No. 18 Gators lead nation in run defense, but face tough test against run-heavy Arkansas
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – After watching hours and hours of Arkansas' offense this week, Florida safety Cody Riggs texted former high school teammate and Wisconsin running back James White with one fairly obvious observation:
"You guys like to run the ball a lot," Riggs wrote.
White's response: "I know."
No. 18 Florida (3-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) expects its toughest test of the season when it faces revamped Arkansas (3-2, 0-1), which is making strides under former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and his run-heavy offensive scheme.
The Razorbacks rank second in the SEC in rushing, averaging 237 yards a game. The Gators, meanwhile, top the nation in run defense, allowing 53.5 yards a game.
It should make for an intriguing matchup Saturday night — the first night game in the Swamp since November 2011.
"They're a power team," Riggs said. "Nothing we haven't seen before, but we have our work cut out for us."
Arkansas has seven 100-yard rushing performances this season, four more than any other team in the league. Alex Collins, a 5-foot-11, 206-pound freshman from Fort Lauderdale, is second in the SEC in rushing. He's averaging 119 yards on the ground, 25 more than teammate Jonathan Williams.
"They're gonna be physical," Gators defensive tackle Damien Jacobs said. "They're gonna line up and run it there, and they're gonna run it there until you stop them. We've gotta strap it up this week. It's gonna be fun."
Florida, which has won eight in a row in the series, could make things not so fun for the Razorbacks.
The Gators haven't given up more than 66 yards rushing in any game this season. And they showed little drop-off without disruptive defensive end Dominique Easley, who is out for the season with a knee injury.
"Obviously, they lost a real good player," Bielema said. "But across the board up front, they use their hands well, they're powerful, their linebackers run. I think they're more than capable on the back end, which allows their front to be a little bit more physical. It's an imposing group."
Aside from the key matchup, here are five things to know about Arkansas and Florida heading into the game.
DOWN AND DIRTY? Jacobs called Arkansas' offensive line "a little chippy, a little dirty." He specifically mentioned center Travis Swanson, a senior who has started 43 consecutive games. "He makes you want to do something to him. We're gonna have to try to keep our temper and keep cool on that." So how do you resist that urge? "Just hit in the mouth, first," Jacobs said. "Just keep hitting him until he quits. That's how we do it."
QBs RISING: Arkansas' Brandon Allen returned from a shoulder sprain last week and threw for a career-high 282 yards and three touchdowns against Texas A&M. Florida's Tyler Murphy made his first career start at Kentucky and completed his first 13 passes. Both teams rely on ground games, preferring to have their signal callers be effective and efficient with limited throws. But Allen and Murphy are showing they can do more.
JONES SHOWS UP: Florida running back Matt Jones wants to prove his performance at Kentucky wasn't a one-week wonder. Jones ran 28 times for 176 yards — both career highs — and a touchdown in last week's 24-7 win. The 226-pound sophomore struggled early after missing much of August recovering from a viral infection. Jones sat out the season opener, fumbled at Miami and again against Tennessee. He failed to top 50 yards rushing in either game. But after a mid-week conversation with coach Will Muschamp about "cutting loose," Jones did. "It definitely was a weight off my shoulders," he said.
YOUTH SERVED: Arkansas has more than half a dozen youngsters making an impact on offense. Allen, Williams, receiver Keon Hatcher are sophomores. Collins, tight end Hunter Henry and guards Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland — who moved into the starting lineup last week — are freshmen. They could make the Razorbacks a real factor in the SEC over the next two years.
SHANNON RETURNS: Former Miami coach Randy Shannon is returning to the Swamp for the first time since 2008. His last trip didn't go very well. Shannon, now Arkansas' linebackers coach, lost 26-3 at Florida five years ago and was upset that former coach Urban Meyer called for a meaningless field goal with 29 seconds remaining. Shannon has been instrumental in helping Bielema recruit in Florida, and there's no question he would love to beat the Gators as much as anyone.