The last time the Southeastern Conference saw a pair of running backs on the same team with as much talent as Darren McFadden and Felix Jones of Arkansas their names were Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown. With Williams and Brown leading the way the Auburn Tigers ran the table with a 13-0 record that should have earned them at least a share of the national title.
There is no national title within the grasp of the Razorbacks but they do have championship aspirations and as long as McFadden and Jones are healthy, Arkansas is a serious threat to win its first Southeastern Conference football championship since joining the league back in 1992. Standing in the way of Arkansas (10-2, ranked eighth nationally) at the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in Atlanta (Saturday, 6 p.m., CBS TV) is Florida (11-1, ranked fourth nationally) with a defense that’s ranked tenth nationally (265.25 yards per game) and fifth against the run (69.7 yards per game).
When Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown were seniors in 2004, they took Auburn on their backs and led the Tigers to a perfect season. Williams led the way with 1,165 yards and 12 touchdowns while Brown finished with 913 yards and eight. They were the perfect complementary 1-2 punch. Both had breakaway speed but Williams was more of a make you miss guy while Brown was more of a punishing between the tackles runner.
As good as Williams and Brown were, the sophomore sensations from Arkansas might be even better. The Razorbacks are averaging 236.25 yards rushing yards per game, which is fourth in the country. McFadden (6-2, 205) is the nation’s eighth leading rusher with 244 carries for 1,495 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and 14 touchdowns. Jones (6-0, 200) has 127 carries for 961 yards (7.6 yards per carry) and four touchdowns.
McFadden has done his best work against the Razorbacks’ toughest opponents. With the exception of the Southern Cal game (50-14 loss) in which he got hurt in the first half, McFadden has broken long runs for touchdowns against every top team on the Arkansas schedule. Against Alabama, McFadden had 25 carries for 112 yards including a 29-yard run for a touchdown. Against Auburn, he had 28 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown with a scoring run of 63 yards. He had 25 carries for 219 yards and two TDs including one for 43 yards against South Carolina. He had 181 yards on 30 carries for two touchdowns against Tennessee with a touchdown run of 37 yards.
Against LSU’s nationally second-ranked defense this past Friday, he ran for 182 yards and two touchdowns with a scoring run of 80 yards. He was 2-2 passing for 33 yards.
Consider Florida coach Urban Meyer impressed.
“I’ve heard a lot about him [McFadden],” said Meyer. “I’ve heard his coach talk about him on the SEC conference calls. I like being around players like that. You watch him play, and you know what he is? He’s unselfish, too. You like those guys that go block for your teammates. And to have two premieres — Felix and him — reminds me a lot of hearing [Auburn] Coach Tuberville talk about Cadillac and Ronnie, two very unselfish guys that led their team to the SEC championship game.”
Both McFadden and Jones have returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Jones set the stage for a win over Ole Miss when he returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. He’s averaging 26 yards per return. McFadden averages 28.2 yards per kickoff return with a longest of 92 yards for a touchdown.
“I just got done watching all their kicking, just finished kickoff return,” said Meyer. “And the guy that gets overlooked as well is 25 [Jones]. He’s a tremendous player and they have them both back on kickoff return and they are one of the tops in the country at it. And he [McFadden] blocks, also, for number 25, and he direct snaps, then the throws the ball well.”
They are so good together that Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has been spreading the field and forcing teams to deal with this talented combo in awkward situations. Against LSU, McFadden quite often took direct snaps in the shotgun formation where he had the option to run or pass. For the season, he’s 5-5 passing for 70 yards and two touchdowns. In that spread formation against LSU, Jones became a threat from the jet motion plays when he was able to get to the edge and into the secondary for big yardage before someone could run him down. Jones carried 16 times against LSU for 137 yards and a touchdown. He had a long run of 37 yards. His longest run this season is 85 yards.
As difficult as the Arkansas offense is to defend, it becomes even more dangerous when there is the passing threat with McFadden, particularly since the Razorbacks have a 6-6 receiver in Marcus Monk (6-6, 217) who is one of the most dangerous and athletic wideouts in the SEC. Monk has 46 catches for 880 yards and 10 touchdowns.
McFadden won’t throw the ball against sophisticated coverage sets but if teams try to put too many in the box to stop the run, leaving things one-on-one on the outside, the pass becomes a big weapon.
“One thing you don’t have to worry about is [McFadden] throwing against cover two or a lot of coverage,” said Meyer. “It’s either no deep or one high if you have athletic receivers out there it’s one-on-one and go make a play.”
McFadden might not be a threat to win a Heisman Trophy that seems earmarked for Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith. He’s just a sophomore so that will be held against him, but he’s likely to be one of the five invited finalists to New York for the Heisman ceremony and certainly he will be one of the favorites to bring home the trophy next year.
“We spend so many hours and a lot of money on recruiting and he’s what you look for,” said Meyer Sunday evening. “And I understand he’s a quality guy too. I’m not sure who’s going to win the Heisman — I haven’t followed that — but he’s as fine a football player in the country this year as there is.”
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Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt knows that the Razorbacks will have to contend with one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. The Gators are tenth nationally in total defense and fifth against the run, but they also keep people out of the end zone. The Gators have allowed just 12.3 points per game and the defense has allowed only 14 touchdowns in 12 games.
“They can run, that’s the thing,” said Nutt. “If you look at them, the reason they’ve been winning, I think probably number one is their defense. It’s really easy to see, if you want game after game after game, their defense does a great job of stopping people from scoring and gets their offense in great field position and then they have some talented weapons on the offensive side.’’
Nutt believes the key to Florida’s defense is team speed. Florida’s closing speed has kept the Gators from giving up very many plays of 20 yards or more this year.
“If you just look at the speed of the secondary, the speed and quickness of their defensive front, they’re very, very good,” he said.
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If there is one area of serious concern for Meyer going into the SEC Championship Game, it is the health and play of the offensive line. The combination of injuries and an overall lack of depth has hindered the development of a line that will be going against an Arkansas defense that has improved tremendously as the season has progressed. After a slow start, the Arkansas defense is now ranked number 29 in the nation.
“We’re banged up,” said Meyer. “Our two guards … Jim Tarrt has a sprained ankle and so does Drew Miller. Drew Miller hasn’t been 100 percent the last couple of games. We need to get him back fast. From what I understand, I haven’t broken them down yet on defense, but our coaches have told me they are dynamic on defense.”
The Gators gained 392 yards against Florida State’s defense, which was ranked twelfth nationally going into the game, but Meyer didn’t think the offensive line had a very good game.
“Our offensive line did not play very well against FSU and for us to have a chance to go win an SEC championship, they have got to get back to playing and having their best game,” he said.
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The only serious health concern for the Arkansas game is tailback DeShawn Wynn, whose battered shoulder took another hit against FSU. Meyer said that Wynn is questionable for the game.
Percy Harvin, who led Florida with 86 yards rushing including a 41-yard touchdown gallop against FSU, will be okay to play against Arkansas. Harvin took a vicious hit across the middle against FSU and he was taken off the field strapped to a body board because he had some numbness in his neck. The MRI proved negative and other than some soreness he’ll be good to go.
The Gators have other dinged up players but Meyer says they will all be good to go.