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Arkansas vs. Mississippi State Advanced Stats Preview: Back Where We Started

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A road trip to Starkville promises to feature some interesting strength-on-weakness matchups.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

The Hogs are right back where we were during the bye week.

Everyone’s aware of the upside, the weaknesses are pretty obvious too. Now the big question is whether or not a (relatively) easier schedule is enough for the Hogs to start rolling.

That starts Saturday against Mississippi State (4-6, 2-4 SEC). The Bulldogs have beaten Arkansas four straight times dating back to 2012, easily their best streak in a series historically dominated by Arkansas. It’s important that Arkansas beat Mississippi State roughly eight times per 10 years, give or take, to remain clearly above them on the SEC West pecking order. That means that four straight losses won’t roll off any ten-year span for a while now, but the Hogs can ill-afford to make it five.

Mississippi State has seen ups (a surprisingly-easy win over Texas A&M, who is in its annual late-season collapse) and downs (losses to South Alabama, Kentucky, and BYU). Like Arkansas, it’s impossible to tell whether they are rounding into form or on the brink of their own collapse.

Scouting report

Strengths

  • Efficient and explosive run game spearheaded by a mobile quarterback
  • Good offensive line play
  • Decent run defense

Weaknesses

  • Inefficient passing attack
  • Struggles to pressure the quarterback
  • Worst passing defense among Power 5 teams Arkansas has faced

As you can see, Mississippi State is a very extreme team: solid in the trenches, bad through the air.

When Arkansas has the ball

Finally, a defense with a decent advanced stats matchup! In every metric except turnovers and average starting field position, State is just a little bit worse on defense than Arkansas is on offense. Theoretically, Arkansas should be able to score plenty of points in this game.

Despite Bret Bielema’s insistence that football starts in the trenches, the strength hasn’t been there for Arkansas all season. A week after being whipped by LSU, even Mississippi State takes a large advantage into the lines. The only good news is that State has a weak pass-rush: roughly even with Ole Miss for the title of worst Power 5 pass-rush the Hogs have faced this season.

Defensive Line

  • Johnathan Calvin, DE, 6’2, 272, 35.0 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 5.0 sacks
  • Jeffery Simmons, DT, 6’4, 310, 20.5 tackles, 2.0 TFLs, 0 sacks
  • A.J. Jefferson, DE, 6’3, 280, 20.0 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 4.0 sacks
  • Nelson Adams, DT, 6’3, 305, 15.0 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks

This is a daunting defensive line that is very, very active. The line is much better at stopping the run than at rushing the passer, but virtually all of what pass-rush the Bulldogs do have comes from the line. Keeping Calvin and Jefferson in check should be priority number one for the Arkansas offense.

Linebackers

  • Richie Brown, MLB, 6’2, 240, 63.0 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, 1.5 sacks
  • Leo Lewis, WLB, 6’2, 230, 44.0 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, 0 sacks
  • J.T. Gray, SLB, 6’0, 197, 40.5 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 1.0 sack

Brown and Lewis are traditional inside linebackers in State’s hybrid 3-4 scheme. Their duties mostly include cleaning up the run game and they are the top two tacklers for the Bulldogs. Gray is a speedy hybrid outside linebacker used for disruption. Technically, Calvin is the “fourth” linebacker but he generally plays like a defensive end so I grouped him with the linemen.

  • Brandon Bryant, SS, 36.5 tackles, 2 PBUs, 1 interception
  • Kivon Coman, FS, 24.0 tackles, 4 PBUs, 2 interceptions
  • Jamoral Graham, CB, 20.5 tackles, 5 PBUs, 2 interceptions
  • Cedric Jiles, CB, 18.0 tackles, 1 PBU, 0 interceptions

A subpar pass-rush hasn’t helped, but this is the worst secondary Arkansas has faced among Power 5 teams, ranking 113th in Def Passing S&P+, worse than every team outside of Texas State and Alcorn State among Hog opponents. South Alabama’s Dallas Davis threw for 285 yards, Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson had 292, Texas A&M’s backup Jake Hubenak had 222 in just under three quarters of play, and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts had 347 yards passing last week.

Arkansas is the best passing team (by S&P+) that State has played so far, and the other two best (Alabama and Auburn) had zero trouble moving the ball.

When Mississippi State has the ball

A push here, but I’d be surprised if Arkansas actually caused a “push” in real life in this matchup. Raw numbers favor State due to a weaker schedule (top and bottom of schedule being equal, compare South Alabama, BYU, South Carolina, and Kentucky for State against Louisiana Tech, TCU, Florida, and Ole Miss for Arkansas).

Overall, the Bulldogs protect the ball and have decent offensive efficiency, which will take any team far.

Big advantage to State here. The Bulldog offensive line looks primed to handle Arkansas’ woefully-under-performing front. The Hogs’ best hope is that, as in the Florida game, the tougher schedule faced by Arkansas has better prepared the line for this matchup, and they have no trouble dominating. But I wouldn’t count on it. Mississippi State earned this numbers through some tough games of its own, including Alabama and LSU.

Quarterback

  • Nick Fitzgerald, 53.3% completions, 1,850 yards, 6.0 yards per attempt, 133 rushes, 930 yards, 7.0 yards per rush

Running Back

  • Aeris Williams, 87 rushes, 402 yards, 4.6 yards per rush
  • Ashton Shumpert, 52 rushes, 246 yards, 4.7 yards per rush
  • Brandon Holloway, 49 rushes, 221 yards, 4.5 yards per rush

As you can see, Fitzgerald is far more dangerous as a runner than as a passer; in fact, he’s more dangerous than any of the actual running backs. The backs are little more than change-of-pace guys to give Fitzgerald a breather from running and passing. Williams is a more efficient option while Holloway is (somewhat) more explosive.

Receiver

  • Fred Ross, WR, 91 targets, 664 yards, 7.3 yards per target
  • Donald Gray, WR, 54 targets, 587 yards, 10.9 yards per target
  • Malik Dear, 28 targets, 202 yards, 7.2 yards per target
  • Keith Mixon, 28 targets, 199 yards, 7.1 yards per target

As you can see, Ross is the volume guy, and Gray is the explosive option. It’s really a two-man show, with Dear and Mixon playing minor roles.

Fitzgerald isn’t particularly accurate and only moderately explosive. He’s tossed 10 interceptions (the same number as Austin Allen with about 20 fewer attempts).

On special teams

State’s special teams are a mixed bag. On the plus side, placekicker Weston Graves has struggled this season, hitting just 10 of 17 field goals. Also, State’s punting is subpar, with Logan Cooke averaging just 39.8 yards per punt (Toby Baker averages 44.5). On the flip side, State has a decent kickoff return unit, which could a problem for an Arkansas kickoff unit that only generates a touchback on about one-third of kickoffs.

Keys to the game

  • Block State’s defensive front. No excuses here; these aren’t five-star recruits (okay, fine, Jeffery Simmons is). Mississippi State’s defense is extremely beatable on the back end, but they cover for it with disruption. The Hogs need to keep Austin Allen upright (doable) and stay out of the negative play in the run game (much more difficult). Key stats: sack rate, stuff rate, line-yards per carry
  • Gap integrity in the run game. This is asking a lot of the worst run defense in school history. Holding Mississippi State to 250 rushing yards really could be all it takes to win this game. Not giving up any huge quarterback runs would be nice. Key stats: opportunity rate, line-yards per carry
  • Steal a possession. With 10 interceptions a piece this season, both quarterbacks have shown a willingness to give the rock away. The Hog secondary will likely spend most of this game chasing Fitzgerald after he inevitably breaks contain, but stepping in front of one of his inaccurate passes would go a long way. Key stat: turnover margin

Chart talk

The charts have had a decent season, calling 31 as the minimum points needed to beat Ole Miss (the Rebs scored 30), and pointing out that Arkansas had a much better chance of being Florida (-1) than LSU (-9) or Auburn (-12).

Here, we see that the charts have called Arkansas for 28 points.

Here, the charts call Mississippi State for 21 points. Seems a little low, but any Hog fan would take it.

There you have it: Arkansas 28, Mississippi State 21. Who am I to argue with the charts?