As I sat through the waning moments of Arkansas’ 49-30 loss to Alabama, I was trying to find someone or something to be mad at over the game’s result. I could be mad at Hog players, but they were trying their best. I could be mad at Bret Bielema (like one Arkansas professor), but Coach B is a good coach who just doesn’t have the talent to beat the Tide right now. I could be mad at Nick Saban, but it’s hard to be mad at the guy who sought out Frank Ragnow after the game to speak to him after he lost his father last week. I could be mad at Alabama’s players, but they are just freak athletes doing their best and I’d be happy to have most of them on the Hogs. I could be mad at the officiating, but as bad as it was it no impact whatsoever on the final result of the game.
So maybe there’s no one to be mad at. Arkansas just got out-talented by an elite team. As we’ll see below, Arkansas had a good (offensive) game plan, but just didn’t have the players to do it well enough to win. I’d like to say the Hogs eventually will have the talent to go toe-to-toe with Alabama annually, but the stark reality is that that might not be the case, especially in the immediate future.
Robb Smith’s defense had another terrible game. Is it fair to question his future in Fayetteville?
My, how the tables have turned for Robb Smith. A relative unknown when Bret Bielema hired him away from Tampa Bay, Smith became a mini-celebrity in Fayetteville when he inherited an experienced-but-bad defense and instantly turned it around in his first season in 2014. The Razorbacks mostly feasted on quarterback-challenged offenses thanks to an elite run defense, pretty good pass rush, and serviceable coverage. The Hogs capped the 2014 season by holding Texas to 59 yards of total offense (fewest by an FBS team that season) in the Texas Bowl.
Since then, it’s all gone downhill. The Hogs lost their three best players off that team and have not come close to replacing any of them in the two seasons since. The 2015 limped on thanks to a capable run defense (10th in yards, 59th in S&P+), but the pass defense nosedived (125th in yards, 115th in S&P+). The lack of a consistent pass rush plus poor safety play doomed the 2015 team, although it still feasted on bad quarterback play (LSU, Mizzou, Kansas State).
Nine starters returned for the 2016 team. Smith hoped to recreate the “triangle” that led his 2014 defense (WDE Trey Flowers, DT Darius Philon, WLB Martrell Spaight) by moving Jeremiah Ledbetter inside (to Philon’s spot), allowing him to team up with WDE Deatrich Wise and WLB Dre Greenlaw, two of Arkansas’ best defenders.
This strategy has failed, for a variety of reasons. First, the new triangle isn’t as good as the old triangle. Wise and Ledbetter have been decent, but neither has been as disruptive as the guys they replaced (Flowers and Philon). Greenlaw, on the other hand, is an okay player but has not been playing at anywhere near the level Spaight was in 2014. And now it appears he’s out for the season with a foot injury. The second reason the new triangle has failed is that Arkansas’ safety play is worse in 2016 than it was in 2014. The 2014 safeties (Rohan Gaines and Alan Turner) weren’t great, but they were serviceable. This year’s safeties (Josh Liddell and Santos Ramirez) make up arguably the worst duo in the SEC, sadly. Safety play has certainly declined under Robb Smith, which is a problem since that’s the position he coaches.
Perhaps the biggest concern for the rest of this season is the collapse of the run defense. The 2015 defense got away with being awful because it could at least stop the run, and if you can stop the run, you can slow down offenses with bad quarterbacks, and lots of teams have bad quarterbacks. But if you can’t stop the run, you are in deep trouble. And that’s where Arkansas is right now on defense.
Will Smith turn things around? It’s hard to say. Recruiting on the defensive side of the ball needs to get better, and the safety position has to be developed. I’m not sure Smith has shown the ability to do either of those things in his three years in Fayetteville, but I also think it’s fair to say he deserves at least one more year to show he can.
Doesn’t Arkansas’ defensive philosophy hurt Bielema’s overall philosophy?
Because of bad safety play, Smith doesn’t want to blitz, preferring instead to have the defense play on its heels. So when game planning for Alabama, Smith elected not to bring the house against a true freshman quarterback in his second career road start. I guess Smith hoped Jalen Hurts would get greedy and take a shot downfield into double coverage or something. But it didn’t happen and Hurts had an impressive game. Not blitzing was a terrible decision (for what it’s worth, Hurts’ interception came on one of Arkansas’ few blitzes during the game).
But there’s something else frustrating about Smith’s passive defense: it hurts Bielema’s philosophy. Bielema wants to wear teams out with ball control. But Smith’s ultra bend-don’t-break defense largely negates the ball control work by Arkansas’ offense by daring opponents to go on long drives.
If Bielema was really dedicated to the ball control philosophy, it seems like he would prefer a go-for-broke defense that brought the house every other play. A defense like that would force a lot of turnovers and three-and-outs, although it would also give up some quick-strike touchdowns. Either way, opponents’ drives would be short, and the Hogs’ offense would the ball back quickly so they can go back to wearing out the defense.
The Hogs have still dominated time of possession, but this season, much of that is due to the fact that the bend-don’t-break defense gives up a bunch of huge plays anyway.
A good plan executed well
This was a really good game plan by Dan Enos and the Hog offense performed admirably, particularly Austin Allen and the Hog receivers.
Check out the rushing success rate of 50%. Enos knew Arkansas lacked the skill to run consistently on Alabama, so he set easy targets for his running game. The Hogs ran on first down to set up play action, and virtually every second- and third-down run came with four or fewer yards to go. For everything else, the Hogs used the pass.
Here’s what I mean: seven of eight rushing attempts after first down were successful. Enos used the run game to give Allen’s arm a rest when the first-down marker was easy to reach, and the plan paid off with all three running backs doing a good job.
Also, Devwah Whaley outperformed Rawleigh Williams again. That makes three of the last four games in which Whaley has had a higher success rate, and (a different) three of the last four that he’s had a higher line-yards per carry average (and the second time he’s been higher in both). Most of Williams’ success came in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. He’s still a valuable back in this offense, but Whaley should be getting many more carries.
Overall, Arkansas’ run blocking really wasn’t that bad, considering the quality of opponent.
Pass blocking was a different story. Sacks and scrambles are counted here.
Allen was fantastic on second down and pretty good on third down, especially considering that these numbers are against Alabama. Arkansas’ receivers were able to get open against the Tide defenders pretty consistently, and when Allen had time to throw, he almost always found them. If this team had a good offensive line, it would be devastating.
I’m not sure what to make of the offensive line. It’s bad, there’s no doubt about it, but how bad? This is important. Alabama and Texas A&M arguably have the two best defensive fronts in the SEC, so perhaps it will be smooth sailing from here for the line. Having been through hell, maybe the line discovers that Ole Miss and Auburn and Mississippi State are (relatively) pieces of cake. This is also a young line, so although Dan Skipper is gone after this season, four other starters return, including guys getting valuable experience for next season.
So I will say that the jury’s still out on new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson. If you’re ready to close the book on Robb Smith as defensive coordinator, you won’t be the only one. Paul Rhoads is already on staff, after all.