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Arkansas vs. Mizzou Advanced Stats Preview: Missouri Loves Company

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M-I-Z E-R-Y

Missouri v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It’s finally here! The week we’ve been waiting all season for! We’d go 1-11 if the one win was over Mizzou!

Okay, so the “Battle Line Rivalry” isn’t quite at that level yet, despite Eric Beisel’s best efforts. Still, Arkansas has to be ready to go for this game. Missouri (3-8, 1-6 SEC) isn’t going bowling, so this is the Tigers’ bowl. With the roller-coaster season Arkansas has had (last 9 games after 2-0 start: Win-Loss-Win-Loss-Win-Loss-Win-Loss-Win), the Hogs have to be focused or a 7-5 season (and sub-.500 SEC record) is likely.

Missouri is a bizarre team. The advanced stats think they’re much better than 3-8 (they’re 64th in overall S&P+, ten spots behind Arkansas and ahead of Mississippi State), despite losses to Kentucky, South Carolina, and Middle Tennessee, and no quality wins (only FBS wins: Vanderbilt and Eastern Michigan).

This is largely driven by some outrageous offensive performances (including 110 plays for 743 yards against Tennessee last week). The advanced stats, who don’t look at actual game winner, think Mizzou is 5-6, with additional wins over Georgia and one of Middle Tennessee, South Carolina, or Kentucky. Arkansas isn’t well-liked because those same formulas think Arkansas is also 5-6, with losses to two of Ole Miss, TCU, and Louisiana Tech. All four losses were blowouts, which also doesn’t help.

One formula we can use to take an early look at this game before getting into the nitty-gritty is how Arkansas performs against comparable teams. Arkansas is actually a pretty simple football team this year: either you can really figure out Robb Smith’s defense, or you really can’t. And Arkansas can either run the ball on you, or it can’t. (The passing game has been a somewhat consistent performer.)

If we graph Arkansas’ defensive percentile performance (basically, how well Arkansas performed on defense against an opponent compared to how other teams on their schedule did) against opponents’ Offensive S&P+, we get the following:

The black line is Arkansas’ Defense S&P+ Ranking. I left off Louisiana Tech for the obvious reason that they started a backup QB in the first game of the season.

As you can see, Arkansas played two offenses worse than its defense (Florida and Texas State) and totally dominated both. Once you cross the black line (that is, when the opposing offense is ranked higher than Arkansas’ defense), there’s no apparent pattern to the data, but every performance (except Ole Miss at 58%) is bad. Missouri is past the black line, so this chart suggests that there’s no way to accurately predict exactly how well Mizzou’s offense will play, only that it will probably play pretty well.

The chart also, oddly enough, demonstrates a bit of hope for Robb Smith as defensive coordinator, since his defenses tend to dominate inferior offenses. This has been a trend over his three years: in 13 games where Arkansas’ defense S&P+ ranking is higher than the opponents’ offensive S&P+ ranking, the Hogs are 9-4 and allowing 12.2 points per game under Smith, with no team scoring more than 28. Obviously, the long-term issue is getting more talent than more opponents than just 13 in three years, but that’s a different issue for a different day.

Scouting report

Strengths

  1. Extremely fast offensive tempo could cause problems for Arkansas’ slow-to-line-up defense
  2. Very efficient running game
  3. Run-pass options help limit sacks and generate big plays in the passing game

Weaknesses

  1. Offense is turnover-prone, often giving the ball away in critical moments
  2. Run defense is all-around awful
  3. Pass defense isn’t terrible, but can’t get off the field on third down and gives up too many big plays

Also of note: Mizzou is dead-last in the NCAA in time of possession (23:42 per game). Arkansas is second (35:10 per game).

When Arkansas has the ball

Missouri’s defense is actually worse than Mississippi State’s: the Tigers have a much worse run defense and a slightly better pass defense.

The only thing Mizzou is good at is field position, which is mostly a factor of their offense moving the ball well.

This panel has been Arkansas’ biggest weak point all year. The Hogs usually get dominated (on paper) here, and the key to the game is overcoming it. Not this time. The panel is a total push, although it favors the Hogs in terms of pass protection and generating explosive runs.

It’s worth keeping in mind that all of these numbers (except adjusted sack rate) are raw, meaning they are not adjusted for opponent. Arkansas has played a much tougher schedule. And since the bye, Arkansas has majorly out-performed this panel’s matchups twice in three games (dominating both Florida and Mississippi State in the trenches despite a seemingly bad matchup). The LSU game, on the other hand, went more according to script.

Defensive Line

  • Charles Harris, DE, 45.0 tackles, 12.0 TFLs, 8.0 sacks
  • Marcell Frazier, DE, 22.0 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks
  • Rickey Hatley, DT, 22.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack
  • A.J. Logan, DT, 8.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 0 sacks

Much of Mizzou’s initial SEC success (SEC East champs in 2013 and 2014) came behind its defensive line, which was the clear strength of the team both years. The line was also good last year, but things have fallen off quite a bit in Barry Odom’s first season. Harris, however, is a typical Mizzou defensive end, and will be the main key on the defense to stop. He has a third of Mizzou’s sacks and just under a fourth of their tackles for loss, along with ranking second on the squad in total tackles, a rarity for a linemen. Arkansas’ offensive line has been much better at pass protection since the bye week, but they’ll need to keep Harris out of the backfield much like they kept Mississippi State stud A.J. Jefferson out of the backfield last week.

Linebackers

  • Donavin Newsom, SLB, 58.0 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks
  • Michael Scherer, MLB, 39.0 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks
  • Eric Beisel, WLB, 32.5 tackles, 5.0 TFLs, 0 sacks

Mizzou’s linebackers are decently active (13 TFLs among the starts, compared to just 10.5 combined between Brooks Ellis, Dre Greenlaw, Dwayne Eugene, and De’Jon Harris for Arkansas), but they aren’t great against the run, which could be a problem. Mizzou will likely try a lot of run blitzes, which opens up Arkansas’ devastating running back screen game. Watch the linebackers on Friday to see how Arkansas controls the front.

Some clear advantages for the Hogs here as Mizzou gives up a lot of big pass plays (82nd Passing isoPPP defense), combined with a high success rate on passing downs.

Ideally, Arkansas will be able to run the ball at will on early downs, but in case the Hogs try to throw, it’s worth noting that Mizzou’s only defense strength is Passing Success Rate. If Mizzou can force some early-down incompletions, then the Tigers can stall some Hog drives.

Secondary

  • Anthony Sherrils, SS, 43.0 tackles, 1 PBU, 1 interception
  • Cam Hilton, FS, 38.5 tackles, 6 PBUs, 1 interception
  • Aarion Penton, CB, 33.5 tackles, 10 PBUs, 4 interceptions
  • John Gibson, CB, 19.0 tackles, 5 PBUs, 3 interceptions

Some decent havoc numbers for Mizzou’s cornerbacks, with the starters combining for 15 pass breakups and 7 interceptions. For comparison, Arkansas’ starting CBs (Ryan Pulley and Jared Collins) have combined for 17 breakups and 1 interception. Overall, Mizzou has picked off 14 passes this season, intercepting 3.1% of all passes thrown against it (43rd nationally).

When Mizzou has the ball

The biggest key with Mizzou’s offense is the torrid pace the Tigers play at. They often get at least 80 plays in on offense, and can hit 100.

The offense is a very “modern” offense, at least compared to Bret Bielema’s dinosaur offense. The Tigers do everything no-huddle, hurry-up. Their base offense on standard downs is spread with lots of run-pass options (RPOs), where a screen, a short pass, a deep pass, and a run play are all packaged into one. The quarterback makes a bunch of complicated reads about whether to hand it off or throw it.

This all spells trouble for an Arkansas defense that doesn’t do a good job of lining up quickly and is way too soft against the run and short passing game.

Here’s another panel that hasn’t been friendly to the Hogs this season, and won’t be again on Friday. Mizzou’s pass protection is solid, and their quick passing game negates even talented rushes, the Hogs shouldn’t expect to get much pressure.

Mizzou will mostly focus on efficiency when running the ball, and the run game is central to their offense working properly. In games where they can’t run the ball well (Kentucky, LSU), they can’t establish anything on offense since their quarterback play isn’t good enough stand on its own.

Running Backs

  • Ish Witter, 157 rushes, 738 yards, 4.7 yards per carry
  • Nate Strong, 15 rushes, 85 yards, 5.7 yards per carry

Mizzou’s run game took a huge hit when it was announced that former Little Rock Christian standout Damarea Crockett was arrested on marijuana possession charges and suspended for the game. Crockett has been much, much better than Witter, averaging more than a yard more per carry (5.9 to 4.7). With Witter, Mizzou’s capacity for big plays in the run game is diminished, but Witter does get decent efficiency numbers.

The Hogs should be able to hold up on the back end, especially when it comes to not giving up big plays. Combined with the explosive Crockett being out, Arkansas’ best bet is to not make mistakes and hope Mizzou’s offense shoots itself in the foot.

Quarterback

  • Drew Lock, 54.2% completions, 3,131 yards, 7.3 yards per attempt

Receivers

  • J’Mon Moore, 114 targets, 877 yards, 7.7 yards per target
  • Dimetrios Mason, 67 targets, 544 yards, 8.1 yards per target
  • Jonathon Johnson, 39 targets, 365 yards, 9.4 yards per target
  • Sean Culkin, TE/H, 36 targets, 282 yards, 7.8 yards per target

Lock’s low completion percentage is the result of a high volume of deep pass attempts and the receivers (especially Moore) having the dropsies. Moore has caught just 49.1% of his targets this season. Mizzou averages nearly 15 yards per completion.

Theoretically, the Mizzou passing game is strength-on-strength. The Hogs don’t give up many deep passes but can be diced by patient, accurate quarterbacks. Mizzou is pretty good at connecting on deep passes but doesn’t slice-and-dice nearly as well.

On special teams

I mentioned in the Mississippi State preview that the Bulldogs had an awful placekicking game, and sure enough, they missed a field goal right before halftime.

Missouri’s placekicking game is much worse. The Tigers have tried multiple kickers, but have settled on original starter Tucker McCann for lack of better options. Mizzou has missed an FBS-leading six extra points and is just 6 of 13 on field goals.

Other than that, the Tigers have pretty good punt and kick coverage units. The punt return game is pretty strong, but the kickoff return game is really not. Arkansas has stepped up its kickoff coverage in recent weeks, and hasn’t allowed much by way of punt returns all season.

Keys to the game

  • Establish the first-down running game. You can look at Arkansas’ offensive gameplan like a three-piece puzzle. On second down, the Hogs are at their best (2nd in Second Down S&P), using a nearly 50-50 run-pass balance to generate most of their explosive plays, often off play-action. On third down, the Hogs are just 49th, but are facing a truly terrible third-down defense (Mizzou is 117th). The missing piece is first down, where Arkansas runs the ball at a rate of about 75-80%. Arkansas has performed well on first down in all three games since the bye (8.3 yards per play against MSU, 7.5 against LSU, and 5.2 against Florida), and if that continues against Mizzou, the Hogs should score at will.
  • Keep the penalties at a minimum. The Hogs were penalized just once for 10 yards against Mississippi State, an encouraging sign for a road game. The Hogs can’t afford to extend Mizzou drives with penalties, and can’t afford to back the offense up with penalties either.
  • Force a couple of turnovers. Mizzou turns the football over 2.2 times per game, good for 116th nationally. They’re equally bad at both fumbling and throwing interceptions. Forcing a turnover has proven to be the easiest way to stop the Tiger offense all season: they gave it away four times against Tennessee last week.

For those wondering, I ran the S&P-Ranking-vs.-Points charts again this week. I won’t post them here because they take up a lot of space, but the regression formula has made its prediction: Arkansas 41, Missouri 35.