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Arkansas vs. Alabama Advanced Stats Preview: Hit It Hard

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The Hogs try to beat Alabama for the first time under Nick Saban. The numbers, unsurprisingly, like the Tide.

NCAA Football: Southwest Classic-Arkansas vs Texas A&M Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve titled this preview after the upcoming ESPN 30 for 30 film on Razorback legend John Daly (watch the trailer). But it’s also an apt summation of what Arkansas needs to do to beat Alabama on Saturday.

I was there the last time Arkansas beat Alabama, in 2006. Alabama kicker Leigh Tiffin missed a field goal that would have won it in regulation and another that would have won it in overtime before missing the extra point in double-OT that handed the Hogs a 24-23 win in Mitch Mustain’s third career start. Alabama fired Mike Shula at the end of that season and hired Nick Saban, and the Hogs haven’t beaten the Tide since.

After close calls in 2007, 2010, and 2014, a breakthrough seems imminent, but the odds aren’t stacking up in the Hogs’ favor for this one. Vegas likes the Tide by 13 (at least, that’s where they put the opening line).

The numbers like the Tide too, but the numbers can’t account for a true freshman quarterback on the road against 76,000 rowdy fans in Fayetteville. The Hogs need to match (and even exceed) Alabama’s physicality and “hit ‘em hard” to win.

As we’ll see, the Razorback defensive line’s two-year dominance over Alabama’s front could prove significant if the Hogs can make it three straight strong performances up front in this game.

When Arkansas has the ball

Kirby Smart is off to Georgia, but everyone knew Saban was the brains of the Alabama defensive operation anyway. This Alabama defense isn’t quite as talented as some other versions of the Tide (2009 and 2011 come to mind), but it’s still very, very good. Points will come at a premium for the Razorbacks.

Well, what do we have here? A weakness? A weakness.

The Tide are stunningly prone to giving up explosive plays, ranking dead last in the FBS in Defensive isoPPP overall and on standard downs.

Obviously, Chad Kelly's bomb of arm did major damage to the Tide stats, but this isn’t an aberration: USC, Western Kentucky, and Kentucky all had standard down isoPPP numbers equal to or greater than the national average against Alabama. The caveat, of course, is that those teams lost by a combined score of 124-22, but a weakness is still a weakness.

There’s a reason success rate (efficiency) is valued over isoPPP (explosiveness). Alabama is again dead last in Rushing Defense explosiveness, but again the stats are somewhat misleading. Alabama almost never allows a successful rush, but when they do, it’s usually a big one: Ole Miss’ Akeem Judd had two big carries for a combined 31 yards, but his other 13 carries netted 14 yards.

Arkansas hasn’t run it that well this season, but the Hogs do tend to turn opportunities into big runs, ranking 38th in rushing explosiveness. This is the opposite of last year, when the Hogs were top-10 nationally in rushing success rate but much worse in explosiveness. For the Hogs’ offense, the 2015 template was preferable.

Defensive Line

  • Jonathan Allen, 16.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks
  • Dalvin Tomlinson, 8.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks
  • Da’Ron Payne, 7.0 tackles, 0.0 TFL, 0.0 sacks

Linebackers

  • Reuben Foster, 26.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks
  • Shaun Hamilton, 19.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks
  • Rashaan Evans, 12.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks
  • Tim Williams (jack), 9.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks

This front seven is the best Arkansas will face this season. Texas A&M may have a better defensive line, but it’s hard to top Alabama’s overall line plus linebackers. Allen is a 291-pound freak who blows up plays left and right. The rest of the line is less active, but big.

The linebackers are as close to NFL-quality as a college unit can get. Williams is the “jack,” or hybrid linebacker/defensive end, and is usually used as a pass rusher.

Secondary

  • Mikah Fitzpatrick, 17.0 tackles, 0 Int, 3 PBU
  • Ronnie Harrison, 14.5 tackles, 1 Int, 0 PBU
  • Eddie Jackson, 12.0 tackles, 1 Int, 2 PBU
  • Marlon Humphrey, 11.0 tackles, 1 Int, 3 PBU

The secondary is exploitable, although they are really only “exploitable” relative to trying to run the ball on that front. The Tide have picked off just three passes all season and are occasionally prone to giving up big plays.

Arkansas’ best chance of offensive success is, once again, getting one-on-one matchups on the outside with the Hogs’ top receivers matched up on these corners. If the Hogs can protect Austin Allen (a big if), I do think Drew Morgan, Jared Cornelius, and Keon Hatcher can get open frequently.

When Alabama has the ball

Friendlier numbers here for Arkansas. The Razorbacks’ raw numbers are bad, but the opponent-adjusted averages come out pretty good, indicative of the tough schedule Arkansas has faced this season.

One thing Arkansas has been terrible at this season is field position, which is odd because the Hogs have been good at that for the last couple seasons. But Arkansas is 100th in average starting field position for its offense and 111th for its defense. The Hogs can’t give Alabama lots of great field position this game.

Quarterback

  • Jalen Hurts, 62.2% completions, 989 yards, 7 TD, 1 Int, 6.8 yards per attempt (49 rushes, 313 yards, 6.4 yards per attempt)

Running Back

  • Damien Harris, 42 rushes, 356 yards, 8.5 yards per attempt
  • Joshua Jacobs, 34 rushes, 250 yards, 7.4 yards per attempt

Tide runners boast gaudy yards-per-carry numbers, and this really drives the offense. Alabama is 7th in Rushing S&P+ but just 66th in Passing S&P+. Hurts is an excellent runner, but only so-so as a passer, especially on early downs (he’s somewhat better on third downs). Neither of Alabama’s two serious opponents, USC and Ole Miss, were able to contain him to the pocket, but theoretically Alabama’s offense is not very threatening if he becomes a drop-back passer.

Lost in Alabama’s 48-43 win over Ole Miss was the fact that Hurts did not pass well (19 of 31, 158 yards, 4.7 yards per attempt). If the defense can keep in the pocket and the offense can rattle him, the Hogs have a decent chance, especially given how well Arkansas has played the run in the last two seasons. Dual-threat quarterback Blake Sims played poorly in 2014, and Derrick Henry failed to reach 100 yards in both 2014 and 2015.

Receivers

  • Calvin Ridley, 31 catches, 398 yards, 7.8 yards per target
  • ArDarius Stewart, 13 catches, 205 yards, 10.3 yards per target
  • Gehrig Dieter, 7 catches, 169 yards, 10.6 yards per target
  • O.J. Howard (TE), 12 catches, 165 yards, 10.3 yards per target

Ridley and Stewart make up the main show for the Tide and will spend most of the game matched up with Jared Collins and Ryan Pulley for the Hogs. Collins and Pulley have been special this year. According to ProFootballFocus, opponent QBs have a rating of just 35.6 when targeting receivers covered by Pulley this season, the third best mark among SEC cornerbacks. Collins, the field corner, saw just five targets against him through the first three games.

The problem will be if Alabama attacks Arkansas’ safeties and linebackers with slot receivers. Every team the Hogs have faced this season has tried it with success, and Lane Kiffin is definitely smart enough to know where to attack.

Three to watch

  1. Jonathan Allen. The Tide’s monstrous defensive end can wreck Arkansas’ playcalling in a hurry. The Hogs desperately need him to have a quiet night.
  2. Jalen Hurts. Keep him in the pocket! If he gets free for a big running night, the Hogs could be in trouble. On designed runs, he has to be accounted for.
  3. Damien Harris. The Tide running back is averaging 8.4 yards per carry as a big play back, but is dealing with a sprained ankle. He only had two carries against Kentucky. Since Alabama’s best bet to beat Arkansas is on the ground, keeping him quiet will be important.

Keys to the game

  1. Go long. Alabama’s only defensive weakness is its propensity to give up big plays on standard downs. The Hogs can’t count on much success rushing the ball, so run plays should only be used to set up the play-action pass. Then the line has to protect long enough for Allen to find his man. Stats: standard downs sack rate, standard downs isoPPP
  2. Make him Hurt(s) you from the pocket. The Alabama quarterback wants to run, so the Hogs need to make him pass. Hit him hard on called runs (remember, he’s a freshman in his second true road game) and keep him in the pocket when he drops back. Alabama is very conservative with him, but goading him into a mistake would be nice too.
  3. Score a non-offensive touchdown. The Hogs have three pick-sixes this year. Let’s make it four! A Cornelius punt return would also be nice. The Hog offense is unlikely to have much sustained success, so a little boost from the defense or special teams would go a long way.