The Hogs under Bret Bielema are a bit of an enigma.
This program under Bielema always seems to have a good gameplan and always looks well-coached, yet total collapses like this one happen way too often (two or three times per year, usually in September or October). And don’t get me wrong: Arkansas was collapsing long before Texas A&M took a 21-point lead.
Here are the collapses and duds I can think of under Bielema:
- 2013 Rutgers: blew 24-7 lead, lost 28-24 to a bad team
- 2013 South Carolina and Alabama: lost by combined 104-7, never competed
- 2014 Texas A&M: blew fourth-quarter lead
- 2014 Georgia: never competed, trailed 38-6 at halftime
- 2015 Toledo: ugh
- 2015 Texas Tech and Texas A&M: looked completely out of sync and lost winnable games
This one reminds me of the Texas Tech and Texas A&M games. The offense looked great outside of a handful of key errors. The defense looked okay for much of the game but fell apart late and ended up with ugly numbers. Not giving up big plays is the key to Robb Smith’s defense, so five plays of 40+ yards is, um, not good.
Arkansas and Texas A&M are roughly evenly matched. Play this game again tomorrow, and it’s close. Play it in November, and Arkansas probably wins. But failure to capitalize on opportunities can turn close games into routs, and that’s how this one ended up.
Opportunities are like strikes in baseball: you get about three of them, and if you blow all three, you lose in a blowout. Here were the three strikes:
- Dominique Reed’s fumble on a jet sweep. The offense was moving the ball well at that point, up 7-0. That could have changed the whole game if Arkansas scores.
- Rawleigh Williams’ fumble at the 1-yard-line. Possessions are valuable, especially to Arkansas’ offense. You definitely cannot fumble in the red zone.
- A 19-play drive ends in no points. Nevermind that the score was 17-17 at the time: the game was over when Arkansas failed on 4th-and-goal. Anyone who has watched the Hogs longer than this season knew it at that point. That was strike three, and it was not even a close game after that moment. It was the “Cole Hedlund misses a 22-yard field goal” moment, except Arkansas didn’t have a 13-point cushion at the time, due largely to strikes 1 and 2.
On to the numbers, and I’ve got some conclusions. Let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree.
This part isn’t pretty. The Razorback defense was completely annihilated and will need to rethink its attack against spread offenses. The Aggies weren’t that dominant (the 49.1% success rate is boosted by the fact that A&M’s success rate was about 75% in the fourth quarter), but continued to generate huge plays, averaging 20.1 yards per successful play. Trevor Knight was as-advertised: not overly impressive with his arm, but deadly with his feet and surrounded by good receivers and blockers.
The real beatdown the defense took was on the ground. Knight had touchdown scrambles of 48 and 42, and the Hogs gave up 366 rushing yards, the most Arkansas has allowed in... a long time. I went back to 1998 (as far back as I have reliable numbers for), and I can’t find more. The school record of 505 against Rice in 1953 is safe, though.
The Hogs also lost all five of the “Five Factors,” including points per scoring opportunity, a stat that Arkansas entered the game 7th in the nation in offensively.
Here’s a disturbing stat for you: 5.2, 4.5, 4.8, 4.0. Those are Arkansas’ rushing yards per attempt numbers by season, in order since 2013. The trendline, believe it or not, is actually pointing down. Arkansas has gotten worse at running the ball since Bret Bielema took over. His best season was when the team went 3-9 when Jonathan Williams was a sophomore and Alex Collins was a freshman freshmen behind a green line.
Obviously, a struggling offensive line getting blasted by an elite defensive line was a huge part of it. Overall, I thought Arkansas’ coaching staff came up with a good plan to deal with Aggie ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. They impacted the game, of course, but not in a dramatic way. Still, the line missed way too many blocks on both run and pass plays.
I thought the playcalling was stubborn, and the stats bear this out. The massive gap between yards per rush and yards per pass indicates that Arkansas should have thrown the ball more early in the game (21 of Allen’s 42 attempts came in the fourth quarter). This was something Bielema and Enos were willing to do in 2015: Allen attempted 45 passes against Ole Miss and 43 against Mississippi State. I understand Enos’ reluctance: it’s his quarterback’s fourth career start. But Allen has proven his meddle, and moving forward the Hogs should consider airing it out on early downs more often.
Because here’s the thing: if you have six plays inside the 2-yard-line and fail to score a touchdown on any of them, you don’t have a ground-and-pound offense. The Hogs failed to run over TCU (20 points in 59 minutes against a fairly poor defense before the shotgun passing game was unleashed) and Texas A&M. Heck, the Hogs failed to run over Louisiana Tech.
The offensive line also started 2015 slow and was one of the nation’s best units by November, and I certainly think improvement is on the way. But I would have liked to see more early-game passing.
Those numbers are not nearly good enough to cover for a mediocre-to-bad defense. The line-yard per carry and success rate figures, which best account for the fact that Williams’ 55-yard run skews the data, are worst. Line-yards per carry should be around 3.0 and success rate should be around 40-45% against an SEC opponent. As I wrote above, 54% (20 of 37) of called runs went for one yard or fewer.
It goes without saying that the Hog offensive line got routed by an elite defensive line. But Arkansas’ offensive line has struggled all year, and the passing game hasn’t been negatively affected by it nearly as much as the run game has.
Another interesting stat worth monitoring: for the second straight game, Devwah Whaley had a higher line-yards per carry than Rawleigh Williams. This time, he also had a higher success rate. No big runs, but he was actually more efficient. The numbers suggest he deserves more carries, since Arkansas’ offense values efficiency over explosiveness.
If the Whaley stats don’t cheer you up, look at Allen’s third-down passing numbers. Wow. The Razorbacks entered the game with four third-down conversions via pass all season. They had eight against the Aggies. That’s very good news moving forward.
Just like against TCU, from a statistical analysis standpoint, Arkansas should have thrown it more (before falling behind by 21). Moving forward, the Hogs should consider going to shotgun in the early downs (as Brandon had a lot of success with in the latter part of 2015) and focusing on more short, safe passes in those situations to get in a rhythm. Maybe target the backs out of the backfield more?
Even after this game, the Hogs still look on track for a 5-3 SEC record (wins: Auburn, Florida, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri), which would be a 9-3 season, two wins better than last year. I’ll do a quick preview of the rest of the SEC schedule in the Alcorn State preview.
For now, tip your hat to the Aggies for making more plays and get excited for friendlier matchups ahead.