LITTLE ROCK — Voting for Arkansas or Rutgers, the “ifs” have it.
Two quarterbacks per team yields four scenarios, including AJ Derby for Arkansas vs. Chas Dodds for Rutgers. In that case, both teams would pare down the playbook and focus on the run, and back-up vs. back-up would favor Arkansas for two reasons.
First, Arkansas is more run-oriented than Rutgers, attempting 66 fewer passes than the Scarlet Knights in the first three games. Sans Brandon Allen for most of the game, Arkansas was 5-to-1 run vs. pass last week. Even without Gary Nova, Rutgers’ ratio was barely 2-to-1, although the Scarlet Knights only snapped the ball 42 times.
Second, two outstanding running backs are available to Derby and Dodds has only one proven alternative. Even though Rutgers’ Paul James leads the nation in rushing, give me the combined production of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins over his lonesome. In three games, Williams and Collins have carried a total of 121 times, almost exactly double the 61 carries that James has accumulated while piling up 493 yards.
Rutgers’ No. 5 ranking against the rush is duly noted, but Fresno State — the Scarlet Knights’ only decent opponent — threw 73 times and ran 23 times. Norfolk State and Eastern Michigan making little on their combined 67 rushes is to be expected.
Both Derby and Dodds have been starting quarterbacks since high school, but it’s been a while since either was involved to the hilt in college and I wonder if they can be trusted to accurately read pass coverage. The guess is they would have two receiver options at the most.
Dodds has not started since the Pinstripe Bowl in 2011. In the two seasons prior to that game, he had 21 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions. At Coffeyville Community College last year, Derby’s numbers were almost identical — 22 TD passes and 14 picks.
The absence of Nova would not alter Rutgers’ offensive philosophy, said coach Kyle Flood, but he is talking more theory than anything else. “I think where it changes the most is from a play-calling standpoint,” he said. “It is making sure what you have in the game plan, you’re able to accentuate through the players that are on the field.”
That includes all players, he said, not just the quarterback.
If Nova is able to start for Rutgers vs. Derby, the pendulum swings to the Scarlet Knights. Nova was 25-of-35 last year in Fayetteville and 38-of-62 this year in two games. He is more than capable of thoroughly probing Arkansas’ unproven pass defense and his successes throwing would create running lanes for James — a pick-your-poison situation for defensive coordinator Chris Ash.
Less likely scenario No. 3, Allen and Nova at full speed, is the optimum situation for both teams. Before Allen landed on his shoulder and Nova took a helmet to the chin, I thought this game would be a revelation about the Razorbacks. Allen was to have his first chance outside Arkansas borders, the opponent was an upgrade over the first three, and Nova showed in 2012 that he could deliver against Arkansas. Without him, Arkansas is shorthanded.
Least likely of the four combinations, Allen against Dodds, would favor Arkansas because Allen’s presence would expand the Razorback playbook.
Since Bret Bielema and Flood have been coy about the health of their quarterbacks, we can only interpret their remarks.
Early in the week, Bielema said he would not put Allen in harm’s way. Allen participated in the final practice of the week, but did not throw. Doctors did not give Bielema “100 percent assurance” that the sophomore is ready to play and his status is a game-time decision.
Nova’s participation in practice expanded during the week, prompting Flood to say on consecutive days that he is very optimistic. Sounds like Derby vs. Nova.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.