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Arkansas vs. Ole Miss Advanced Stats Recap: Pressure

The Razorback offensive line and secondary bounced back in a huge win over Ole Miss.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

I think Nolan Richardson would make a good football coach.

I somehow doubt Nolan is interested in restarting his career in a new sport, but I think he could do it. Why? Because he understands how to win at sports: create pressure. Whether it’s the point guard or the quarterback, putting pressure on the opposing ballhandler is the key to winning.

After an entire season of watching Austin Allen run for his life while the Hog defensive line struggled to get a push, the script suddenly flipped on Saturday night. Allen’s protection wasn’t perfect: he was sacked three times and harassed on several other dropbacks. But he also had more plays with perfectly clean pockets than we’ve seen all season, at least against Power 5 opponents.

On the other side, Chad Kelly spent a surprising amount of time running for his life. He was only sacked twice, although Jeremiah Ledbetter’s sack on the final drive was critical. The Hogs’ plan up front was sound. Robb Smith apparently saw something on film that led him to believe that attacking the A-gap (straight up the middle) was a sound strategy. The Razorbacks blitzed more than I’ve seen all season, using Dwayne Eugene and (less often) Brooks Ellis on A-gap blitzes. The Hogs also stunted and twisted defensive linemen into the A-gap, with Ledbetter, McTelvin Agim, and Karl Roesler all getting sacks or hurries in this manner.

Linebackers Brooks Ellis and Dwayne Eugene show a blitz in the A-gap.

On the back end, the gameplan was also clear: Smith and company gambled that Jared Collins, D.J. Dean, Ryan Pulley, and Henre’ Toliver could play press man coverage and not get beat deep. The Razorback defensive backs often jammed at the line of scrimmage, throwing the receivers off their routes. The plan exposed Kelly’s biggest weakness: he’s not very accurate. He has a big arm and is very mobile, but he’s had questionable accuracy for his entire career, and the Hogs forced him to fit the ball into tight windows with surprisingly little time to throw.

Here was the result:

What I really like about how Arkansas played defense is how Robb Smith took the pressure in pass defense off his weakest units (linebackers and safeties) and put more responsibility onto his best units (cornerbacks). Paul Rhoads has to get a lot of credit for his work with the secondary as well.

The Rebels were held to season-lows in points (30) and scoring opportunities (5). Recall that they’ve played Alabama, Georgia, and Florida State already. It was far from a perfect performance, but it was a massive improvement over the last several games.

Also note that Arkansas won the field position battle. Field position had been a strength for Bielema’s first three seasons, but the Hogs entered this game ranked 116th nationally in starting field position margin. This was due to a variety of factors, including a bad defense that made it hard to constantly flip the field, a poor kickoff unit that doesn’t get many touchbacks and gives up too many good returns, and a poor kickoff return unit that rarely gets good returns. The Hogs didn’t do well on kickoffs or kick returns, but Toby Baker single-handidly won the field position battle for Arkansas. He averaged 46.1 yards per punt and dropped two inside the Rebel 20.

For all splits, I’ve excluded the final three run-out-the-clock plays as they were obviously useless for analyzing the game. The fumbled snap that comically ended in a 24-yard loss is reflected in the quarter/down/overall totals, but is not counted as a run or a pass so that’s why those numbers don’t exactly add up.

Fantastic success on first and second down is dampened somewhat by a poor showing on third down, although the Hogs did get a critical third down pickup on the game-winning drive, and also recovered from a failed third-down to get a fourth-down pickup on that same drive.

The Razorbacks also erupted out of the gate with a mix of big plays (51-yard pass, 53-yard run in the first quarter) and efficiency. As the game went on, the big plays vanished, but the efficiency (mostly) remained. This was more old-school Bret Bielema football, with a ball control offense holding onto the rock for 40 minutes and constantly getting just enough yards to keep moving the chains.

The gameplan was similar to what we saw against Alabama: conservative and somewhat run-heavy on first down, conservative and more pass-heavy on second down.

The Hogs ran on 27 of 35 first-down snaps and it proved to be a good strategy as the much-maligned offensive line roared to life and blew the weaker Rebel front off the ball. First-down success is so critical in this offense, and it’s been lacking. Here’s Arkansas’ first-down performances against Power 5 teams this season:

  • TCU: 5.0 yards per play, 45.2% success
  • Texas A&M: 4.5 yards per play, 31.4% success
  • Alabama: 3.0 yards per play, 33.3% success
  • Ole Miss: 6.0 yards per play, 55.6% success

The Razorbacks only pass on first down enough to keep the defense honest. From here on out, expect to see the Hogs run the ball on first down about 70-80% of the time and lean more towards the pass (about 60%) on second down.

One other problem was third down running. The Hogs tried four handoffs to backs on third down and three or fewer yards to go, and went one for four in conversions. This is somewhat odd because short-yardage conversions on third down were a strength earlier in the year, but moving forward, the Hog coaches should probably consider third-and-3 a passing down, not a running one.

Those third-down passing numbers are concerning. The Hogs didn’t do much through the air on first down, either (two of the three sacks came on first down). Second down remains Allen’s favorite down to throw, which is why being able to run the ball on first down is so critical. The plurality of Arkansas’ sequences go like this: first down run, second down play-action pass, third down situational call. If first down goes nowhere (as it did against Texas A&M and Alabama), the Hogs end up totally dependent on Allen throwing on second down. Against Ole Miss, the Razorbacks found better balance.

Up next is Auburn, a team that - I hate to be a bearer of bad news - is actually pretty good. Ol’ Gus has fixed most of his team’s offensive issues (caveat: most success has been against questionable competition) and the defense has been better-than-expected from the get-go. Saturday won’t be easy.