FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas faces a tremendous challenge Saturday night in Tuscaloosa when they take on top-ranked Alabama.
Arkansas (2-5, 0-4) is still looking for its first SEC win under Chad Morris. The chances of it coming on Saturday isn’t good, but Arkansas did have success against the Tide defense last year in a 65-31 loss.
“Well, I thought we did a great job of mixing up our run-pass and tying in some screens to take advantage of how hard they pursue and rush,” Morris said. “Especially early in the game. We had an opportunity, we got down inside the 2-yard line and fumbled or it would have been a 21-14 game. You just can’t make mistakes against a caliber of opponent like this. But I thought last year we did a good job of mixing that up. We got the ball out on the edge, so that was part of our plan a year ago.”
A key for Arkansas this week is the play of the offensive line. Morris talked about that unit.
“Well, we’ve got to protect our quarterback better than we did last week,” Morris said. “I felt like he got hit entirely too much and got pressure on him when they were just rushing four.
“Our offensive line has gotten better. We’ve got some guys up front that are continuing to grow. We’re having to grow them up early, and Ricky Stromberg is one of those guys. He hung in there and played every snap last week. We’ve just got to continue to get better and we’ve got to create first downs and opportunities to move the football. It’s a great challenge this week against a very sound defense of Alabama.”
Creating turnovers is something the Alabama defense continues to be good at and has been for several seasons under Nick Saban. The Tide has created at least one turnover in 61 of the last 66 games they have played.
“I think as you would expect, obviously earlier in the year, they had injuries which forced them to put a lot of freshmen on the field,” Morris said. “Those freshmen continue to grow each week and get better. I just think you are seeing them get better and better each week defensively.
“Again, there are not many differences when you look at that side of the ball or even offensively. Then, they got the depth that comes in with it. We got a great challenge ahead of us. We got to do a great job of hanging onto the football and not giving them any more help than what we need.”
Saban talked about last year’s showing by the Arkansas offense against the Tide.
“We have a lot of respect for them,” Saban said. “We think their quarterbacks have both played pretty well. They’ve got a really good runner. The tight end is an outstanding player. They’ve got a couple of receivers who are ascending and becoming much more productive for them. They have a great scheme on offense in terms of the things they do. It’s very difficult to defend. A lot of multiples that you have to sort of try to defend. We struggled last year and hopefully we need to do better in this game.”
Saban also talked about his defense that is forcing more turnovers in recent games than earlier in the season.
“We’ve done the same thing all the way around,” Saban said. “I think it’s just player awareness of being able to take shots when they get shots. I think when you look at it, you’ve got certain players who attack the ball and are confident in being able to do it and know when to do it. You’ve got other guys who are a little more cautious about it. Just got to keep on working on it so they get more comfortable with it.”
Alabama has won 88 games in a row against unranked opponents under Saban. What is the key to that?
“I think every player should play to his standard of excellence and what he tries to do,” Saban said. “Always respect your opponent for what they can. When you play in the SEC I think everybody can bite you if aren’t careful. But you’re really trying to play to your standard and have the proper respect and preparation for the team you’re playing.
“Know that it’s important to play to a high standard all the time. That’s really what we try to get our guys to do. Play one game at a time and be totally focused on that opponent when we play them. See if we can go out there execute and have the right focus and intensity when the game comes.”
Alabama will have a new quarterback this week with Tua Tagovailoa out following ankle surgery. Saban talked about how Mac Jones has looked in practice this week.
“He’s been good,” Saban said. “Really good. His disposition has been good. And he’s executed really well. Hopefully he’ll just keep improving through the course of the week as we get more repetitions. I think everybody’s got to focus on finishing and doing their job. Mac’s got to do his job and everybody’s got to do their job and that’ll be the best way for us to be able to execute.”
Morris also talked about what the Hogs have to do when defending Jones.
“He’s got to play in the last six of the last seven games, so you look at some of that,” Morris said. “If you are a quarterback at Alabama, you are definitely a really really good football player. Mac is no different. We’ve got our work cut out for us. He has got a great supporting cast around him. We’ve got to do a really good job of taking great angles. When they get the ball in space, we’ve got to rally and get them down.”
Morris also talked about what he tells his players regarding social media during another hard season.
“We’ve talked about this for the last several weeks with our football team,” Morris said. “It’s just about us locking arms, blocking out the noise and staying focused on our task and just getting better every day. Yeah, we have. We’ve been talking about this for quite some time. You got to stay within your inner circle and just keep your head down and keep working.”
Morris was asked if he knows who he will start at quarterback this week?
“No, I haven’t made that decision,” Morris said. “Ben was out there at practice yesterday, trying to work through some of the soreness that he has. He definitely made it through practice and did some good things, so we’ll continue to get back out there today and see where he’s at.”
When the media was leaving practice following the four open periods on Tuesday it was noticed that redshirt freshman John Stephen Jones was getting some first-team reps.
“That is part of practice,” Morris said. “We got different periods of practice, we work different things. I mean, we continue to bring those guys along and see how the development goes. If the opportunity presents itself then you move forward. That has been something we’ve done, for the most part, I’d say the last two or three weeks for sure. We are just trying to bring these guys along and get them some reps.”
While Hicks looks like he will be available for the game following injuring his left shoulder against Auburn, the news isn’t as good for senior offensive tackle Colton Jackson.
“You know what, he got out there yesterday and went through practice and was unable to complete practice,” Morris said. “So we’ll reevaluate things today.”
Arkansas and Alabama (7-0, 4-0) will kickoff at 6 p.m. on Saturday night in Bryant-Denny Stadium. The game will be televised on ESPN.