Did Arkansas take advantage of the bye week or what?
Another impressive post-bye performance lifted Arkansas to a 31-10 win over Florida (6-2, 4-2 SEC), a pretty good team that had feasted on a diet of mostly cupcakes.
The coaches used the bye week to install fixes for the offensive and defensive lines, which have been dominated in several games this season. Saturday, it was Arkansas’ lines doing the dominating, out-rushing Florida 223-12 and winning the sack battle three to one.
On the offensive line, the coaches benched struggling right guard Jake Raulerson in favor of 344-pound Johnny Gibson, a walk-on from Dumas. Raulerson has been out-muscled too many times this season, so the coaches hoped Gibson would at least be a rock out there, even if his fundamentals weren’t as good. The plan paid off nicely, and it looks like one major issue up front has been solved. The Hogs lost starting left guard Hjalte Froholdt to injury in the third quarter, so Gibson slid to left guard and Raulerson stepped back into his old position.
The less-noticeable change up front came in the blocking scheme. The Hogs used a lot more quick-hitting outside runs designed to get the back into space quickly. It was actually reminiscent of early-years Houston Nutt, who used to put his fullback really close behind the quarterback in the I-formation so he could get into the hole quicker. The Hogs didn’t quite do that (they actually didn’t use a fullback all that often), and instead decided to have blockers bypass backside defensive linemen and target Florida’s excellent linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. By leaving backside linemen unblocked, all of Arkansas’ blockers could concentrate on attacking one small area of the line.
The results were brutal. The scheme was probably better suited to Rawleigh Williams’ more physical downhill run style (he reminded me a bit of Chrys Chukwuma, who had success in Nutt’s similar schemes in 1998 and 1999) and he had a huge game against what was supposed to be an elite run defense. Davis left the game twice with injuries and could be out for a while. Anzalone broke his arm and is out for the season. Backup linebacker Kylan Johnson was also injured. The hits weren’t dirty, but Arkansas’ front certainly beat these linebackers up. Florida’s defensive linemen weren’t quick enough to make plays against the quick-hitting runs, so the Gator secondary had to make all the tackles.
Not only did the new scheme open up holes, we also saw the Arkansas run game actually wear a team out, a rarity in SEC games under Bret Bielema. Arkansas’ offense often fades in the fourth quarter because the run game doesn’t actually wear teams down, but by the latter stages of the third quarter, it was clear that Florida’s defense was completely exhausted. With two subpar run defenses coming up (Mississippi State and Missouri), the ability to turn repeated rushing success into a fatigue-induced collapse could come in handy.
On the other side of the ball, the coaches decided to undo a bad preseason decision. From my bye-week post:
In addition to unknown decisions regarding the playbook and how the team practices, Smith made two obvious moves, and I would argue that both have backfired:
Moved Jeremiah Ledbetter (and Sosa Agim) inside.
Made Deatrich Wise an every-down end.
In the bye week, Ledbetter moved back outside, pushing Wise out of the starting lineup and returning him to the role of pass-rush specialist. The Hogs also benched other end Tevin Beanum, starting senior JaMichael Winston, a long-time role player, instead. To fill the hole at 3-tech vacated by Ledbetter, freshman phenom Agim made his first career start.
All of these moves paid off, and it looks like another major issue (not setting the edge in the run game) has been resolved. As a bonus, Wise had his best game of the year, generating a sack and several hurries. I think letting him focus on rushing the quarterback in obvious passing situations is better for his skill set. Florida was 1 of 11 on third downs.
At least 80 of Florida’s yards came in junk time, and if you count 36 yards Florida picked up on a meaningless end-of-half sequence in the second quarter, almost half of the Gators’ total offensive output came when Arkansas was in prevent defense and the game (or a score) was out of reach.
I have to say, I’m sure I’ve ever seen a team allow 543 rushing yards in one conference game and then 12 in the next. That’s a ridiculous swing. The worst team rushing defense performance in school history was followed by this:
STAT SUNDAY: Florida's 14 rushing attempts are fewest ever attempted in a game against Arkansas. 12 yards = 17th-best in Hog history.— Adam Ford (@AdamFord92) November 7, 2016
Three of the Gators’ 14 attempts were actually sacks, so running backs only had 11 carries.
As I’ve written several times this season, Arkansas likes to run on first down and pass on second down. When the run game isn’t working, the Hogs end up one-dimensional, relying on second-down passing to keep the offense moving. This lets defenses tee off and exposes Austin Allen to the pass rush. Those first down numbers are about 80% runs, and you can see that the offense had a lot of success. Florida led the FBS in standard downs sack rate and had zero sacks on standard downs against the Hogs. That’s what being balanced will do for you.
If you’re unfamiliar with EV, read up on it here.
Arkansas finished with negative EV almost completely because the of the pick-six. A pick-six costs you all of the starting EV you had plus the 6.97 you gave the other team with the touchdown, so that one play cost the Hogs 9.2 EV.
If there’s one thing Robb Smith has been consistent in over his two-plus seasons as defensive coordinator, it’s that Arkansas will feast on bad quarterback play. Anthony Jennings, Brandon Harris, Bo Wallace, Drew Lock, Josh Dobbs (no, he’s not that good), 2015 Sean White, Kody Cook, and Tyrone Swoopes are among the bad quarterbacks that Arkansas has humiliated. Now add Luke Del Rio to that mix.
I guess I underestimated how bad Del Rio was, but he was putrid. Arkansas’ aforementioned changes up front certainly helped. Also beneficial was this, from the game preview:
I’ve written quite a bit about how Arkansas’ defense does a good job of taking away opponents’ top outside wide receiver. This has, since 2014, given Arkansas a consistent advantage against offenses that only have one reliable target in the passing game. This is another one of those games.
The player I was talking about, Antonio Callaway, had four catches for 44 yards on eight targets, well below his season averages of 63.0 yards per game and 10.3 yards per target.
Overall, this was easily the most complete performance of the 2016 season. Arkansas continues to demonstrate good coaching, with several coaching decisions made in the bye week benefitting the team. The Hogs looked fundamentally sound and inspired in routing a team that should, on paper, have superior talent.
Up next is LSU, another team that is better than Arkansas on paper. But the Bayou Bengals had their heart broken against Alabama and could be demotivated. It should be a good one on Saturday night.