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Arkansas vs. LSU Advanced Stats Preview: Closing Argument

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The Hogs are back in the top 25, but it could be short-lived if they can’t beat rival LSU.

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

A couple days after the coaches’ and AP polls ridiculously ranked Florida and left out Arkansas, the College Football Playoff Top 25 got things right, ranking the Hogs 25th.

As nice as that is, it could be short-lived as LSU (5-3, 3-2 SEC) comes to town.

The last two seasons have followed a similar script. LSU was coming off a hard-fought loss to Alabama and was caught off-guard by the physicality of the Razorbacks who were either coming off a bye (2014) or a momentum-building win over Ole Miss (2015).

The stage is now set for that to happen again, and there are really only two options: first, LSU comes out even flatter than the last two years, or second, they don’t come out flat at all. The reason I think we’ll see one extreme or the other is Ed Orgeron. The Tigers’ interim head coach is a great motivator, so he’ll either get his team up to play (LSU’s coaches and players have said all the right things about moving on) or, alternatively, LSU’s 10-0 loss to Alabama truly destroyed all momentum the Tigers had left and they’ll come out not wanting to play at all.

And I don’t have any idea which to expect. I do know this: LSU is better than Florida, so if LSU plays its best, Arkansas will have a tough time. But we’ll see.

Scouting Report

Strengths

  • Very explosive offense, led by elite running backs
  • Generate a lot of negative plays through a strong pass rush and active secondary
  • Linebackers are solid against the run

Weaknesses

  • Very poor quarterback play
  • Offensive line is spotty in both run blocking and pass protection
  • Inconsistent kicking game

When Arkansas has the ball

Arkansas’ performance against Florida was enough to knock the Gators’ Defense S&P+ ranking from 3rd to 6th, but not enough to help the Hogs move from 39th, thanks mostly to Texas A&M and Ole Miss taking dives defensively with bad showings.

LSU moves up to 5th after holding Alabama to a season-low 10 points and fewer than 300 yards of total offense. LSU has played a much tougher schedule than Florida, so the East vs. West paradigm that benefited Arkansas last week doesn’t come into play here.

The Tigers are the third of four programs to apparently benefit from the chain reaction caused when Will Muschamp left Auburn for South Carolina in the offseason. Muschamp immediately made South Carolina’s defense better. Auburn hired journeyman Kevin Steele from LSU after an uninspiring 2015 and he’s upgraded Auburn’s defense tremendously. LSU hired Dave Aranda away from Wisconsin, and the Tigers are better. Wisconsin, who replaced Aranda, hasn’t gotten worse on defense this year. That’s four teams with good defenses, and no one appears to have been hurt by the shuffle.

These four panels (both teams In the Trenches and both teams On the Back End) will be similar to what we saw against Florida: this one is most likely to go against the Hogs, while the other three show a fairly-even game. In the Florida preview, I wrote that Arkansas need only draw a stalemate to have a serious chance of winning, and that’s exactly what the Hogs did.

Can they do it again?

Defensive Line

  • Arden Key, DE/OLB, 6’6, 238, 27.0 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 8.0 sacks
  • Davon Godchaux, DT, 6’4, 299, 26.5 tackles, 5.0 TFLs, 4.0 sacks
  • Lewis Neal, DE, 6’2, 272, 25.5 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks
  • Greg Gilmore, DT, 6’4, 308, 15.0 tackles, 0.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks

Another week, another terrifying SEC defensive line. Typical for LSU, the Tigers generate almost all of their pass rush from the front four: the starting linebackers have combined for 2.5 sacks this season, compared to 16.0 for the starting linemen. If you can block the LSU front four, you can score; if you can’t, you’re in trouble.

Linebackers

  • Kendell Beckwith, MLB, 58.0 tackles, 6.0 TFLs, 1.0 sacks
  • Duke Riley, WLB, 48.5 tackles, 7.0 TFLs, 0.5 sacks
  • Tashawn Bower, OLB/DE, 8.5 tackles, 2.5 TFLS, 1.0 sacks

LSU stockpiles hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end prospects, which grow on trees within a 200-mile radius of Baton Rouge. LSU claims it runs a really-multiple 3-4 defense with a bunch of these combo players (like Key and Bower), but it mostly ends up looking like a classic 4-3. Beckwith and Riley are the “real” linebackers here, and the major threats in the run game.

We saw the same thing against Florida, with Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. The Hogs’ gameplan was to try quick-hitting runs to get the back in space (usually off-tackle) and let the linemen get downfield to block the linebackers. It worked with devastating efficiency: the Hogs rolled up more than 200 rushing yards, and Anzalone, Davis, and a backup linebacker were knocked from the game with injuries.

I suspect LSU’s linebackers are slightly better than Florida’s, so the strategy may not work quite as well, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what Arkansas chooses to go with, at least initially.

Secondary

  • Jamal Adams, SS, 42.0 tackles, 3 PBUs, 1 interception
  • Tre’Davious White, CB, 18.5 tackles, 5 PBUs, 2 interceptions
  • Kevin Toliver II, CB, 16.5 tackles, 1 PBU, 0 interceptions
  • John Battle, FS, 15.0 tackles, 2 PBUs, 0 interceptions

Adams is a dominant safety, but overall LSU’s secondary isn’t really any better than Florida’s. Arkansas had trouble getting its outside receivers open against Florida but Drew Morgan found plenty of room in the slots, especially on play-action. Morgan, Jeremy Sprinkle, and the running backs will again be needed.

When LSU has the ball

Offense, or lack thereof, was Les Miles’ ultimate downfall. After JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn, the Tigers have been unable to get consistent quarterback play, save a strong 2013 from transfer Zach Mettenberger. Ed Orgeron promised to open up the offense after taking over as interim coach, but LSU hasn’t really been doing anything different offensively.

Running Back

  • Leonard Fournette, 100 rushes, 705 yards, 7.1 yards per carry
  • Derrius Guice, 80 rushes, 629 yards, 7.9 yards per carry

Arkansas’ much-maligned run defense held up nicely against Florida, but this is a different animal. LSU has padded its stats by running it up against bad run defenses (> 8.0 yards per carry against Missouri, Southern Miss, and Ole Miss), but has seen its run game slowed against good defenses (5.0 ypc against Wisconsin, 2.5 ypc against Alabama). Arkansas, of course, isn’t a good defense.

The game will ultimately be a test of whether or not Robb Smith was unable to undo the damage of a poor-in-hindsight shuffle on the defensive line. Jeremiah Ledbetter is back at defensive end, Deatrich Wise is back to pass-rush specialist, and Sosa Agim, Randy Ramsey, and JaMichael Winston are on the field more. The “return” worked against Florida, but if Arkansas’ run defense gets boatraced here, criticizing Smith for not realizing the mistake until eight games into the season would be fair.

LSU’s offensive line may help out. The incredible talent of Fournette and Guice mean that LSU has big play potential in the run game (1st in Rushing isoPPP), but the blocking isn’t quite at that level (43rd in Rushing Success Rate, 34th in Line-Yards per Carry on standard downs). And as you can see, the Tigers aren’t great at protecting their quarterback. This line was completely dominated by Alabama last week.

Quarterback

  • Danny Etling, 58.5% completions, 1,221 yards, 6.2 yards per attempt

Receiver

  • Malachi Dupre, 45 targets, 305 yards, 6.8 yards per target
  • Travin Dural, 44 targets, 249 yards, 5.7 yards per target
  • D.J. Chark, 30 targets, 314 yards, 10.5 yards per target

Etling is inaccurate (58.5% completions), not a major deep threat (12.2 yards per completion), and sack-prone (7.6% sack rate). For comparative figures, Austin Allen completes 61.8% of his passes, averages 13.5 yards per completion, and is sacked 7.1% of the time. As with Luke Del Rio, Etling is no threat to run.

Etling’s struggles have dragged down talented receivers, as Dupre is dealing with reduced efficiency from last year. Actually, neither Dupre nor Dural has been very efficient this season at all. Chark is the deep threat for LSU.

I think Arkansas wins this phase easily. Arkansas’ biggest weakness in the pass game this season has been covering slot receivers to the weak side of the formation or out of trips sets, especially on standard downs. LSU pretty much never shows weakside slots or trips on standard downs. As long as the Hogs don’t get burned deep, I don’t see LSU being able to consistently complete shorter routes.

Keys to the Game

  • Be gap-sound against the run. The goal is limiting LSU’s rushing success rate without getting burned too badly in isoPPP (explosive runs). Brooks Ellis, Dwayne Eugene, and Agim need to have strong performances, while Ledbetter and Winston need to seal the edge.
  • Win in the scoring zone. The Hogs can’t have empty drives, and forcing empty drives out of LSU will be huge. Arkansas needs to average more points per drive that gets inside the LSU 40 than LSU gets on its own scoring-chance drives.
  • Win the Boot with the boot. Toby Baker has been a weapon for Arkansas all season. The Hogs need him to have a great game punting the ball, especially because I don’t see Arkansas’ offense scoring a ton of points. Making field goals is also a priority. LSU’s Colby Delahoussaye has struggled this season (just 5 of 8 in field goals, and he’s missed two extra points), so winning the placekicking and punting battles will be key.