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November 8, 2012

Hood: Why can't USC beat Arkansas?



It's undoubtedly one of the great mysteries surrounding South Carolina football.

Since the beginning of the 2009 season, USC has dominated SEC East opponents, compiling a sparkling record of 16-5 against the likes of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and, starting this year, Missouri.

Three of those five losses occurred in 2009, giving USC a 14-2 record against divisional foes in the last three seasons. In fact, the recent loss to Florida snapped USC's 12-game winning streak over SEC East opponents dating to 2010.

Yet, despite all that success, USC can't seem to beat Arkansas. Why?

The Gamecocks have lost three games in a row and five of the last six to the Razorbacks.

The simple answer is USC hasn't been able to stop Arkansas' passing attack. Since the Hogs have thrown for 931 yards, an average of 310.3 yards, against the USC secondary in the past three meetings, that's a good place to start.

But the justification for the Razorbacks' dominance over USC goes much deeper than that.

Saying Arkansas has prevailed over USC in recent years by simply throwing the ball falls victim to a myth. Actually, the Razorbacks have run the ball more than they've passed it in two of the past three meetings versus the Gamecocks.

In last season's 44-28 victory in Fayetteville, Arkansas passed the ball 38 times and ran it 35 times for 136 yards, four yards fewer than the previous year, when it collected 140 rushing yards on 38 carries in its 41-20 victory in Columbia.

In the last three years against USC, Arkansas has run the ball 109 times compared to 95 passes. Over that same span, USC has struggled to run the ball, reaching the century mark only once (105 yards in 2010). Here's the run-pass breakdown for Arkansas against USC in the past three years:

2011: 35 rushes, 38 passes
2010: 38 rushes, 30 passes
2009: 36 rushes, 27 passes

The Razorbacks are averaging 3.8 yards per rush in the last two years against USC. Not great, but the important thing is former coach Bobby Petrino remained committed to the run.

Contrastly, USC is averaging a meager 79 yards rushing per game during the current three-game losing streak to Arkansas. The Gamecocks were out-rushed by almost a 2-to-1 margin in last year's loss in the Ozarks.

The rushing numbers point to a recent reality of the USC-Arkansas series: The Hogs have lived to the moniker and dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

USC tight end Justice Cunningham summed it up best on Tuesday: "They've been killing us for the past couple of years."

So, Arkansas has stuck to the tried-and-true formula for success in the SEC - run the football effectively enough to keep defenses off-balance, stop the run and complete enough throws to make the passing game a legitimate threat.

But, of course, when your last two quarterbacks are named Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson and you've got a slew of NFL-caliber receivers on your roster, you're going to throw the football as well. In the last three years against USC, Arkansas quarterbacks have completed 67.4 percent (67-of-95) of their throws, a very good percentage.

In the last two years, Arkansas has completed 38 passes for 602 yards, an average of 15.84 yards per completion. When it's thrown the ball, it has traveled vertically down the field.

So, Arkansas has managed to successfully run and throw the ball on the USC defense, and it's halted the Gamecocks' attempts to run. No surprise that it's won the last three games.

Will interim coach John L. Smith follow the same formula? Through nine games, Arkansas has run the ball 283 times and passed it 335 times, a run-pass ratio of 45.8 percent to 54.2 percent.

Dennis Johnson is one of the most under-rated running backs in the SEC with 598 yards on 105 carries, an impressive 5.7 yards per carry. Johnson, who had 86 yards on 15 carries (5.7 yards per attempt) in last year's win over USC, might not be on the same level as Darren McFadden, but he's a bull running between the tackles.

Johnson has kept the Arkansas running game afloat as Knile Davis, who possesses more raw talent, has struggled to bounce back from a serious ankle injury that ended his 2011 season before it even started.

Unlike last year, USC must find a way to contain Johnson, or Wilson will be able to run play-action and his chances of settling into a groove throwing the ball will increase.

As USC defensive line coach Brad Lawing says just about every week, job No. 1 is stopping the run. This week, it's imperative. Unless USC gains the upper hand along the line of scrimmage, ending the three-game losing streak to Arkansas will prove difficult.



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