The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The top-ranked Florida Gators continue defense of their national title this Saturday, as they play host to a dangerous Arkansas squad.
After a 1-2 start to the season that included a 35-7 beating at the hands of Alabama, Arkansas has posted back-to-back victories. The Razorbacks pounded Texas A&M by 28 points and then upset Auburn last week by a 44-23 final. Still, Bobby Petrino's Hogs are just 1-2 in the SEC and simply can't afford to lose another conference tilt this weekend.
As for Florida, it has won its last 15 games, a school record and the longest active streak in the nation. The Gators are 5-0 this season, including a 3-0 mark in conference action, and the club is coming off a hard-fought 13-3 victory over LSU. Florida was the first team to beat LSU on a Saturday night in Baton Rouge in 33 games, so the accomplishment should not be understated. The Gators have held the No. 1 spot in the AP Top-25 for nine consecutive polls and can tie the program record if it can remain atop the list for one more week.
Florida has faced Arkansas eight times previously, and seven of those meetings have resulted in Gator victories. Last season, Florida cruised to a 38-7 road win over the Razorbacks.
Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas from Michigan, and the strong-armed signal caller has paid major dividends. He has completed 56.9 percent of his passes for 1,422 yards and 13 touchdowns against only three interceptions. His top receiver has been Greg Childs, who has hauled in 21 balls for 345 yards and four touchdowns. Still, Mallett has spread the ball around to several guys. As for the running game, Michael Smith leads the way with 325 yards and two scores. Arkansas is averaging 451.8 total ypg and has scored at least 41 points in four of five outings.
On the defensive side of the ball, Arkansas is allowing 398.6 total ypg, including 253.4 ypg through the air. The Razorbacks are yielding 13.6 yards per pass completion, and 10 of the 17 touchdowns that the defense has allowed have been of the passing variety. The word that can best be used to describe the defense is inconsistent, as there have been some tremendous performances and some terrible showings as well. After all, Arkansas permitted 52 points to Georgia and just 19 to Texas A&M. One guy to keep an eye on is Adrian Davis, as he has three sacks this season.
Arkansas racked up 495 total yards in the victory over Auburn last weekend, and Smith ran for 145 yards and a touchdowns on 18 carries. Unfortunately, Smith has an injured hamstring that has him listed as questionable for the Florida game. As for Mallett, he torched Auburn for 274 yards and two touchdowns. Defensively, the Hogs held the Tigers to 133 passing yards, overshadowing a lackluster performance against the run. Aside from a shaky third quarter in which Arkansas allowed 20 points, the defense played brilliantly.
"Our guys were great on defense," said Petrino. "We came out and hit (Auburn) in the mouth early and didn't look back. Our guys never hesitated, and set the tone early."
Mallett was thrilled with the victory as well, and he was quick to credit the running game.
"Nobody in the country has as good of backs as we do here," said Mallett. "This was the first game that we really got the running game going for us. Once we started executing the run, it really opened up the defense for our passing game."
Tim Tebow returned from his concussion against LSU, as he took full advantage of the fact that Florida had an open date the previous week. The Gators knew that it would be tough to move the ball and score points against the Tigers, and that was indeed the case, as coach Urban Meyer's club finished with a mere 13 points and 327 total yards. The lone touchdown came on a 24-yard pass from Tebow to Riley Cooper. Jeff Demps rushed for 86 yards on just 16 carries, and Tebow completed 11-of-16 passes for 134 yards.
"To play against a good defense like that, those guys are really good and they come to play," said Tebow after the game. "We didn't execute that great. We didn't put the ball in the end zone when we should have, but I am very proud of our team and our offense."
Most of the credit for the victory over LSU should be given to the defense of Florida, which allowed only 162 yards on the road, including 66 rushing yards on 30 attempts. With five sacks and an interception, the defensive unit made some key plays, and most importantly it prevented LSU from making big plays.
"We came out and played with a lot of confidence," said safety Will Hill. "We knew what we had to do. We knew that odds were against us since they had won 32 games in a row, so we had to come out and play tough and we did."
Florida is scoring 39.0 ppg and gaining 486.4 total ypg despite the modest output last weekend. The Gators possess the nation's most productive ground game, as they are rushing for 284.6 ypg at a clip of 6.4 ypc. Tebow has rushed for 309 yards and five touchdowns, while Demps has four scores and a team-high 390 yards on only 44 attempts. As a passer, Tebow has completed 65.5 percent of his throws for 777 yards and seven touchdowns against only two interceptions.
Most fans and analysts expected Florida to be an elite defensive team this season, and that has certainly been the case. The Gators are holding opponents to 6.4 ppg and 202.6 total ypg, staggering numbers by any standards. They are yielding a mere 87.4 rushing ypg on 2.8 ypc. Opponents have been able to make good on just 26 percent of their third down conversion attempts. Brandon Spikes leads a balanced defense with 32 tackles, including four TFLs.
The Gators are the pick here, as they will hold the Arkansas passing attack in check. Everyone wants to talk about Tebow, but it is the Florida defense that is the team's greatest asset.