Florida, Arkansas ready to square off in tough battle

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Gators return home to face Arkansas on Saturday night in the first home game under the lights at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in nearly two years.

The Swamp should be rocking.

This has the makings of a classic ground-and-pound type of game. Both teams want to establish the run early and often.

The schools haven’t played since a 23-20 Gators victory in 2009 on Caleb Sturgis’ game-wining field goal in the final seconds.

This one could be a close one, too.

Razorbacks quarterback Brandon Allen is aware of the Gators’ SEC-leading defense.

“They’re definitely a great defensive team,” Allen said. “It all comes back to us doing our part, us doing what we can to not make our own mistakes to help them all. Because we really can’t afford that.”

First-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema scrapped the pass-happy spread offense used by former Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino in favor of the run-first, pass-second attack he used at Wisconsin.

The Gators rely on a similar scheme with some wrinkles here and there.

Florida coach Will Muschamp told his team last week that nobody was going to feel sorry for the Gators following a recent rash of injuries. They responded with a win in their SEC road opener at Kentucky.

The Razorbacks are expected to offer a stiffer challenge.

For starters, Muschamp would like another solid performance from quarterback Tyler Murphy, who finished 15 of 18 for 156 yards in his first career start last week.

“I think that’s one of his strengths: demeanor and how he handles things,” Muschamp said of Murphy’s composure. “He doesn’t get caught in the moment, so to speak, as far as his emotions, and that’s something you want at that position.”

Let’s take a look at the Arkansas-Florida matchup with The Opening Kickoff:

Five storylines to watch

We saw Murphy replace injured Jeff Driskel against Tennessee and save the day. We saw him calmly complete his first 13 passes in his first road start at Kentucky. Now we get to see Murphy make his first home start under the lights against an upgrade in competition. He has passed every test thus far and will try to keep that streak intact.

The Gators have begun to re-establish some dominance at The Swamp with nine consecutive wins at home. In Urban Meyer’s final season in 2010 and Muschamp’s first in 2011, Florida was a combined 9-5 at home. This is the Gators’ first home night game since a loss to Florida State in the 2011 regular-season finale, so you can bet the home fans want to see No. 10 in a row.

Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease shooed and talk of a running back controversy between tailbacks Matt Jones and Mack Brown after Jones reeled off a career-high 176 yards at Kentucky. Both have 100-yard games and while Jones appears close to the powerful back we saw at the end of last season, Brown still figures heavily into the plans.

Over the last four years no SEC team ran the ball less than Arkansas. Under Bielema, that has changed. Arkansas is running the ball 65.2 percent of the time, which is second in the league. The Razorbacks’ backfield tandem of Jonathan Williams and true freshman Alex Collins (SEC-best 527 yards rushing) is one of the league’s best and is certain to test Florida’s SEC-leading defense.

The Razorbacks’ plus-12 sack differential leads the SEC and ranks third in the country. Arkansas has 15 sacks and has surrendered only three. The Gators recorded five sacks at Kentucky and will look to get to Razorbacks quarterback Allen when they can. Allen threw 36 times in last week’s loss to Texas A&M.

Cast of characters

The Florida secondary, already among the best in the nation, is expected to have cornerback Marcus Roberson back. Roberson has missed the past two games due to a knee injury.

The Gators are very familiar with Collins, a true freshman they recruited from Fort Lauderdale. Collins played at South Plantation High. Collins has four 100-yard games in his first five collegiate outings and became the first true freshman in SEC history to start his career with three consecutive 100-yard games.

Sophomore defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard moved from end to the interior line against Kentucky and had three tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. Bullard’s shift inside came after Florida lost starting defensive tackle Dominique Easley for the season due to a knee injury. Bullard and fellow run stoppers Damien Jacobs, Leon Orr and Darious Cummings figure to be busy Saturday night.

Muschamp praised the left side of the offensive line — tackle D.J. Humphries and guard Max Garcia — for the way they played at Kentucky. With the Gators determined to run the ball, the duo must be in top form against Arkansas’ physical defensive line.

Razorbacks defensive end Chris Smith (6-3, 270) must be watched closely. Smith leads the SEC with seven tackles-for-loss and is tied for third in the NCAA with six sacks.

The quote file

“They’re a very physical football team. Defensively, we have not seen a team like this as far as the two-back run game is concerned, the play-actions, very big up front, talented up front, two talented runners in Williams and Collins.” — Muschamp on Razorbacks’ offense

“Trey is a great team guy. He does whatever the coaches ask him to do. Right now, they are asking him to play a little receiver, and he has excelled at that and is doing a great job. He is going to help us in many different ways.” — Murphy on senior receiver Trey Burton

“It’s an opportunity to do something that’s never been done here. It’s exciting for our guys.” Bielema on potential of winning at the Swamp

“I thought Ronald played probably his best game since he’s been back, his best football. He played extremely hard in the game; did a really nice job of pushing the pocket. Several sacks really should be accredited to him.” — Muschamp on Gators defensive lineman/linebacker Ronald Powell

“Missing some time early on, he’s getting better and better every week. With Loucheiz, it’s just a matter of being on it every down technique-wise and fundamentally. He’s got great ability; he’s got great competitiveness. The guy plays hard, and anything you ask him to do on any side of the ball, he’s going to do it really well.” — Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin on cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, who has been quiet this season other than for a blocked punt at Miami

10 quick hitters

The Gators are 8-0 against Arkansas since the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1992. Florida’s only loss to the Razorbacks came in the 1982 Bluebonnet Bowl (28-24) at the Astrodome.

Since Murphy took over, the Gators are 8-for-9 scoring inside the red zone (six touchdowns). In the first two games Florida was 6-for-12 inside the red zone with only four touchdowns.

The Gators are expected to have running back Valdez Showers (ankle) available. Showers missed the last two games and provides Florida more of an outside threat than Jones and Brown offer.

Pease and Muschamp both said this week that freshman running back Kelvin Taylor continues to improve in practice and could be used more if he has the hot hand in the run game.

Arkansas kicker Zach Hocker is one of the nation’s best. Hocker ranks first in school history in field-goal percentage (77.5) and second in career field goals (55).

Razorbacks freshman Hunter Henry is the only SEC tight end with a 100-yard game this season. Henry had 109 receiving yards in last week’s loss to Texas A&M.

Gators linebacker Michael Taylor is tied with fellow linebacker Antonio Morrison for second on the team with 20 tackles. Taylor is playing the best of his career according to Durkin.

Gators defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. leads the team with six tackles-for-loss, including two sacks against Kentucky.

This is the first time Bielema has coached a regular-season game in the Sunshine State. He was 2-2 in bowl games in Florida during his time as head coach at Wisconsin.

Arkansas is the only team in the country that plays four preseason top 10 teams in four consecutive weeks (Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama).

The bottom line

These two teams play a similar style offensively so the team that gets the running game humming and begins to wear down the opposing defense is likely to leave the Swamp late Saturday night the winner.

The Gators will have a huge home-field advantage under the lights and in front of what is expected to be a lively crowd. Florida fans have clamored for a night game and finally get one against an SEC team.

If Murphy can mix in a few big plays while taking care of the ball, Florida’s defense should be able to do the rest.