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Arkansas vs. TCU Advanced Stats Recap: Regression to the Mean

It was a familiar story on Saturday night... until it wasn’t.

Arkansas v TCU Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I don’t know how much stock can be put into hairline, game-of-inches plays. I mean, a couple degrees higher trajectory on a kick, and the feeling is different today. A slightly more accurate throw on 3rd-and-6 in the second overtime, and the feeling is different. A defensive end one step quicker, different feeling.

So the idea that Arkansas has spent the better part of the last year (the last 12 or 13 games or so) excising its demons one by one is suspect: just because the Hogs won this time doesn’t mean they won’t collapse late against Texas A&M and end up losing in all-to-familiar fashion in two weeks. But it feels like they won’t.

Brandon Allen spent the last part of his Arkansas career excising his demons. Can’t win one-possession games? He started with Tennessee, similarly struggling in close games in 2015. Then he graduated to taking care of his overtime demons by beating Auburn. Then came the shootout demons, against Ole Miss. By the time the Liberty Bowl wrapped up, he’d excised all but two: Alabama, and the late-game collapse against an Air Raid team.

At my job, I get to work with people that come from a lot of places. I watched Saturday’s game with coworkers from California, Indiana, Illinois, and Texas. After Cole Hedlund missed a 22-yard field goal in the third quarter, I confidently declared that Arkansas was going to lose the game. I’m no doctor, but I know the symptoms of the patented Bielema collapse against a spread offense.

My coworkers, far more optimistic than I, criticized my pessimism. The only person who agreed with me was the only other Arkansas native watching the game. Of course. He’d followed the Hogs for years; he knew it just like I did. We sat there being party-poopers as TCU scored 21 straight points to take a 28-20 lead. As Arkansas drove for the tie, I explained that the Hogs would probably make it interesting, but that’s only to twist the knife in deeper when they blow it in the end. In a not-so-fine moment, I watched KaVonte Turpin return the final kickoff deep into Arkansas territory and turned to my coworkers, repeating in a loud voice several times, “What did you THINK was going to happen?”

Somehow, Arkansas pulled it out, re-litigating every problem that’s plagued it for years — missed field goal, blown coverages late, big kick/punt return at the worst possible time, can’t run the ball in the fourth quarter — like a distressed patient on a therapist’s chair who pours out his heart and then emerges from the meeting a new man, no longer bound to his past.

There’s no guarantee any of those problems are solved — every game is a new game with new opportunites — but one gets the sense Hog fans won’t have to specifically worry about them again.

TCU was much stronger offensively, both in terms of sheer quantity (90 plays) and quality (6.4 yards per snap). Both teams were roughly equally efficient, but unsurprisingly TCU had more big plays, resulting in a higher isoYPP.

The game turned on those final two stats. The Hogs went +2 in turnovers (that was Key #3 in this week’s preview!) and, although neither team did too well in the scoring zone (inside the opponent 40), Arkansas was better. TCU’s first three drives into the area came up empty, and the field goal in overtime was the final straw.

Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s game plan worked to perfection. From the game preview:

The best way to stop this kind of offense is have a secondary that can play press coverage with an elite free safety over the top to clean up anything that gets down the field. Arkansas is not even close to having that, so it’s on to Plan B: play on your heels, don’t give any big plays, and hope the offense shoots itself in the foot or your pass rush finally gets there.

In the end, TCU’s offense did about as much damage as I (and many others) expected them to. They torched Arkansas’ weaknesses in covering slot receivers (Turpin, my #1 player to watch, had a huge game for them), they couldn’t run the ball but could get yards when Kenny Hill scrambled, and they shot themselves in the foot plenty of times.

The odd part was the distribution. Far from being erratic from drive to drive (like, say, Texas A&M frequently is), they came out guns blazing at their own feet in the first half and did absolutely nothing positive until late in the game. I have no idea what their offensive game plan was: they apparently didn’t realize that their slot receivers were mismatches against Arkansas’ safeties down the middle of the field. Instead, they spent much of the first half targeting outside receivers like Taj Williams, which was really foolish, because Arkansas’ cornerbacks are SEC-caliber. Williams’ only catch came in overtime on a broken play when Hill scrambled to buy time to throw. By the time the Frogs focused their attack on Turpin down the middle, they didn’t have enough time left in the game to run away with it, and the door was left open for Arkansas’ final drive.

Lots of credit has to go to Robb Smith, who got his guys ready to play and had a good plan. Those 572 yards don’t look good, but TCU was way more athletic than Arkansas in the passing game and the Frogs couldn’t exploit that long enough to win. You can also see why Bielema is so high on defensive backs coach Paul Rhoads: secondary guys like Ryan Pulley and DeAndre Coley had much better performances than most of us were anticipating. Pulley was very good on the outside and looks to be an SEC-caliber starter. Henre’ Toliver was admirable at nickel, making several key open-field tackles. Jared Collins put the lock on Williams throughout the night.

I don’t think there’s anything else to say about Brooks Ellis that his stat line (13 tackles, 3 TFLs, pick-six) doesn’t already. He’s incredible. Best middle linebacker at Arkansas since... Jermaine Petty? The line was also solid. McTelvin Agim had his first career sack, and Deatrich Wise, Taiwan Johnson, and Jeremiah Ledbetter had great pursuit.

For the second straight week, second down was kind to the Hogs’ offense. The Razorbacks both ran it (13 carries, 71 yards, 5.5 yards per carry) and passed it (8 of 11, 124 yards, 72.7% success rate) very well on second down.

Also for the second straight week, we saw a “bad” quarter. Against Louisiana Tech, it was the third quarter, when Arkansas totaled minus-4 yards of offense. Not quite as bad this week: in the second quarter, Arkansas had just 27 yards, 1.9 yards per play, and a 36% success rate. Keep in mind that Ellis’ pick-six came in the second quarter, so it wasn’t a team failure. But Arkansas had a real chance to put its foot down on TCU’s throat and couldn’t due to offensive struggles.

And finally, for the second straight week, the offense roared to life in the fourth quarter (overtime stats are counted as fourth-quarter in this chart). The success rate was lower (largely thanks to two three-and-outs to open the fourth: the Hog offense mostly hummed on the final drive plus overtime) but the explosiveness was higher.

Austin Allen has been incredibly clutch in his two career starts. Don’t believe me? Check it out:

  • Austin Allen, quarters 1-3: 25 of 41 (61%), 274 yards, two passing touchdown, two interceptions
  • Austin Allen, fourth quarter: 12 of 17 (71%), 140 yards, three passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, two-point conversion reception

Of course, there’s still a lot to fix. One thing stands out: Allen’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Sprinkle in the first overtime was Arkansas’ first (and only) third down conversion via pass in the whole game. The other six came on running plays (three by Rawleigh Williams, two by Allen, and one by Kody Walker). Not good: especially because Arkansas only had one against Louisiana Tech as well. Right now the Hog offense is completely dependent on getting into manageable third downs. To a degree, all offenses want manageable third downs, but two passing conversions in two games is a major cause for concern with an SEC slate ahead.

Not much to see here. As expected, Arkansas picked on TCU’s weak cornerback play by matching up its two best receivers on their outside defenders. While Keon Hatcher had the better game against Tech, Saturday was Drew Morgan’s time to shine. Morgan spent much of the game embarrassing redshirt freshman Jeff Gladney of TCU.

And here are the rushing splits. Williams was fantastic, again. Check out those third down success rate and line-yard numbers. It would be nice if he’d break more tackles, but for now, he’s an old-school downhill ground-and-pound back. Walker hasn’t quite the start to the season many fans had hoped for. He shed 16 pounds in the offseason, but doesn’t look any faster or quicker. Still, he’s a good pass protector (and pass catcher), can play fullback, and is solid in short yardage.

Expect Devwah Whaley to finally get into the action against Texas State.