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Arkansas vs UAB Advanced Stats Preview: Turn 'Em Loose

The solution for Arkansas' passing problems is to...throw the ball more?

How much will Brandon Allen throw to AJ Derby and Hunter Henry this week?
How much will Brandon Allen throw to AJ Derby and Hunter Henry this week?
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Arkansas has an offensive issue. Let's not blow it out of proportion: the Hogs have scored 21, 28, 13, and 32 against four SEC defenses, three of which are pretty good. But as Arkansas' offense pitifully dinked around while falling behind Georgia 38-6 in the first half, it was hard not to notice a level of dysfunction in the offense: the gameplan, the playcalling, and the execution. I'm going to use this post to deal with said dysfunction and propose some solutions that we may see against UAB on Saturday.

I've kept an eye on this issue ever since I completed my task of charting every offensive play of the 2013 season, where I noticed some trends in how the offense moved the ball. Arkansas' 2014 offense is significantly better in virtually every offensive category, but this trend reared its ugly head in the first half of the Georgia game, and has been quietly looming all season. To understand what's going wrong, we need to understand what the right thing looks like.

Bielemaball vs. Chaneyball

No part of Bret Bielema's offense is his own invention. He inherited the philosophy from Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, and lets the offensive coordinator call the plays and develop the gameplan under some basic guidelines. Alvarez's philosophy was both simple and brilliant.

In football, "passing downs" are downs in which the offense faces 2nd-and-8 or longer, and 3rd-and-5 or longer. Essentially, they are downs in which the offense can reasonably be expected to pass if they want to continue to move the sticks. All other downs are "standard downs," and, as you might can guess, a crucial part of the Bielema/Alvarez offense is to stay in standard downs as much as possible. Standard downs make up about 70 percent of offensive snaps, and we'll call standard down plays "Bielemaball," or Bielema's preferred offense on standard downs. This is the tight formations, the lead draws, the counters, the tosses, and the powers, along with a little bit of play-action.

But the offense gets off schedule sometimes. For the 30 percent of plays that can reasonably require passing, Alvarez decided to outsource the offense. In 2005, he hired Paul Chryst as offensive coordinator. Chryst was a former quarterback for the Badgers and a passing game guru. He had coached in arena football, at Oregon State, and in the NFL, mostly dealing with tight ends or quarterbacks. Alvarez handed Chryst his playbook for what we're calling Bielemaball, a oneback power running offense that Joe Gibbs made famous in the NFL. Chryst's jobs were to call the plays and plan, implement, and execute a simple shotgun spread passing game for the other 30 percent, the passing downs. For our purposes, we'll call this Chaneyball, because Bielema hired Jim Chaney to accomplish the same tasks that Chryst did at Wisconsin.

In 2013, Arkansas was pretty good at Bielemaball, ranking fourth in the SEC in rushing and recording a rushing success rate of 46 percent. The Hogs actually weren't too bad at Chaneyball either, as Brandon Allen's best passing down was - by a long shot - third down. Allen hit a success rate of 40 percent (well above his 36 percent season average) on third downs, which were, of course, mostly out of the shotgun, running Chaneyball.

One of the problems on Saturday was, as it has been so far in 2014 and in all of the 2013, that the meshing of the philosophies looks bad. Part of Chaney's job is to keep the offense in standard downs as much as possible, so in order to do this, Arkansas sometimes has to pass on standard downs. This has, to this point, pretty much always been from under center and play-action. The under-center passing game aims to accomplish the following tasks:

  1. Surprise the defense which may be expecting a run.
  2. Give the defense something to think about. For example, a bootleg will make a backside defensive end think twice about charging at the running back on every handoff.
  3. Occasionally hit a big play, mostly due to #1.

However, Arkansas' under-center passing game has disappointed in all of these phases over the entirety of the Bielema era. Sure, it has hit some big plays, such as the first touchdown of the season against Auburn or the bomb to Derby against Texas A&M, but far too many passes fall incomplete or end in sacks. On Saturday, Georgia's edge rushers and blitzers were clearly told to check the quarterback first on the rush. Play-action didn't fool them at all. Georgia's defense didn't adjust from putting three linebackers inside the tackles, no matter how often Arkansas tried to trick it.

What happened on Saturday?

Here are the final passing numbers from the first half:

Plays Yards Yds/Play Comp % Success Rt Sack Rt
Under Center 9 6 0.67 33.33% 22.22% 22.22%
Shotgun 11 52 4.73 55.56% 54.55% 9.09%

As you can see, absolutely no advantage whatsoever was accrued from throwing the ball from under center. The momentum shifted against the Hogs for the last time when Brandon Allen was sacked on consecutive play-action attempts late in the first quarter following Georgia's failed onside kick. On passing calls from under center, Allen was sacked twice, scrambled for 4 yards, and completed 2 of 6 passes for 27 yards. From shotgun, Allen was sacked once, scrambled for 4 yards (on third-and-4) and completed 5 of 9 passes for 54 yards. Much better.

From what I've seen this season, Arkansas' standard-downs passing game is hurt by all of the following:

  1. Defenses aren't fooled by it. Opponents, namely Georgia, have taught the outside rushers to check the quarterback first when they think they see a handoff. This means that the only thing play-action is accomplishing is that it makes Allen take a couple extra seconds to carry out the fake, time that could be spent scanning the field for a receiver. This means...
  2. Allen's field vision on dropbacks is bad. This is probably his primary weakness as a passer. He misses guys that aren't his primary target on dropback passes. Andre Ware pointed out that Keon Hatcher was open on quite a few play-action passes and Allen had no clue. He doesn't check down to tight ends and backs, either, which is not good because Arkansas' tight ends and backs are really good. It's pretty typical for a quarterback to be better at vision from shotgun (that's why teams use the shotgun), but for this specific offense to work, the quarterback has to be able to pass from under center.
  3. It doesn't make good use of the personnel. On a large number of play-action dropbacks, Hunter Henry has a read where he has to stay in and block if there's a blitz to his side. In the first half, Georgia wisely blitzed to the side Henry was aligned on nearly every play, meaning that Henry wasn't in route on most play-action passes. Also, getting open downfield isn't a strength of this receiving corps, so any presumed advantage from "freezing the safeties" with the play-action never materializes.

In the second half, Arkansas went full Chaneyball. Part of it was because the Hogs were behind by so much, but I sincerely hope that the Hogs learned something from letting Brandon Allen throw from shotgun. I'm aware that Georgia's mentality (nursing a 32-point halftime lead) most likely caused them to play with less urgency, but from what I saw on film, the Dawgs kept their defensive starters in, still played man-to-man (like Arkansas has seen all season) and still blitzed fairly frequently. So the second half wasn't a glorified scrimmage, it was a real chance to see what would happen to Arkansas' offense if the Hogs turned Brandon Allen loose. Here's what happened:

Plays Yards Yds/Play Comp % Success Rt Sack Rt
Under Center 6 38 6.33 50.00% 33.33% 0.00%
Shotgun 24 176 7.33 75.00% 45.83% 0.00%

Allen was 18 of 24 for 176 yards with three touchdowns and one pick in the second half out of the shotgun. Here is the final game total:

Plays Yards Yds/Play Comp % Success Rt Sack Rt
Under Center 15 44 2.93 41.67% 26.67% 13.33%
Shotgun 35 228 6.51 69.70% 48.57% 2.86%

Every single stat is overwhemingly better from shotgun than from under center. For the game, Allen was 23 of 33 for 230 yards with one sack and successful scramble from shotgun. From under center, Allen was 5 of 12 for 66 yards with two sacks and one scramble. Why are we trying to throw 15 times a game from under center?

Now, I'm not advocating scrapping the under center passing game entirely. In the first half, 9 of 20 called passes were from under center. That is too much. The second half figures (6 of 30) are much better. I would love to see Arkansas come out in shotgun look on a second-and-7 against UAB. That's not scrapping Bielemaball, it's using Chaneyball to help Bielemaball along, instead of the schizophrenic, awkward merging of the philosophies we saw in the first half.. Throughout the second half, the Hogs split Henry and A.J. Derby as receivers, and those guys were able to get open down the seams better than the receivers. Do more of that. In the second half, Allen looked like the quarterback we expected him to be when he signed with Arkansas under Bobby Petrino. He still can be.

Plan for UAB: Turn 'em loose!

I will be VERY disappointed - and my postgame stats look will reflect that - if Arkansas runs the ball 60 times and grinds out a 49-14 kind of win. I want to see shotgun on standard downs. That doesn't mean running less. Actually, Arkansas has attempted 85 passes over the last two games. Ryan Mallett never threw that many in two straight games. Tyler Wilson only did it twice (2011 vs. Alabama/Texas A&M and 2012 vs. Rutgers/Texas A&M), and Allen's 96 dropbacks over the last two weeks are more than any two-game stretch in the Bobby Petrino era.

By replacing under-center passing with shotgun passing on standard downs, Arkansas may be able to lower its total pass attempts. For example, take this hypothetical sequence, which we've seen a lot of:

  • 1st down: Rush for 3 yards
  • 2nd down: (I formation) Play action, pass incomplete
  • 3rd down: (shotgun) Pass for 8 yards, first down

And compare it to this one:

  • 1st down: Rush for 3 yards
  • 2nd down: (shotgun) Pass for 6 yards
  • 3rd down: (I formation) Rush for 3 yards, first down
The second series only required one pass, and allowed for an extra rushing attempt. If the Hogs are going to pass, I'd rather see them set Allen, the line, and the receivers in a position to succeed.

Here's why Saturday is an ideal time to work on the standard downs shotgun passing game:

ARK off UAB def
S&P+ 21st 79th
Rushing S&P+ 8th 111th
Passing S&P+ 54th 61st
Pass Downs S&P+ 33rd 23rd
Drive Efficiency 18th 74th

Check UAB's run defense. That's Texas Tech level. Actually, Texas Tech is two spots above UAB (109th). Arkansas doesn't have to throw a pass if it doesn't want to.

Now check UAB's pass defense. Notice that the Blazers' D is almost equal to Arkansas in terms of the passing game. This is a great opportunity to work on it. UAB will, most likely, actually give good resistance to the Hog attack. I'm not advocating for 45 pass attempts or anything. But Allen threw it 22 times for 199 yards against NIU and called it a great passing day. I'd like to see, in the first half at least, a balance of something like 20 runs and 18 passes. Maybe by the third or fourth quarter you can take the foot off the gas and let the runs take over, but this is a great time to turn Brandon Allen loose.

The Hog defense should be ready for a bounceback game, even if Brooks Ellis remains sidelined.

ARK def UAB off
S&P+ 25th 67th
Rushing S&P+ 13th 89th
Passing S&P+ 31st 70th
Pass Downs S&P+ 25th 56th
Drive Efficiency 16th 56th

Here again, the Hogs have advantages everywhere. The defense wasn't dinged too badly for Saturday's loss, especially since Georgia scored on a fumble return and a seven-yard drive following a fumble. The primary movement was the pass defense dropping six spots after Hutson Mason had his way with Arkansas' secondary. To make matters worse for the Blazers, starting quarterback Cody Clements (1,596 yards, 9 TD) is questionable after being injured at the end of last week's game.

The Blazers, who were coached by Garrick McGee for the past two seasons until he bolted for Louisville to rejoin with Bobby, are primarily a passing team. Offensively, they look similar to NIU, except with more passes. They can put up points, but make a lot of mistakes, including not protecting their quarterback, who gets sacked fairly frequently. This shouldn't be a difficult offense to stop as long as the Hogs don't get burned on long passes, which UAB throws somewhat frequently.

Keys to the game

  1. Make all extra points and field goals, and average at least 38 net yards per punt. Both John Henson and Sam Irwin-Hill have been temporarily demoted, per Bret Bielema. That means Adam McFain, who was 2-of-2 on extra points against Georgia, needs to prove his worth. I'd like to see the Hogs try a field goal in the 30-39 range, something they haven't done this season. Toby Baker takes over at punter. Irwin-Hill will definitely be back, but Baker gets his shot.
  2. Call fewer than 10 passes from directly under center. Called passes also include sacks and scrambles. Arkansas had 15 against Georgia, compared to 35 from the shotgun, although the 24-to-6 ratio in the second half was preferable. Keep on eye on how much of Arkansas' passing is from the shotgun, and how much more effective it is.
  3. Go at least +1 in turnover margin, and turn it over no more than once. Arkansas has lost the ball seven times in the last two games, taking the Hogs' turnover margin from +2 to -3 in a hurry. The Hogs need to get to fixing that against a UAB team that is -6 on the year.
  4. Throw at least 10 total passes to Hunter Henry and A.J. Derby. They combined for 11 targets against Georgia, and most of that came in the second half. Feed these guys. They're physical mismatches who can get down the field. Both lined up split as receivers throughout the second half, so be creative in getting them the ball.
  5. Find a second receiver. I've discussed on numerous occasions Arkansas' problem at X-WR, and the Hogs split Henry and Derby in the second half to largely negate the need for a prototypical X. So now, Arkansas just needs someone other than Henry, Derby, and Keon Hatcher to step up. Drew Morgan, Cody Hollister, Demetrius Wilson, and Kendrick Edwards are the primary candidates, although Jared Cornelius, who usually backs up Hatcher, could make a play for more snaps as well.