After last week’s wild win over TCU, the Razorbacks have a lot business they need to tend to.
This week’s game against Texas State (1-0) ideally provides that opportunity. Among the key things Arkansas needs to work on before SEC play begins:
- Get Devwah Whaley some touches. The four-star freshman running back has four carries through two games. A blowout would provide an ideal opportunity to get him 15 carries, including at least a couple full series with the first-team offense. He’ll be needed in SEC play.
- Work out a couple of other guys at right tackle. Colton Jackson played much better against a decent TCU line, but he’s still the weak link. The coaches didn’t decide to start him until the last second, and experimented with Jalen Merrick and Brian Wallace all spring and fall. I’d like to see both of them get some snaps, preferably with the first-team line.
- Get Brooks Ellis some rest. You can tell that Bret Bielema wants him to get a breather, but the Hogs can’t afford to lose their star middle linebacker. I’d love to see De’Jon Harris play at least a couple series with the first-team defense.
- Ease D.J. Dean back into the secondary. He played a few snaps against TCU, but didn’t show up in the box score. Right now, if Jared Collins, Ryan Pulley, or Henre’ Toliver gets hurt, Arkansas is in deep trouble.
Texas State, theoretically, will provide opportunities. This shouldn’t be another Louisiana Tech (although Louisiana Tech shouldn’t have been a Louisiana Tech).
Texas State is a high-potential Sun Belt program. With a full-time enrollment of 35,000 students, it’s bigger than Arkansas. It’s location between Austin and San Antonio is fertile recruiting ground (and there’s no FBS football program in San Antonio), and its new coach, Everett Withers, is an up-and-comer with a strong resume.
Still, the Bobcats were picked to finish 10th in the 11-team Sun Belt this summer. They are coming off a 3-9 season in which they lost to, among other teams, Idaho, which is coached by Paul Petrino. Withers takes over for Dennis Franchione, who transitioned the program to the FBS. Thus Texas State joins TCU as Razorback opponents transitioned to a new conference by Franchione and then succeeded by the current coach. And yes, next week’s opponent, Texas A&M, was also coached by Franchione (2003-2007), as was the opponent two weeks after that: Alabama (2001-2002).
Despite the 3-9 record, there’s reason for optimism in San Marcos as the program enters its fifth season in the FBS; there’s also reason for the Razorbacks to take notice and not peek ahead to Texas A&M. First, Texas State did better than expected in its only game: the Bobcats were 17.5-point underdogs to Ohio, but won 56-54 in triple overtime. So perhaps they are better than expected. Second, they have a new coach, which limits what Arkansas knows about them. Everett Withers is a longtime defensive assistant. He served as interim coach at North Carolina in 2011 after Butch Davis was fired in the offseason, and he’s been the very successful coach of James Madison during the last two seasons.
And, finally, the Bobcats had a bye week to prepare for this game. That means Arkansas only has one game of film to watch on Texas State, and TSU has had extra time to customize a game plan to try for the upset. Their talent is seemingly limited, but this team is very much an unknown.
Against Ohio, Texas State won in typical MAC vs. Fun Belt fashion. Ohio lead 31-28 with under two minutes to play. Trying to run out the clock, the running back fumbled. Texas State scored a touchdown just a couple plays later to take a 35-31 lead. Then, of course, Ohio threw a 75-yard bomb to retake a 38-35 lead. Then Texas State hit a bomb to set up a field goal as time expired to send the game to overtime. In overtime, a halfback pass back to the quarterback went for a touchdown. In the third overtime, the Ohio quarterback dropped the snap while going for the tying two-point conversion and Texas State won 56-54.
When Texas State has the ball
We’re breaking custom here and starting with the Bobcats’ offense, because showing their ghastly defensive numbers would make any sane person immediately overlook them.
Once again, remember that the values in bold are weighted. That means they are 75% preseason projections and 25% raw data from the first two weeks of games. Preseason projections have to be used because we don’t enough info to weight the numbers based on strength of schedule yet. The weight of preseason projections in the formula will decline each week (it was 90% last week, will be close to 50% after Week 3, and will be phased out completely after Week 6).
All values not in bold are raw. Arkansas’ raw numbers, as you might imagine, are not good.
One would logically expect Texas State to try and run the ball: after all, Withers won at James Madison with Georgia Tech transfer Vad Lee running an Ohio State-style spread offense that used a lot of zone read from spread formations. His 2015 team rushed for nearly 3,000 yards.
One game into 2016, however, and that hasn’t been the case. If Arkansas fans were hoping for a respite from the Air Raid attacks of the last two weeks, I’ve got bad news for you: Texas State’s veteran quarterback Tyler Jones launched 55 passes against Ohio (Kenny Hill attempted 56 last week). Jones was outstanding, completing 40 of those passes for 418 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions. He also rushed for touchdown and will run off the zone read. He isn’t a great runner, but he did have 600 yards in 2015.
Texas State will play at a frenetic pace (faster than TCU, actually). Against Ohio, the Bobcats snapped the ball once every 16.6 seconds on offense. That’s second in the country (behind Mizzou, bizarrely enough).
Texas State’s passing success was a pleasant surprise for them: the Bobcats lost 2015’s top three receivers (four of the top five) and top two tight ends to graduation, then the only returning receiver was kicked off the team in June, leaving the entire receiving corps with ONE career reception returning.
A bunch of new guys stepped up: junior college transfer Eric Luna, who was on the team in 2015 but didn’t play, snagged 10 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. Another junior college transfer, Elijah King, had seven catches for 105 yards and two scores. Unlike Louisiana Tech and TCU, Texas State will use a tight end: their base look appears to be three wides, a running back, and TE/H-back that they move around. Gabe Schrade is the TE/H, and had six catches for 72 yards. None of those guys had a single career reception entering the game.
It’s good news for the Bobcats that those receivers stepped up, because this team couldn’t run the ball at all against Ohio. They had a rushing success rate of 30.6% (119th in FBS), with just 22% of rushes gaining at least six yards (123rd), compared to 33% of rushes in which the ball carrier was hit in the backfield (126th). All-name team nominee Stedman Mayberry rushed 17 times for 77 yards and a touchdown. Despite Jones’ 40-yard run, he finished with just 11 net rushing yards, thanks to six sacks.
All told, the Bobcats’ offensive line (which lost three starters from last year) looked really bad against Ohio. The matchup of Arkansas’ defensive line against Texas State’s offensive line should be a ridiculous mismatch.
The only matchup that could be more lopsided? The other battle in the trenches.
When Arkansas has the ball
In 2015, Texas State ranked 128th (out of 128 FBS teams) in defensive success rate, defensive passing success rate, and red zone defense. They were in the bottom 10 nationally in virtually every other category, including overall defensive S&P+ and third-down defense. They did absolutely nothing well and have nowhere to go but up.
Texas State’s defensive problems begin up front, where a bloodbath seemingly awaits. The defensive line was abysmal in 2015: they were 118th in sack rate, 120th in line-yards per carry, and 114th in opportunity rate (percentage of opponent rushes gaining 6+ yards). They have no size and very little depth, especially at defensive tackle.
Coach Withers is transitioning the defense into a 3-4 from a 4-3, but doesn’t have the linemen to pull it off this year. If you know anything about the 3-4 defense, it’s that you’d better have the linemen to pull it off. In my very first preview for Arkansas Fight, back in 2014, I previewed Texas Tech’s run defense, noting that they, too, were trying to transition into a 3-4 but didn’t have the linemen:
Tech has some issues up front. They want to give a 3-4 look on defense, but the defensive line is not anywhere near capable.
A 267-pound nose guard in a 3-4 front is a recipe for disaster in major college football.
Arkansas rushed 64 times for 438 yards in that game.
Hybrid end/outside linebacker Karee Berry is back after posting 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks in 2015. As pedestrian as those numbers sound, they actually lead the team. But there’s bad news: he didn’t play in the opener and isn’t listed on their depth chart. This is the second straight week that’s happened: TCU’s middle linebacker Ty Summers didn’t play against South Dakota State for reasons unknown. Summers did play against the Hogs, for those wondering. I don’t know what to make of Berry.
Texas State’s starting defensive line, with senior nose tackle Dallas McClarty as the only returning starter, weighs in at 223, 235, and 270. In a 3-4 front. Seriously. Bloodbath.
The starting defensive ends, Ishmael Davis and Jordan Mittie, along with McClarty, barely registered on the stat sheet. All of the team’s defensive linemen combined for a pedestrian 6.5 tackles against Ohio. Arkansas, for comparison, has two defensive linemen with more tackles than that by themselves through two games.
Against Ohio, the Bobcats failed to record a sack and had just four tackles for loss. Redshirt freshman inside linebacker Bryan London leads the squad with 9.5 tackles. He’s just 215 pounds, for those wondering. Mike linebacker Gabe Loyd looks the part a little better, weighing in at 240 pounds and boasting 7.5 tackles and one TFL. Outside linebacker Easy Anyama (another all-name team recommendation) and linebacker-safety hybrid Gavin Graham round out the front seven. They aren’t big either: Anyama is 220 pounds, while Graham is 210.
For the Hogs, there was a nice award related to advanced stats. ProFootballFocus, which uses its own formula to “grade out” every NFL player at each position on a 0 to 100 scale, has started doing some college numbers. Center Frank Ragnow’s 84.6 score was the highest among all Power 5 centers in Week 2.
PFF isn’t just one random blog, either: last Monday, ESPN showed the PFF position rankings for each player on-screen during the starting lineups.
On the back end, Texas State safeties Javante O’Roy and Stephan Johnson were very active, combining for 16.5 tackles. The cornerbacks, Brandon McDowell (a returning starter) and Clarence Guidry, don’t appear to be very good. I’m anxious to see what Arkansas will do against good cornerback play (neither Louisiana Tech nor TCU had it), and I won’t get the opportunity this week.
For the game, Ohio’s quarterback completed 28 of 46 passes for 393 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. Texas State only intercepted three passes in all of 2015, one of the worst marks in the country.
Three to watch
- Tyler Jones. Basically everything good that Texas State does is done by this guy. Against Ohio, he was 40 of 55 for 418 yards with four touchdowns, added 19 rushes for 11 yards and a touchdown (sacks lowered the number; he had a 40-yard run), and even caught a 22-yard touchdown pass. If his line can protect him (probably not) and his brand-new receivers can get open (a big if), he alone could keep this game interesting for a while.
- Gabe Schrade. Arkansas hasn’t faced an actual tight end this season. Texas State will use far fewer four-wide sets than Louisiana Tech and TCU, which theoretically limits their ability to exploit Arkansas’ primary defensive weakness: covering slot receivers down the middle. The tight end has to be a big part of the passing game for TSU to have a chance.
- Dallas McClarty. A 270-pound nose guard in a 3-4 system is asking for trouble. If McClarty can’t consistently draw a double-team, Arkansas’ guards will be able to peel to the second level, leading to massive running lanes straight down the middle of this undersized defense.
Keys to the game
- Run it right down their throats. Texas State’s horrifically undersized, inexperienced front appears to be in for a rough night unless the Bobcats’ defensive coaches and come up with some havoc, something they were awful at in 2015 (and against Ohio). I’d guess their coaches installed a number of run stunts in the bye week to confuse the Hogs, but if Arkansas picks them up, expect a bulldozing.
- Throw it over the top. Arkansas threw a little deeper against TCU. Austin Allen connected on passes of 25 and 19 to Jeremy Sprinkle, but didn’t really throw deep to the receivers. Texas State has poor cornerback play and virtually no pass rush. This is a good opportunity to hit some deep patterns.
- Keep everything in front. It’s not fun to watch, but Arkansas’ defense has to play the way it is against spread offenses. The Razorbacks have done an excellent job of limiting big plays, forcing spread passing teams to dink-and-dunk down the field until the defensive line gets a sack or the offense shoots itself in the foot. Well, that strategy is back again (spoiler alert: same strategy applies against Texas A&M). Texas State’s offensive efficiency may be suspect (they rely on big plays in both the run and pass game), so the Hogs need to force them to drive.