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Arkansas vs Mississippi State Box Score Breakdown: It's Complicated

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Arkansas heads into bye week with plenty of unanswered questions. What went wrong this time?

Hunter Henry doesn't get the ball nearly as often as he should.
Hunter Henry doesn't get the ball nearly as often as he should.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

As Doc Harper wisely put it: It Happened Again. Arkansas once again entered the fourth quarter of a nailbiter and couldn't pull it out. It was a valiant effort against the number one team in college football on their home field, but it just wasn't enough.

Trying to see what to gather from this is, well, complicated. There are some things that bear pointing out, but much of this was Arkansas suffering breakdowns all over: the offensive line, quarterback, running backs, receivers, and secondary all made critical errors, and much of the offensive playcalling was suspect at best.

It's best to diagnose the issues based on the numbers:

BY TYPE Plays Yards Yds/Play Success
Rushing 36 161 4.5 36.11%
Passing 46 240 5.2 39.13%
BY DOWN Plays Yards Yds/Play Success
1st Down 33 88 2.7 24.24%
2nd Down 26 120 4.6 42.31%
3rd Down 20 145 7.3 35.00%
4th Down 3 48 16.0 66.67%
OVERALL 82 401 4.9 37.80%

Plenty of points to make here. First, Arkansas threw better than it ran for the third straight SEC game. The Texas Tech game gave fans the false bravado that this is a great running team. It is not. It is a decent-to-pretty-good running team. The Hogs have two pretty good backs with NFL potential and a pretty good offensive line, although it's not the dominant force we made it out to be. Arkansas' last three SEC opponents (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State) have the three best defensive fronts in the SEC - and maybe in all of college football. Both LSU and Ole Miss, Arkansas' next two opponents, aren't nearly as good up front, so there's a chance to reestablish the power run. But against a good front Arkansas can't run the ball nearly well enough to win.

The "by-down" splits show you a potential problem with Jim Chaney's playcalling. Arkansas is terrible on first down. This was an especially bad performance, but the Hogs have lagged on first down all year. And as you're about to see, both passing and running are to blame.

RUSHING SPLITS Plays Yards Yds/Play Success
1st Down 19 63 3.3 26.32%
2nd Down 11 34 3.1 45.45%
3rd Down 5 64 12.8 60.00%
PASSING SPLITS Plays Yards Yds/Play Success
1st Down 14 25 1.8 21.43%
2nd Down 16 86 5.4 43.75%
3rd Down 14 81 5.8 42.86%

Allen's second and third down passing (and fourth down, not shown) was consistent and solid. The yards per play is a little low, but the success rate is just fine for this offense. First down passing was a disaster (the final interception also came on first down). The rushing numbers for third down are skewed by Collins' 42-yard run on a third down play.

Arkansas seriously needs to cut back on the first-down pass attempts. The Hogs still don't have a receiver to stretch the field vertically, which is a problem. Hopefully JoJo Robinson or K.J. Hill can provide that next year.

That said, Allen was having the most clutch performance of his career until the interception.

Hot Seat Alert: Michael Smith, WRs coach

I'm not impressed with Smith. At all. We knew Keon Hatcher was a pretty good Petrino-style slot/flanker when he stepped on campus, and he did decently in his first year in 2012. So Smith doesn't get any credit for Hatcher being a decent inside receiver, and Hatcher isn't any better now than he was when Smith was hired in January 2013. Cody Hollister still has some potential, and junior college players usually take a step forward in their second season, but Demetrius Wilson hasn't shown anything in his career. He's not an ounce better than he was in 2012, despite having an entire medical redshirt season (2013) to learn the playbook, walk through drills, and practice a bit after his injury healed. Drew Morgan, who seemingly had potential to a Welker-type inside hands receiver, hasn't been utilized there because Arkansas' doesn't throw over the middle, but hasn't really been impressive at all. Jared Cornelius is another guy I'm still holding out hope for, but he's only made plays when taking short passes to the flat.

So I'm seeing virtually no development from these receivers. They're all three-star recruits, but Bret Bielema's leash with Smith has to be short because four-star recruits JoJo Robinson and K.J. Hill are not talents that can be wasted. There's another receivers-related problem...

Hot Seat Alert II: Jim Chaney, OC/QBs coach

I wrote after the Georgia game that I'm off the Chaney bandwagon because of Arkansas' insistence on throwing from under center when the Hogs just aren't good at it, for a myriad of reasons. I don't think Chaney should be fired or anything, and I still think he can be a good coach when his pieces are in place, which is why I'm fine with giving him through next season to get more production, but Arkansas' playcalling on Saturday was baffling.

For the game, Arkansas attempted three passes into the endzone. Hatcher, Cornelius, and Wilson were the targets. All were incomplete, the final one was picked off to end the game. Those three guys are short, struggle to get separation, and don't fight for the ball very well.... meaning that they have literally none of the traits that make a good red zone target. Why not A.J. Derby? Or Hunter Henry? Or even Kendrick Edwards or Hollister? Arkansas' receivers - and I blame Michael Smith for this - don't get open very well, don't come back to the ball when Allen is scrambling, and don't fight for the ball. Most of Arkansas' receivers (not tight ends, just receivers) are in the act of falling down if the ball is thrown to them in traffic. Watch film and you'll see. It's especially bad on the sideline routes, but the receiver isn't wide open, he'll start falling down as the ball arrives, making hard-to-hit windows even smaller.

Finally, Chaney has to get some flak as the quarterbacks coach. Brandon Allen is significantly better than he was last year, but he hasn't progressed much through the year. He still misses plenty of throws in the medium-to-long range. He's not the only problem or even the main problem, but he has been a problem at times. The biggest problem remains that Allen is not a good under-center passer, as I've broken down repeatedly over the last few weeks. He's a quality SEC quarterback from shotgun, but he's not good under center, and Chaney (or perhaps it's Bielema) continue to try to throw from under center. Remember the stark numbers from the Georgia game? Here we go again:

Plays Yards Yds/Play Comp % Success Rt Sack Rt
Under Center 14 52 3.7 57.14% 35.71% 0.00%
Shotgun 30 181 6.0 51.72% 40.00% 3.33%
OVERALL 44 233 5.3 53.49% 38.64% 2.27%

Not nearly as stark this time. Still, Allen averaged 2.3 yards per play more and 5 percent more success when throwing from shotgun. The coaches do deserve some credit for throwing from shotgun on early downs, something I've been clamoring for, but 14 under-center attempts is about 5-6 too many.

Over the entirety of the Georgia and Mississippi State games and the first half of the UAB game, here are the numbers:

Plays Yards Yds/Play Comp % Success Rt Sack Rt
Under Center 40 191 4.8 53.85% 35.00% 10.00%
Shotgun 72 474 6.6 62.32% 47.22% 2.78%

Arkansas' continued struggles with under center passing are going to be an issue for the offense as Jim Chaney wants to run it. Much of the problem is with Brandon Allen: his field vision is poor on dropbacks and his mechanics - namely footwork - frequently lapse, but much of it is on other factors that I've written about in previous posts: the line and receiver issues.

Still, Chaney and Bielema have two options:

  1. Change the offense to suit what Brandon Allen and the current personnel are able to do.
  2. Wait for next spring (and fall) to give Allen, Austin Allen, Rafe Peavey, and possibly Ty Storey a fair chance to win the starting job if they can fulfill the duties of the job.

Arkansas has made some moves towards the first option, but 14 under-center passing attempts is still too many. Like I've written before, being an under-center passer is very difficult, which is why guys like Andrew Luck only come around every now and then and get drafted in the first round when they do. The Allen brothers, Peavey, and Storey all play/played in all-shotgun offenses, so learning to be able to maintain vision and mechanics when dropping back is a rarity in college football nowadays.

Hunter Henry StatTracker

Henry was targeted 8 times, snagging 7 passes for 110 yards. That's an 87.5 percent completion percentage with an 87.5 percent success rate and 13.8 yards per target. Why he doesn't get 15 targets per game remains one of the great mysteries of our time. He's the best tight end in college football and is essentially uncoverable, since he fights for the ball and has terrific hands when it's thrown anywhere near him. These worthless sideline dumps to Hatcher, Cornelius, Wilson, and Hollister have and will continue to bog down the passing game, while Henry is pretty much always open, including over the middle.

Looking ahead

Arkansas has played five SEC games, and has three to go. Statistically, none of the remaining three opponents have an offense as talented as the five played so far. This means that Arkansas' defense will probably contain every offense left. All three of these games will, in all likelihood, be 17-14 kind of games. All three boast excellent defenses. The big question is can Arkansas' offense make the plays needed? So far, the answer has been a resounding no. It's hard to have confidence in a unit that suffers breakdowns everywhere at critical times. But the Hogs should be in each of these last three for four quarters. Will the breakthrough finally come?