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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.
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.