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November 10, 2006

Game of the Week: Tennessee at Arkansas

"Arkansas people are saying we can run on the Vols.....well, if Ole Miss can stop us, I am not going to beat my chest about that until I see it."
-- rockerfan on the The Razor's Edge message board on HawgSports.com.

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Nobody can accuse Houston Nutt of playing it safe.

The Arkansas coach made one of the biggest gambles of the year last weekend when he benched quarterback Mitch Mustain in favor of Casey Dick. Nutt has indicated Dick will start Saturday's game against No. 13 Tennessee (ESPN2, 7 p.m.).

Switching quarterbacks at this stage of the season seems a bit odd because Arkansas isn't exactly struggling. Mustain had won every game he'd started to help the 11th-ranked Razorbacks move atop the Southeastern Conference Western Division standings.

But Mustain, the highly touted true freshman, also had thrown an interception on his first pass each of his last two games. That convinced Nutt to seek a more experienced alternative.

"We just feel like we have to go with the one that's going to help us the most," Nutt told HawgSports.com. "At this particular time, it's Casey."

The move paid off last week.

Dick went 11-of-19 for 228 yards with a one touchdown pass and an interception in a 26-20 victory at South Carolina. He now can lead Arkansas (8-1, 5-0 SEC) to a Western Division title if the Razorbacks win two of their remaining three games.

"I felt real calm," Dick said afterward. "Coach just put me out there and said, 'It's yours.'"

Dick had played well last year while splitting time with Robert Johnson, but a back injury never really gave Dick a chance to compete for the starting job this fall. Although Dick hadn't played much this season before last weekend, the sophomore had seen enough from the sideline to know the benefits of throwing to Marcus Monk.

Monk caught a 50-yard pass with two seconds left in the first half last week for his sixth touchdown of the season. The 6-foot-6 junior is responsible for 45 percent of the Razorbacks' passing yards this year while averaging 19.5 yards per catch.

"He can mismatch a lot of people because of his size and physical ability," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "He's a good-looking player. Their offensive line is probably the best that we have played against this year. It's just a good-looking offensive football team."

Tennessee (7-2, 3-2) has its own quarterback issues.

Erik Ainge was arguably the best quarterback in the SEC this year before spraining his right ankle two weeks ago. He aggravated the injury early in a 28-24 loss to Louisiana State and was replaced by redshirt freshman Jonathan Crompton, who threw two touchdown passes despite completing less than half his attempts.

Crompton will make his first career start Saturday.

The Volunteers need Crompton to play well because their running attack has struggled with injuries and inconsistency. The Vols are averaging just 3.6 yards per carry and must improve that figure to have a chance against Arkansas.

"We have to take some pressure off the passing game, although the passing game has certainly been our strength,'' Fulmer said. "We have to take some pressure off our young quarterback and help our defense more. At the same time, when people challenge us in passing situations or man-to-man situations, our strength has been getting the ball to our receivers, and we will certainly not change that."

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Tennessee will have to establish a running attack in the early going Saturday without the help of Arian Foster, who was suspended for the first half of the Arkansas game after getting arrested in connection with an off-campus fight last weekend.

The Vols should get a boost from the return of LaMarcus Coker, who averaged 6.3 yards per rush before missing the last two games with a knee injury.

"He's way ahead of where we thought he might be," Fulmer said.

Arkansas doesn't have to worry nearly as much about its running game. Darren McFadden and Felix Jones have helped give the Razorbacks the nation's fourth-ranked rushing offense with 238.9 yards per game.

Darren McFadden leads the SEC with 1,038 rushing yards and is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. One of the nation's most underrated players finally started hearing his name mentioned in connection with the Heisman Trophy after running for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a nationally televised game last weekend.

"When I saw early on some of the candidates that people were talking about, I just knew in my heart that Darren McFadden needs to be on that list," said Nutt, who worked as an assistant coach at Oklahoma State in 1988 when Barry Sanders won the Heisman. "There's no question about it."

McFadden probably has entered the Heisman debate too late to actually win the trophy, but a big performance Saturday could earn him a trip to New York.

At the moment, he's more concerned about getting his team to Atlanta for the SEC title game.

Week 11 Game of the Week: No. 3 Louisville at No. 15 Rutgers
Tennessee running game vs. Arkansas run defense: The return of LaMarcus Coker should boost Tennessee's stagnant rushing attack. Coker has gained 6.3 yards per carry, while the Volunteers mustered just 3.1 yards per attempt in the two games he missed with a knee injury. But the Volunteers also will play the first half without suspended tailback Arian Foster, who has gained 262 yards on 74 carries this year. Arkansas struggled to stop the run early this season, but the Razorbacks haven't allowed any of their last six foes to gain more than 3.3 yards per carry. Edge: Arkansas.
Tennessee passing game vs. Arkansas pass defense: Tennessee's chances of winning this game could depend on the nerves of redshirt freshman quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who will make his first career start Saturday in place of injured all-SEC candidate Erik Ainge. Crompton threw a pair of touchdown passes last week to Robert Meachem, an All-America candidate who can give Arkansas problems. Meachem could find more trouble than usual getting open Saturday against standout cornerback Chris Houston. The Razorbacks could miss free safety Michael Grant, who is out for the season after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament last week. Edge: Arkansas.
Arkansas running game vs. Tennessee run defense: This represents the game's biggest mismatch. SEC rushing leader Darren McFadden may have delivered the best performance of his brilliant career last week by gaining 219 yards at South Carolina. McFadden hurt his ankle and shin late in that game, but the injuries aren't expected to bother him Saturday. If McFadden can't carry the ball quite as much as usual, the Razorbacks can turn to Felix Jones, who has averaged a whopping 8.1 yards per carry. Tennessee allowed LSU to gain 231 yards on 45 carries last week. Arkansas runs the ball much better than LSU. Edge: Arkansas.
Arkansas passing game vs. Tennessee pass defense: Casey Dick didn't show too much rust last week while leading the Razorbacks past South Carolina. Nutt made a quarterback switch after Mitch Mustain threw an interception on his first pass for the second consecutive week. The move might have been necessary for this week's game, because Tennessee's ball-hawking defense has intercepted 14 passes. Tennessee must find a way to cover red-hot wideout Marcus Monk, who has three touchdown catches in his last two games. Tennessee CB Jonathan Wade and S Jonathan Hefney both should contend for all-SEC honors. Edge: Tennessee.
Tennessee special teams vs. Arkansas special teams: Tennessee boasts one of the SEC's top special-teams duos in kicker James Wilhoit and punter Britton Colquitt. Wilhoit has gone 12-of-15 in field-goal attempts this year, while Colquitt is ranked third in the nation with a punting average of 46.6 yards per attempt. Arkansas kicker Jeremy Davis is 5-of-8 on field-goal attempts, while Jacob Skinner averages 38.5 yards per punt. Tennessee could have problems keeping up with Jones, who has a pair of 100-yard kickoff returns in his career. Edge: Tennessee.
Tennessee coaches vs. Arkansas coaches: Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer and Arkansas coach Houston Nutt both have bounced back in a big way after enduring disappointing seasons last year. Fulmer owns a 4-1 career record against Nutt. Fulmer also is working alongside arguably the nation's best offensive coordinator in David Cutcliffe, whose return to Knoxville has coincided with the rejuvenation of Tennessee's passing attack. Edge: Tennessee.
X-factor: Arkansas WR Marcus Monk. Although Arkansas does most of its damage on the ground, Monk makes at least one big play through the air most weeks. His 6-foot-6 frame makes him an extremely dangerous deep threat. Monk caught a 56-yard touchdown pass for the Razorbacks' first touchdown against Vanderbilt. He scored from 50 yards out against Auburn and South Carolina. Arkansas focuses so much on the run that Monk was a bit of a secret weapon for most of the season. Now that he's caught three touchdown passes in his last two games, the word is out on Monk. Tennessee better know where he is at all times.
Tennessee will win if: This is easier said than done, but Tennessee has to find some way to slow down Arkansas' running game. The Razorbacks have won all their SEC games primarily by running the ball down the throats of league rivals. Arkansas hasn't attempted more than 23 passes in a single game since losing 50-14 to Southern California in its season opener. If the Vols can force Arkansas to throw more than 20 times Saturday, they have an excellent chance of winning.
Arkansas will win if: Although the quarterback switch has garnered plenty of attention this week, it doesn't really matter who's under center as long as Darren McFadden and Felix Jones keep up their usual rate of production. The Razorbacks have run the ball more than two-thirds of the time during their eight-game winning streak. That strategy should continue to work this weekend.
Notes: This will mark the first time that Arkansas has ever hosted the "ESPN GameDay" crew. Tennessee owns an all-time record of 12-2 against Arkansas. The teams haven't met since the Vols won 41-38 in six overtime periods three years ago. Fulmer (14th year) and Nutt (ninth year) are the two SEC coaches with the longest tenures at their respective schools. Arkansas hasn't been ranked this high since Oct. 18, 2003. The Razorbacks were ranked as high as eighth that season. Meachem needs 11 more receiving yards this season to become the fourth 1,000-yard receiver in Tennessee history. He would join Joey Kent (1,055 in 1995 and 1,080 in 1996), Marcus Nash (1,170 in 1997) and Kelley Washington (1,010 in 2001). Tennessee's 45-13 road record since 1992 is the best in the SEC during that time span. Arkansas is on an eight-game winning streak for the first time since 1998. Ohio State (17), Michigan (10) and Boise State (nine) are the only Division I-A teams with longer winning streaks. McFadden and Jones are averaging 194.7 rushing yards per game. The only duo with more combined rushing yards per game is the West Virginia tandem of [DB]Steve Slaton[/DB] and Pat White, who have run for 244.9 rushing yards per game. Jones' rushing average of 8.1 yards per carry ranks second in the nation. Houston's Anthony Aldridge is averaging 11.2 yards per attempt.
Megargee's pick: Arkansas 24-20

Other expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Arkansas 27-21
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Tennessee 27-17
Bill King, Rivals Radio host: Arkansas 24-21
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