On Saturday, the old Body Blow Theory will be put to the test again.
The theory goes that teams tend to play poorly the week after playing Alabama, largely because Alabama wore them out. Arkansas has taken advantage of this for two straight seasons against LSU, allowing Tide fans, annoyingly, to claim that Alabama “beat LSU for the second straight week.”
Ole Miss is counting on Alabama to beat Arkansas for the second straight week. In 2013 and 2015, Arkansas had a bye after Alabama (smart). But in 2014, the Hogs faced Georgia the week after Alabama, and trailed 38-6 at halftime. Not good.
So the Body Blow Theory might be as important as any of the stats we’re discussing here. Hopefully, the Hogs can fight through the fatigue.
When Arkansas has the ball
The best defenses on the 2016 season are in the Hogs’ rearview mirror. The Razorbacks hung 24 points on the 21st-ranked defense (by S&P+) and 30 points on the 5th-ranked defense. Those 24 against Texas A&M came despite leaving several points on the table.
If Arkansas can finish drives (a statistic the Hogs were once 9th in the nation in, although they’ve fallen since) they can probably score enough to win. And they’ll need to score. Given the matchup on the other side of the ball, 31 points is the bare minimum, and that’s a conservative guess: the real number of points needed to win is probably closer to 40.
The chart says Arkansas should expect to score about 31.2 points, given Ole Miss’ overall defensive quality and Arkansas’ performances (regulation only) against various qualities of defense so far this season. This chart proved to be very accurate by the end of last season (coming within 5 points of Arkansas’ scores against Missouri and Kansas State), but it had a much larger sample size by that time.
Hope in the trenches
The day has finally come when Arkansas isn’t facing an elite defensive front!
The Hogs’ offensive line has really needed this after taking a monstrous beating against Texas A&M and Alabama. As upset as everyone doubtlessly is about those games, the Hog offensive line has a chance to re-establish itself, especially on standard downs, where Ole Miss doesn’t get much pressure.
Do keep in mind that by passing downs (second-and-long, third-and-medium and third-and-long), Ole Miss’ sack rate is much better and comparable to Alabama and Texas A&M. What’s interesting is that Arkansas hasn’t had (as many) issues with pass protection on passing downs: the Hog front ranks 32nd nationally with a sack on just 4.7% of passing-downs dropbacks. Compare that to 6.6% (92nd) on standard downs.
- Marquis Haynes, DE, 6’2, 211, 21.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks
- D.J. Jones, DT, 6’0, 321, 10.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack
- Breeland Speaks, DT, 6’3, 290, 10.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0 sack
- John Youngblood, DE, 6’3, 255, 7.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 0 sack
The tackles are pretty big, but Haynes is the only really productive guy up front, and he’s undersized. Haynes is pretty good as a speed rusher, the type that has given Arkansas problems, but Myles Garrett, Daeshon Hall, Jonathan Allen, and Josh Carraway were all quite a bit bigger than Haynes is, so I’m anxious to see how he performs. Overall, this line is not nearly as disruptive as Texas A&M’s (hard to compare to Alabama since the Tide run a 3-4).
- DeMarquis Gates, OLB, 6’2, 211, 21.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks
- Terry Caldwell, OLB, 6’1, 216, 19.5 tackles, 0.0 TFL, 0 sack
- Detric Bing-Dukes, MLB, 6’1, 247, 11.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 0 sack
More of the same for the Ole Miss linebacking corps: the most productive guys are undersized, while the big guy hasn’t done a whole lot. We may also see Tayler Polk at outside linebacker (14.5 tackles this year), but he’s only 5’11, 212.
- Zedrick Woods, FS, 22.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2 Int
- A.J. Moore, N, 17.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 0 Int
- Carlos Davis, CB, 17.0 tackles, 0 TFL, 0 Int
- Myles Hartsfield, SS, 13.5 tackles, 0 TFL, 0 Int
- Jalen Julius, CB, 10.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0 Int
Moore is the nickel, so he won’t play much on standard downs. The starting secondary is pretty active, but Woods has the only interceptions. Ole Miss as a team only has three all year, and a lineman had the other one.
The game plan
I expect Ole Miss to blitz more than normal on early downs to try and get to Austin Allen. As we saw above, they don’t normally generate much early-down pressure, but if Allen has time to throw, he’ll find his targets. Even against the talented secondaries of Texas A&M and Alabama, Hog receivers were getting open on pretty much every play. Pressure has been the only thing to limit the Hogs’ passing game this season.
Ole Miss will also need to blitz to stop the run. Despite rough performances against the Aggies and Tide, the Hogs’ line should be able to carve out some holes against Ole Miss in base defense. They won’t be big runs, instead, the numbers suggest that Arkansas’ best bet is to consistently generate four- and five-yard runs, with an occasional burst for 8-10 yards.
For Arkansas, I think the Alabama game plan is a model for what Arkansas will try to do from here on out. Arkansas has been really, really good on second down under Dan Enos, so the goal is to get to second down unscathed and get big plays there. So first down will stay balanced (against Alabama, it was about 50-50 run-pass; in this game, I would expect more like 67-33 run-pass) with conservative play calls designed to stay on schedule. After first down, the Hogs will only run the ball in high-success situations (basically, with three or fewer yards to go), instead favoring the pass. That should eliminate the “two rushes and now it’s third-and-long” sequences that Arkansas has had too much of this season as the run game has struggled.
Ole Miss will try to disrupt that with stunts, run blitzes, and line games on first down and straight pass blitzes on second and third downs. The Razorbacks will to take advantage of end arounds, jet sweeps, toss sweeps, and screen passes to counteract this aggressiveness from the Rebels.
When Ole Miss has the ball
While there’s a chess match going on when the Hogs are on offense, the defensive side is more like bullriding: just hold on.
- Akeem Judd, 56 rushes, 302 yards, 5.4 YPR
- Chad Kelly, QB, 28 rushes, 188 yards, 6.7 YPR
- Eugene Brazley, 25 rushes, 181 yards, 7.2 YPR
The one possible saving grace for Arkansas is that the Hogs’ biggest weakness (spread teams running the ball) is something Ole Miss might struggle to take advantage of. Judd leads the team with just 60 yards per game, and his 32.1% opportunity rate (percent of runs to gain at least five yards) isn’t that good. Basically, he isn’t nearly as good as A&M’s Trayveon Williams and Alabama’s Damien Harris, although he may not have to be, since both of those guys destroyed Arkansas. Statistically, he isn’t even as good as TCU’s Kyle Hicks, who also played well against the Hogs.
Kelly rushing is a different problem. After both Kenny Hill and Trevor Knight did major damage by running the ball, Arkansas made stopping Jalen Hurts from running a top priority last week. It kind of worked - Hurts only had 20 rushing yards - but it kind of didn’t, since everything else Alabama did worked really well. I suspect Arkansas just lacks the talent to stop these constantly-evolving offenses, but both Bret Bielema and Robb Smith have insinuated that the Hogs’ defensive scheme may be too complex for everyone to grasp. That’s interesting because Bielema specifically cited a simplified scheme as a reason for hiring Smith after Chris Ash left, implying that Ash’s defense was too complex for the players to execute.
- Chad Kelly, 6’2, 224, 66.1% completions, 1,596 yards, 8.3 yards per attempt
- Evan Engram, TE, 38 targets, 30 catches, 479 yards, 12.6 yards per target
- Van Jefferson, 29 targets, 21 catches, 244 yards, 8.4 yards per target
- Damore’ea Stringfellow, 27 targets, 20 catches, 305 yards, 11.3 yards per target
- Quincy Adeboyejo, 23 targets, 13 catches, 150 yards, 6.4 yards per target
Arkansas’ secondary is odd, because the cornerbacks are very good at covering outside routes, but the linebackers and safeties are atrocious at covering the slots and middle. Bad news: Ole Miss loves the middle of the field. Engram has had a monster senior season, and he figures to have a huge game on Saturday.
Because Lane Kiffin is smart, Alabama came out attacking the slots immediately last week and had major success (as opposed to TCU, who didn’t try the slots until late in the game and couldn’t get their offense working until then). My guess is that the gambit is up and everyone is go right after Arkansas’ safeties and linebackers in coverage from the opening whistle, which means Arkansas really needs to find some solutions there.
More blitzes is a possible option (Arkansas almost never blitzes right now), especially because Ole Miss struggles to protect Kelly, ranking just 111th nationally in adjusted sack rate.
Keys to the game
- Don’t turn it over. In four wins this season, Arkansas has four turnovers. In two losses, the Hogs have eight. The Hog offense has a good chance to make some noise in this game, but turnovers have to be completely eliminated. Forcing at least one from Ole Miss is important, too.
- Success on first down. First-down success rate is something to keep in mind. Against Alabama, the Hogs averaged 7.7 yards per play with a 45.2% success rate on second down, which is excellent, especially considering the quality of defense. Assuming the gameplan is similar, improving on the Alabama first-down numbers (3.0 yards per play, 33.3% success rate) could be the key to opening up the offense.
- Pressure on third downs. The Hogs bend-don’t-break defense has been breaking all season, making it high-risk, low-reward. Ole Miss has one of the nation’s most explosive offenses, and will explode in this game no matter what Arkansas does. So the Hogs should consider more pressure to at least try and force some mistakes along with the big plays. There’s already good news on early downs: the Hog defense is 40th nationally in standard-downs sack rate, while Ole Miss’ offense is just 101st in the same stat. But the Hogs fall to 84th in sack rate on passing downs.