Well, that was pretty pathetic.
The Hogs went to sleep on a bad team and couldn’t wake up in time to finish the race. I said this after the LSU game, but it bears repeating. Bret Bielema has brought a lot of great things to Arkansas: a physical identity, high-character athletes, solid grades, and a steadily-improving on-field product. Even after a second consecutive 7-5 season, he isn’t on the hot seat. Go 7-5 in 2017 and we’ll talk.
However, he has a serious flaw that keeps getting exposed: he doesn’t seem to understand how good his team is or what it does well. He made some personnel changes during the bye week and the Hogs held Florida to 12 yards. Bielema, clearly thinking the historically-bad run defense was fixed, made a big show of letting everyone know how much the Auburn game bothered him and how he went out and made dang sure the problems got solved! Of course, then Arkansas went out and allowed 390 rushing yards to LSU the following week.
I was one of many who held my breath during the Mississippi State game when Bielema told the sideline reporter that the Hogs were going to “have some fun” in the second half. Arkansas was up 38-14, but coach, have you seen your defense? No lead is safe! Sure enough, MSU scored on every single second-half possession and Arkansas had to fight much longer than it should have had to in a 58-42 win.
Once again, Arkansas made no apparent halftime adjustments and came out flat in the third quarter. After an awful third quarter, the Hogs woke up and actually outplayed Mizzou in the fourth quarter, but by then the momentum had shifted and Arkansas couldn’t make the plays it needed to.
Credit to Mizzou’s Barry Odom for recognizing that the pendulum of momentum only swings your way occasionally and taking advantage of his chances. That fake punt call was gutsy. With no disrespect to Mizzou, though, I think we can all agree that this loss is more about Arkansas than Mizzou. Still, let ‘em keep the ugly trophy, they earned it, and we’ll get it back next year.
A lot to dissect here, so here are some observations:
- At one point early in the third quarter, Arkansas was 9 of 12 on third down. The Hogs would not convert another one, finishing 9 of 17.
- Overall, the offense did well, it just couldn’t convert in the red zone. Below, I’ll discuss why I think that is.
- Arkansas allowed 7.4 yards per play, which actually boosted their average. According to CFB Stats, the Hogs’ 7.8 yards per play allowed in conference games is the worst by any FBS team since at least 2008, which is how far back their database goes.
- The defense actually had a decent success rate for the game. The problem was two-fold: first, Arkansas gave up way too big plays (again), and second, Arkansas is completely inept at making tackles for loss or tackles for gains of two yards or fewer. The Hogs rank 121st nationally in Defense isoPPP (explosiveness), and are tied for 121st nationally in TFLs per game, with just 4.3 per contest.
Red zone woes
A statistic called power success rate is what is sounds like: it’s the success rate of rushing plays where it’s 3rd/4th down and 1-2 yards to go, or you’re 1-2 yards from the goal line. The national average for power success rate is 68.1%. Arkansas’ is 48.9%: dead last in the country by a huge margin.
In 2015, with Alex Collins at tailback and a veteran offensive line blocking for him, Arkansas’ run game favored efficiency (2nd in rushing success rate) over explosiveness (105th in rushing isoPPP). The high-efficiency ground game paired perfectly with what Dan Enos wanted to do. The ability of the run game to constantly crank out enough yards to stay on schedule allowed the Hogs to turn Brandon Allen loose to throw deep without having to worry about quick three-and-outs.
In 2016, with a new offensive line and different-style running backs, Arkansas’ run game is the opposite: 97th in rushing success rate, and 38th in rushing isoPPP. The added explosiveness has allowed Rawleigh Williams III to have a similar per-carry average to Alex Collins (5.7 for RWIII, 5.8 for AC3). This is misleading. Collins had a significantly higher percentage of carries go for five or more yards (43.5% to 39.5%), and had much fewer carries go for loss (Arkansas dropped from 21st to 94th in rate of TFLs allowed from 2015 to 2016).
Efficiency problems - along with a scheme that, out of necessity, favors wham blocks and trap blocks - have rendered Arkansas’ run game nearly useless near the goal line, where defenses can stack up against it and “shoot the gaps” against slow-developing run plays. This explains why Austin Allen has thrown an SEC-leading 19 touchdown passes in the red zone this season. Throwing is what Arkansas has to do to score.
My hope is that, with a more veteran line and veteran tailbacks in 2017, the Hogs’ rushing efficiency will go up significantly.
A few more points to make:
- Arkansas dominated field position, but didn’t do much with it.
- The kickoff unit, after several good weeks in row, played terribly.
- I have no idea what the strategy was regarding return men. Deon Stewart, the normal kickoff return man, opened the game with a 30-yard return out to the 33. He added a 27-yard return (to the 31) and then a 43-yard return out to the Arkansas 44. That would be his last return. Keon Hatcher was back for the next one. I have no idea why. If Bielema said Stewart got hurt, I missed it. The same thing happened to Jared Cornelius. After a nifty 15-yard return of a punt in the second quarter, Cornelius was benched in favor of Drew Morgan, who fielded two punts with no return. If anyone has any information as to why two return men playing well were benched, please give it in the comments.
Overall, this has to rank alongside Toledo and Rutgers as the worst loss under Bielema. Stunningly, despite 25 losses as the Head Hog, this was only Bielema’s second against a team that won’t play in a bowl, and the first since 2013. The game flow reminded me of Bielema’s first loss: to Rutgers, where Arkansas also blew a 24-7 lead and lost 28-24.
Up next is the bowl game against a team that (spoiler alert) Arkansas is probably going to destroy.