When the Texas Longhorns face off against the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Texas Bowl at NRG Stadium in Houston on Monday evening, one of the key match ups will be the run defense of the Horns against the rushing attack of the Hogs.
With two 1,000-yard rushers and a mammoth offensive line that benefits from multiple additional blockers on most plays, Arkansas is the definition of an old school, ground and pound offense under head coach Bret Bielema.
The results have been impressive, as Arkansas ranks No. 18 nationally on the ground in rush S&P+.
However, the Razorbacks are not the best run offense the Longhorns have faced this season -- that honor goes to the Sooners, which ended the season ranked No. 2 nationally in rush S&P+ behind star freshman Samaje Perine, who set the NCAA single-game record against Kansas when he picked up 427 yards on 34 carries and scored five touchdowns.
The cause for optimism?
Texas was able to hold Oklahoma to only 103 yards on the ground and averaged 3.4 yards per carry, even though quarterback Trevor Knight didn't suffer much negative yardage as a result of sacks. Taking out his four carries for two yards and the Sooners still only managed 3.9 yards per carry.
Add in the fact that wide receiver Sterling Shepard had a 31-yard run in the game and the effort against the actual between-the-tackles attack of Oklahoma was exceptional by Texas, especially against the talented Perine, who managed only 62 yards on 18 carries.
No play was more emblematic of the performance than freshman safety Jason Hall's stuff of the 5'11, 243-pound bowling ball of a running back in the hole:
Since the Horns will almost certainly employ one deep safety on most plays in an effort to load the box, Hall's instincts and physicality against the run game should play an important role in the defensive strategy on Monday night.
And depute the two 1,000-yard running backs and the necessary respect for the physicality of the Arkansas offensive line, the run game couldn't prove to be the difference against an A&M team that fired its defensive coordinator and gave up over six yards per carry.
The run game also couldn't prove to be the difference against a Georgia team that was missing star running back Todd Gurley because the Arkansas rushing attack only managed 3.41 yards per carry and the Razorbacks got into a hole early and were never able to recover.
The Bulldogs, by the way, featured the No. 69 rush defense in S&P+.
One of the decisions to watch for Texas regards personnel. There's little doubt that Texas will line up in a rare 4-3 formation on every standard down against Arkansas, but the question is which player will join the line up as the strong side linebacker.
In goal-line situations this season, that player was junior linebacker Peter Jinkens, who saw decreased playing time once again after what at times appeared to be a breakout freshman season. With only 20 tackles on the season, no other stats, and several instances in which he gave less than full effort in attempting to defeat blocks, he's hardly guaranteed playing time just because he's the starter at the position the Longhorns don't use much.
The other option is to employ one of the Fox defensive ends as a linebacker, with the top candidate former linebacker Naashon Hughes, the redshirt freshman. The possible concern there is that sophomore Caleb Bluiett, who has also played the position, could miss the game because of knee injury that he suffered against TCU.
The case for Jinkens is his play against Oklahoma and Kansas State, the two teams that most closely approximated the rushing attack of Arkansas. In those two games, he recorded six of his 20 total tackles in 2014.
Whatever head coach Charlie Strong decides in regards to personnel, having so much practice time to prepare for Arkansas will also represent a tremendous benefit, especially for a team that faces so many spread offenses during the regular season.
Given a handful of days to prepare, Texas could definitely struggle to transition to a defensive front that the team doesn't often employ. It could still struggle because Arkansas has started to come together as a team down the stretch, much as Texas did before the meltdown against TCU, but it won't be for wont of preparation time.
The defensive line has also been playing at a high level this season, with the Texas Bowl likely representing the last opportunity for junior defensive tackle Malcom Brown to put some impressive moments on film before he declares for the NFL Draft. It will certainly be the last opportunity for senior defensive end Cedric Reed to impress scouts before his Texas career is over.
There's some risk involved in allowing Brown and Ridgeway to attempt to shoot gaps to create tackles for loss, but those plays will be crucial to stopping the Arkansas rushing attack because this is a team that doesn't want to be behind the chains.
The Longhorns have the defensive line and the linebackers to slow down the Razorback running game. If Strong's defensive group can replicate the effort the team turned in against the Sooners, there should be a chance to come out of the Texas Bowl as winners.