 sack yards. Additionally, Smith is fourth in the country in tackles for loss yards with 53, and his play will be important for Arkansas as they take on a run-heavy offense led by a green quarterback. The Gators run for over 200 yards per game but they are not particularly efficient, averaging only 4.3 yards per carry (last in the SEC). The Gators lead the conference in time of possession at nearly 39 minutes per game, a byproduct of their ground-and-pound philosophy. It will be up to Smith and company to get off the field on third downs and apply pressure to Troy Murphy when he does drop back in hopes of forcing the signal-caller into bad decisions in just his second career start.
• Arkansas will be looking for its first ever win in Gainesville on Saturday night, where it is winless in three previous trips.
• Since 1990, the Gators are almost unbeatable inside The Swamp. Florida is 131-18 (.879) during that span, the best in the nation.
• Over that same span, the Gators are 69-13 at home against SEC opponents, and 25-10 against foes from the Western Division.
• Also since 1990, Florida has outscored its opponents by a combined 5,862 to 2,253 at home, putting the average outcome at 39.3 to 15.1 in favor of the Gators and making the average outcome a 24.2-point win.
• Florida’s Will Muschamp is 6-4 against Arkansas in his previous experience as an assistant coach. Muschamp was 2-2 against the Razorbacks while at Auburn, 3-2 while at LSU and 1-0 while at Texas. This will be his first meeting with the Razorbacks at Florida.
• This season, Florida natives have accounted for 51 percent of Arkansas’ rushing yards, 39 percent of its touchdowns, 37 percent of its all-purpose yards, 29 percent of its scoring, 29 percent of its total offense and 28 percent of its receiving yards.
• Arkansas has five players on its roster from the state of Florida. The Gators do not have any players from the state of Arkansas.