Arkansas’ attempt to beat LSU three straight years for the first time since the 1920’s fell flat on Saturday.
The biggest key was LSU’s motivation: a problem in each of the last two meetings. But credit for this game has to go to LSU interim head coach Ed Orgeron for being able to rally his team one week after a tough 10-0 loss to Alabama. LSU dominated Arkansas in the trenches and its playmakers made plays.
The game also included another instance of an ongoing concern I’ve had about Bret Bielema. Remember this quote, made immediately after the Florida game?
“To come out of that game and realize we couldn't stop the run, I said, 'I don't care what we do, we're going to stop the run on defense. I don't care if we play 11 guys, if we have to play with 12, I'll take the penalty,'" Coach Bret Bielema said. "We ain't going to have somebody run the ball on us.”
LSU rushed 50 times for 396 yards on Saturday.
Arkansas' 3 worst rushing defense performances since joining SEC in 1992:— Adam Ford (@AdamFord92) November 13, 2016
1. 2016 Auburn
2. 2016 LSU
3. 2016 Texas A&M
The problem is that Bielema seems have repeatedly shown that he doesn’t really understand how good his team is. Remember his infamous offseason comments about Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury? He made those comments a few months before Tech came into Fayetteville and beat the Hogs by double digits.
Bielema not understanding how good his team is — or its exact strengths and weaknesses — may help explain the slow starts to the season. Arkansas usually doesn’t fix any weaknesses until those weaknesses get exposed. Why has Adam McFain not been the placekicker for three years? Why did Colton Jackson spend all spring, fall, and a couple games as a starter at tackle when it immediately became apparent that he’s not ready to be a tackle? Why in the world was Jeremiah Ledbetter moved inside when he’s clearly better at defensive end? Based on Bielema’s comments all week, I believe he (and, presumably, the rest of the coaches) truly thought that the run defense was fixed through the bye week changes. Well, it’s clearly not.
An important caveat: it is entirely possible that what Bielema says to the media during press conferences is not actually a reflection of what he thinks, but rather a fulfillment of the obligation to give press conferences. Still, though, I don’t recall Petrino acting like a weakness had been fixed only to have it exposed again two weeks later.
Bielema has brought a lot of good to the football program, including good grades, discipline, a focus on being tough in the trenches, and an offense built around quality quarterback play. Development at most positions has been solid and the program is on the right track. But it’s hard to achieve a goal if you can’t evaluate how close to the goal you are.
A few observations about these game splits:
- Arkansas got thrown off its offensive plan immediately. From an efficiency standpoint, the run game didn’t perform that badly. The problem was that game circumstances dictated Arkansas only running it 21 times. The Hogs did well on first down (a running down) but often got hamstrung by bad plays on a second down. That’s rare, as this offense is usually at its best on second down.
- Arkansas’ defense never seriously threatened LSU. The Tigers were good on first down, second down, and third down. Their first three quarters looked virtually identical in terms of yards, yards per play, and success rate. In the fourth quarter, Arkansas gave up (another troubling trend under Bielema) and LSU padded its already-impressive stats. Continuing reminder: Arkansas returned nine starters on defense and regressed.
- Austin Allen is looking more like a first-year starting quarterback. After a hot start, Allen has looked more pedestrian over the last few weeks. Here’s his opponent-adjusted QBR over the course of the season:
I think there’s an explanation for this, and no, it’s not the terrifying r-word: “regressing.” Recall this, from the Texas State preview a couple months ago:
I’m anxious to see what Arkansas will do against good cornerback play (neither Louisiana Tech nor TCU had it), and I won’t get the opportunity this week.
Yeah well, I’ve seen enough now. This three-game stretch of Auburn, Florida, and LSU has featured the best cornerbacks Allen has seen, and it has led to major struggles. The explanation is pretty simple: Allen, like most first-year starting quarterbacks, performs better when his first option comes open on any passing play. Allen has benefitted from having great receivers this season, and against weaker cornerback play, his first option was almost always open.
Over the last few weeks, that hasn’t happened. Against Florida, Allen started 3 of 11 passing before Dan Enos started giving him more passes targeting Drew Morgan out of the slot, along with running back screens. He was 12 of 15 passing after that bad start.
There were no adjustments to be made against LSU. With outside receivers struggling to get open, Enos starting calling more inside routes — like crossing routes with Cornelius or little inside hitches with Morgan — but LSU swarmed those too. Both interceptions came when he tried to force it to his primary target, who wasn’t open.
Veteran quarterbacks are often better at “checking down” to a running back, tight end, or secondary receiver. Brandon Allen got better at that last season. In time, I think Austin will get there too. He’ll have to by 2017, given that Arkansas will lose most of its receiving corps to graduation.
Also good news: the Hogs’ next two opponents don’t have great defenses.
For a refresher on EV, go here.
A couple points: first, Arkansas had positive Rushing EV until Devwah Whaley’s fumble into the endzone at the end of the game; and second, Punting EV increased by 3.55 points when LSU’s Tre’Davious White fumbled a punt in the third quarter.
Mississippi State and Missouri both have the potential to be shootouts, so there’s still plenty of time for fireworks this season.