- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- When No. 3 Arkansas arrives in Death Valley on Friday to play No. 1 LSU, the most intriguing battle will not be the Razorbacks' receivers, the best in the SEC, trying to separate themselves from the Tigers' cornerbacks, the best in the nation.
However, the best battle between these teams will hinge upon whether the Arkansas defense can force those LSU quarterbacks off the field and punter Brad Wing onto it. If and when that happens, and senior Arkansas punt returner Joe Adams drops back, do not make an early dash for the turkey leftovers. Wait for the commercial.
Adams has taken three punts to the house this season, most in the FBS. All you need to know about the third one, a 60-yarder against Tennessee on Nov. 12, is that various YouTube versions generated about 1.25 million views in nine days.
"Every time he has the ball in his hands, he can do something special with it," Arkansas safety Elton Ford, a starter on the punt return team for three seasons, said of Adams. "Just set him up and give him a chance. That's what we're out there to do."
Adams is averaging 16.2 yards per return this season, third in the nation. Going into last Saturday's game at Ole Miss, LSU had allowed a net total of seven punt return yards all season. Apprised of this statistic Saturday evening, Ford said, "That's gonna change. No doubt."
The man knows his football. When LSU finished its 52-3 victory Saturday night, the Tigers had allowed a net total of six punt return yards all season.
An irresistible force is about to meet a very movable object.
Wing, an Aussie import who grew up playing Australian Rules Football, can control the ball as if his foot were a 56-degree wedge. He can blast the ball, aim it, kick it high and short or kick it on the run as in rugby. The latter is critical because he can give his very fast teammates an extra second to get downfield. They take care of the rest.
They'll need it against Arkansas, which has made special teams not only entertaining but productive.
"I learned my first year here that a lot of these games are decided by little things," said Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, whose Razorbacks went 5-7 in 2008. Seven games were decided by four points or fewer. "Special teams made a huge difference in a lot of games my first year. We felt like we needed to devote more time, more energy [to them]. That was another opportunity to win a game in the fourth quarter."
Petrino brought in his former boss at Utah State and Louisville, John L. Smith, to run his special teams. Smith, who went 132-86 in 18 seasons as a head coach at those two schools, Idaho and Michigan State, stayed out of coaching after the Spartans fired him in 2006.
"When I worked for John L.," Petrino said, "he was always the special teams coordinator and the head coach. He never gave himself enough time. Now that he's here, I give him enough time for the preparation."
Smith said he usually gets 20 minutes per practice, double what is typical.
"Since I [was] a head coach, special teams has become more important," Smith said. "People have made it more important, which makes it more difficult. It used to be we would all do the same thing. It's not like that anymore."
The new tactics, like the rugby punt, have re-emphasized a part of the game that used to be prized for the ability to "flip the field" -- make a sudden change in field position.
"We have a sign that reads, 'One-Play Battles for Huge Chunks of Land,'" Smith said. "We keep saying that one out of four kicks, they are going to give us an opportunity to return."
Smith uses veteran starters on his return team, guys like Ford and linebacker Jerico Nelson, to make room for Adams. Nelson and Adams have been roommates for four years.
"I'd rather block for Joe then go down and have to tackle him," Nelson said. "Whenever he touches the ball, even on offense, anything can happen. If he gets the ball in open space, it's like a screen every time. Just give him a couple of blocks and he's going."
Nelson said that after the Tennessee game, he and Adams went home and watched the punt return about a dozen times. Adams broke tackles, reversed field four times and generally darted about the field like a balloon expelling air.
"I didn't realize how good it was until I went back and watched it a couple of times," Adams said. "I don't think I was supposed to break all those tackles. I was just determined. I wasn't going to let one guy or two guys tackle me."
Smith declared it better than the 97-yard punt return for a touchdown Adams created against Ole Miss a year ago. Fielding a punt inside your 10 breaks every rule in the coaching manual, unless you finish the play at the other end of the field.
All Adams asks for, even against LSU, is a crease.
"Guys block," Adams said, "and I can make guys miss."
It's simple, really. You just have to wait until LSU gets to fourth down in order to see it.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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