On Average, Arkansas Has Great Defense, and We All Laugh

Sep 1, 2012; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Tight end Chris Gragg (80) was a major part of the Arkansas offense on Saturday night. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIRE

I'm going to start with some core principles underlying the way I analyze football statistics.

  1. Box scores hide important outlier events (positive and negative) that decide football games. On average, Arkansas held Jacksonville State to less than 5 yards gained per called pass play. The set of people who would call Saturday night's game an example of fine pass defense excludes everyone who saw the game.
  2. Box scores count sacks as running plays, which is screwy. Jacksonville State officially had 95 yards rushing against the Hogs. That included three quarterback sacks that lost 35 yards. On actual running plays, the Gamecocks gained 130 yards, not that far below Arkansas's 170.
  3. The number of possessions matters. Jacksonville State's diverse, QB-strong offense gained 322 yards, a figure widely condemned as the indicator of tragically poor performance by the Razorbacks. Those yards came on 15 possessions. Ten of those possessions produced fewer than 20 yards. Eight had no first downs. Only five moved the football at least halfway toward the Arkansas goal line.

Statistics are not meaningless; if they tell you the wrong story, you're looking at the wrong stats.

Drives_medium

Here is a table I assemble after every Razorback football game. It shows each meaningful possession, excluding truncated ones at the ends of halves. Possible yards represent the beginning distances from the opposing goal lines. An Arkansas possession that starts on its own 25 is 75 yards away from the end zone. Then we have total yards gained on the possession. This is not the same as the yards gained that show up in the box score. In a box score, if the Hogs gain 15 yards, get a 15-yard penalty, then regain the 15 yards, Arkansas has 30 yards of offense. In reality, the Hogs gained 15 yards toward the goal.

On average, Arkansas had a successful night on both sides of the football. The offense gained 60% of the 945 possible yards; 50% is the typical dividing line between good and bad. The defense allowed 35% of the 954 possible yards for Jacksonville State. On average, that's great.

What doesn't get captured in stats is how effective the visitors looked on those five successful drives, the serious scoring threats. If you watched the game, you were appalled at how often Jacksonville State had receivers wide open -- not on every down, but at the moments where it really mattered.

Grades_medium

I cannot call the defensive performance a total failure, because it wasn't. Let's go through some performance measures, and it is easier to see what Arkansas did right and wrong on offense and defense.

Yards per rush

Offense gained 5.0 yards, which might be fine if it weren't against an FCS opponent returning hardly any starters from what had been a mediocre defense. Tailbacks Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo ran 28-134, 4.8 average. The totals were pumped up by freshman QB Brandon Allen and his two great scambles.

Defense allowed 3.2 yards per rushing play, despite playing against two very mobile QBs. Overall, excellent despite allowing one touchdown.

Yards per pass play / % of bad plays

Offense gained 11.3 yards, incredibly good. Tyler Wilson completed six passes that gained between 24 and 63 yards. Anything above 9 yards is world class. Bad plays (incomplete, interceptions, sacks) were just 34% of total. Below 40% is impeccable.

Defense permitted 4.8 yards per pass play, including the three sacks. And 55% of the opponent's pass plays had unfavorable outcomes, a pretty good number especially against a possession passing offense.

Per possession measures

Arkansas had eight serious scoring opportunities in 14 offensive possessions, a fairly decent outcome. But given the quality of opposition, six failed possessions was a little high. Five plays, 1.8 first downs and 40 yards per possession show good productivity.

On defense, the Hogs allowed the Gamecocks to move the football five times in 15 chances, a good ratio. Five and a half plays and 22 yards per possession were far from dominating. Jax State piled up 81 plays and 20 first downs in its 15 drives.

Third downs

Going to third downs too often was a major problem for the Hogs' offense in 2011. Jacksonville State was not much of a test, and the 2012 Arkansas offense only had nine third downs in 69 plays. Staying below 20% is desirable. The 56% conversion rate on third down was good but expected, too.

The defense forced 19 third downs out of 81 plays. Including two fourth down attempts, the visitors spent one-quarter of their offensive plays on third or fourth downs. But allowing 42% conversion on third downs was poor and one of the defense's major problems.

Losses vs. big gains

Arkansas's best achievement in any phase of the football game was big-play passing -- six big plays from Tyler Wilson to Chris Gragg, Brandon Mitchell and Javontee Herndon. On the other side, the offense was stopped for lost yardage on only 4% of its plays. Wilson had one sack in his 28 pass plays, with no interceptions (but a very strange fumble). Where the offense was at its worst -- three turnovers, one every 23 plays. That earned a grade of F in ball security.

The defense earned two F grades, by producing only one turnover in 81 plays, and by allowing three gains of more than 20 yards. Produce more turnovers, or eliminate big plays, and Jacksonville State likely would have scored far less than 24 points.

Other observations

Arkansas's three fumbles had different outcomes:

  • Wilson's tuck rule-like drop fell at Jacksonville State's 27, killing a game-opening drive and likely score. A defender returned the fumble to the Arkansas 24, worsening the turn of events. But the drive produced only a blocked field goal, which was so low it was blocked by Byran Jones's armpit.
  • Gragg was stood up after a short pass and stripped of the ball at the Arkansas 35. This turnover led to a JSU touchdown.
  • Wingo lost the ball on an inside run at the Jacksonville State 40, killing a fourth-quarter drive. The visitors turned around and drove to the Arkansas 8 before stalling on downs.

Johnson's decisions on kickoff returns were questionable. Johnson succeeded on one 42-yard return out of the end zone, but he averaged 13.5 yards on three others. Starting at the 25 isn't bad, is it?

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