Arkansas, QB have the edge

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By Ethan Levine

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UK quarterback Jalen Whitlow vs. Arkansas defense

It may seem a bit generic, but Whitlow’s performance against the Razorbacks will have a major impact on UK’s attempt to steal a conference road win in Arkansas. The Razorback defense has been suspect at best this season as the team has fallen from a top-10 preseason ranking to a 2-4 record halfway through the season.

The Arkansas defense is allowing exactly 35 points a game, bad enough to be the 104th ranked scoring defense in the nation (out of 120 teams). In six games this season, the Razorbacks have allowed their opponents to top 30 points four times. Rutgers put 35 points on the scoreboard against this defense in week four, the most points the Scarlet Knights have scored in a game this season. Louisiana-Monroe ran up 34 points on the Razorbacks in week two in a thrilling overtime victory. And who can forget the 52-0 drubbing that No. 1 Alabama handed Arkansas in week three?

To contrast, the UK offense is averaging 20 points a game this season, bad enough to rank 107th in the nation. The Cats have played four different guys at quarterback this season, and the inconsistency has haunted the offense. This week, true freshman Whitlow will make his second career start (Whitlow started last week against Mississippi State and played all but two offensive snaps a week earlier against South Carolina). It has been a rocky start to Whitlow’s career, as the freshman has completed just 23 of 50 passes for 199 yards (fewer than four yards per attempt) with two interceptions and no touchdown passes.

Whitlow does, however, have two rushing touchdowns this season and has made some electrifying plays with his feet that Cats fans haven’t seen since the days of Randall Cobb. With each passing week, the young quarterback is gaining experience, gaining confidence and becoming more comfortable as “the guy” on offense. Saturday will be Whitlow’s first career road start and should serve as a true test of his development and maturity.

Edge: Push.

At times on Saturday, a conservative UK offense with predictable play-calling will make a mediocre Arkansas defense look better than it is. But Whitlow can be a true X-factor when he is on the field, with a cannon for an arm and speed and quickness that can light up a defense that doesn’t respect it. The UK offensive line has provided stellar protection of its quarterbacks all season long, and if Whitlow can avoid being hurried or panicked, his abilities as a dual-threat quarterback could shine. Expect the UK offense to get creative with its new weapon under center and to try and keep the defense off-balance and uncertain of what is coming. But, as is head coach Joker Phillips’ and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders’ nature, expect this offense to get conservative at times and to allow the Arkansas defense to make athletic plays of its own. It will be a back-and-forth battle all evening in Fayetteville.

Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson vs. UK secondary

Wilson was considered by many to be the best quarterback returning in the SEC in 2012, but so far the season hasn’t gone as planned. With four straight losses to Louisiana-Monroe, Alabama, Rutgers and Texas A&M, the Razorbacks have fallen from title contenders to bottom feeders in the blink of an eye. But don’t place the blame on Wilson. With the exception of the Alabama game, a game Wilson sat out with an injury, the Razorbacks’ quarterback has done his part for the offense, completing just under 60 percent of his passes and throwing for more than 1,500 yards in just five games, an average of more than 300 yards per game. The senior already has nine passing touchdowns this season and a career-high 9.13 yards per attempt this season.

But Wilson has also developed a tendency to be reckless with the ball, having thrown five interceptions in five games this season. In Wilson’s breakthrough 2011 season he had just six in 13 games. It will be up to a UK secondary predicated heavily on true freshmen to try to force some takeaways to give the UK offense a short field. True freshman Cody Quinn has been a surprise star for the Cats at cornerback, earning a starting job across from Cartier Rice, allowing senior Martavius Neloms to move back to safety, the position he played last season. Fellow true freshmen J.D. Harmon, Fred Tiller and twins Daron and Zack Blaylock will also see plenty of time in the secondary as the unit combines an unusual concoction of explosiveness and inexperience.

Edge: Wilson.

While Wilson has given away the football like a hot potato at times this season he is still a heralded senior with a huge arm. Expect the Razorbacks to try to establish the run early with star running back Kniles Davis, but should UK’s defensive front quiet the ground game, Arkansas head coach John L. Smith has no qualms with putting the offense in Wilson’s hands. The Cats may have more athleticism in the secondary than they’ve had in the past five years, but it is all raw talent. Guys like Quinn, Harmon, Tiller and the Blaylock twins are learning on the fly, and Wilson may just be the perfect teacher. Games like this, on the road no less, will help these freshmen in the long run, but that doesn’t mean Wilson will do them any favors this week. UK has just two interceptions this season, and just one by a member of the secondary (an interception by Neloms against Florida in week four). Wilson may commit a turnover, but he should also reach his average of 300 yards per game and throw for multiple touchdowns.

Overall Edge: Arkansas.

The Razorbacks need this game, and they need it badly. It has been a difficult fall from grace for Arkansas, but a win last week over Auburn on the road may have righted the ship. The defense allowed just seven points to the Tigers and the Razorbacks were finally able to snap a four-game losing streak. You might call it bad timing for the Cats, who visit Fayetteville one week later against a hungry Arkansas team with as much momentum as they’ve managed to garner all season.

UK has improved steadily from week to week this season, but the improvements are not great enough to make UK a viable competitor in the SEC this season. Can the Cats play a competitive game against Arkansas? Sure — this game certainly won’t be the blowout fans expected earlier this season.

Expect UK to play a close first half the way it did against Mississippi State and South Carolina, but don’t expect it to last.

Final score: Arkansas 24, UK 14