The Hogs may technically be hitting the road for the first time in 2017, but Williams-Bryce Stadium in Columbia will be the fourth different stadium the Hogs have played in through five games.
Hoping to make a bowl in Year 5 isn’t a lofty goal, but here we are, and if Arkansas loses this game, it’s hard to see even that happening. A win and 7 or even 8 wins are still theoretically on the table. A loss and a 4-8 season is on the table.
The Gamecocks (3-2, 1-2 SEC) aren’t feeling particularly good about themselves right now. They upset NC State 35-28 in the opener — a game in which they were thoroughly outplayed but made the right plays at the right time — and then throttled Mizzou 31-13 in a win that doesn’t look as impressive now. Star receiver Deebo Samuel was lost for the season during a 23-13 loss to Kentucky. Without him, the Gamecocks survived Louisiana Tech 17-16 and lost to Texas A&M 24-17.
Let’s take a closer look.
- Defense limits big plays. It’s a Will Muschamp defense, so you know it will be fundamentally sound. The Gamecocks are especially good at preventing big plays in the passing game.
- Gets after the quarterback on third down. This one is obviously a huge concern for Arkansas, since the line struggles to protect in passing situations. The Gamecocks are one of eight teams in the country that don’t have a standard downs sack all season, but in obvious passing situations, they love to blitz. They get to the quarterback on 9.5% of passing down pass attempts, good for 38th nationally.
- Defense is not disruptive. The flip side of limiting big plays is not creating them yourself. The Gamecocks’ early-down defense is incredibly passive: they struggle to disrupt the run game (66th in line-yards per carry, 72nd in stuff rate) and allow receivers to get open way too often (113th in passing success rate). We’ll elaborate on this later, but the inability to knock the offense off schedule plays right into Arkansas’ hands.
- Very weak run game. The Gamecocks’ own offense is efficiency-based, but they’ve had to do it through the air more often than they’d like. They’re 92nd in rushing success rate and their running backs get hit in the backfield on 23.4% of carries, good for 111th nationally. Their leading rusher (by attempts) averages a dismal 2.8 yards per rush.
When Arkansas has the ball
Arkansas’ offense under Dan Enos is based on cycling these three objectives:
- On standard downs, an efficient run game
- On standard downs, a balanced pass game
- On passing downs, an efficient pass game
What’s missing is the word explosive. The Hogs occasionally take some standard downs shots in the passing game, usually on second down, but overall this is an on-schedule offense built to win without big plays.
Most offenses (including South Carolina’s, as we’ll see in a second) try for explosive standard downs, so Arkansas is unique in that regard. Any team attempting to stop Arkansas must disrupt the Hogs on early downs, as Arkansas struggles with disruptive defenses. It’s why they’ve had so much trouble with Texas A&M and Mizzou over the last few years and also why the offense looks unstoppable against Ole Miss and Mississippi State every year. The Aggies and Tigers are disruptive even when they aren’t that good, while the Rebels and Bulldogs generally aren’t.
The Gamecocks aren’t disruptive: they’re 113th in havoc rate, or the percentage of plays where the defense gets a sack, TFL, turnover, or pass breakup. To win, they’ll have to keep the Hogs from establishing the early-down run game.
The Hogs hold an overwhelming advantage in standard downs success rate (20th vs. 94th), while South Carolina should keep the Hogs from hitting big plays.
The Hogs should carve out small advantages running the football. On paper, this game seems to favor Chase Hayden on early downs, since his team-high 51.2% opportunity rate figures to give the Hogs the highest value per carry in a game where big runs will be at a premium.
The real weakness of the Gamecock defense is when quarterbacks throw on standard downs. Louisiana Tech’s J’Mar Smith was 14 of 22 for 179 yards on standard downs, while NC State’s Ryan Finley was 27 of 36 for 266 yards. Those aren’t exactly all-American quarterbacks. Austin Allen has struggled on standard downs passing for his entire career, so we’ll see how he does against a very forgiving defense.
The Gamecocks’ passive defense means the linebackers and secondary have to make virtually all the tackles. Linebacker Skai Moore is the best player on this defense, with 32.5 tackles and a team-leading 6 run stuffs. Opponents have just a 38% success rate on plays where he makes the tackle. The issue is the rest of the defense: opponents have a 50% success rate on plays where leading tackler T.J. Brunson makes the stop, and a 61% or higher success rate when defensive backs Chris Lammons, D.J. Smith, or Jamyest Williams are finishing the play. Those three defensive backs have combined for 2 TFLs, 3 run stuffs, and one forced turnover. That’s it. For comparison, one Texas A&M defensive back, Armani Watts, has 5 TFLs, 4 run stuffs, and 4 forced turnovers.
The secondary spending the game on its heels isn’t a good sign for pass defense, where the Gamecocks rank 113th in passing success rate defense. Soft coverage should equal open receivers all game long. Even as he struggles to throw on standard downs, Allen is one of the nation’s better quarterbacks on passing downs. Over the past two weeks, he’s 12 of 19 for 284 yards on passing downs.
The question here will be if Arkansas can protect Allen. The Gamecocks rarely get pressure on early downs, but Muschamp loves to bring the house in obvious passing situations. This means open receivers and the occasional big play, but it could also mean sacks. No Gamecock has more than 2 sacks this year, so there isn’t anyone specifically to watch out for.
When South Carolina has the ball
Will Muschamp hired Kurt Roper away from Duke for the 2014 season when his job was on the line. Roper had coordinated some decent offenses for David Cutcliffe, so he established a no-huddle, efficiency-based offense at Florida. There was no big turnaround, so Muschamp was fired after the season. He decided not to give up on Roper, bringing him along to Columbia. Results have been disappointing, but it may be due to a lack of talent, not a weakness in coaching.
Roper’s offense works like this:
- On standard downs, an efficient run game
- On standard downs, an explosive pass game
- On passing downs, an efficient pass game
South Carolina only has one of those three, and that’s why they possess the nation’s 79th-ranked offense by S&P+.
Arkansas’ defense is similar in form to South Carolina’s in that it is built to limit explosive plays at all times. The Hogs are more willing to go all-out in passing situations. The key, then, will be stopping step one: the run game.
Now that’s an even matchup! These two teams are basically mirror images of one another. You can see the first problem with Kurt Roper’s formula: the Gamecocks can’t run the ball. The inability to establish the run game has caused them to partially abandon it: they run the football on just 48% of standard downs (national average is 60%). One problem has been the offensive line. It wasn’t great to start with, but 3 starters have missed time with injuries. None will play Saturday. The backs have hardly been spectacular in their own right:
- Rico Dowdle: 45 rushes, 2.8 yards per carry, 28.9% opportunity, -5 EV
- Ty’Son Williams: 41 rushes, 6.0 yards per carry, 43.9% opportunity, -3 EV
- A.J. Turner: 15 rushes, 2.7 yards per carry, 33.3% opportunity, -4 EV
Williams appears to have won the starting job, as he’s led the team in attempts for two straight weeks. The Gamecocks’ best bet to sustain offensive success may be to run Williams 25 times against a weak Arkansas run defense. Nobody’s beaten this Paul Rhoads defense by passing yet, and I doubt Jake Bentley is the guy to do it.
Speaking of Bentley, the South Carolina signal-caller keeps the chains moving when no one else will. Here’s a quick quarterback comparison:
- Jake Bentley: 62% completion, 6.7 yards per attempt, 9 TD, 4 interceptions, -11 EV
- Austin Allen: 54% completion, 8.5 yards per attempt, 6 TD, 2 interceptions, +6 EV
Bentley gets his big plays on standard downs. On passing downs, however...
...the Gamecocks don’t have a lot of answers. They’re pretty poor in must-pass situations. They’re almost as bad as Arkansas at protecting Bentley (Texas A&M had seven sacks last week, including 5 on South Carolina’s 20 passing down dropbacks). Arkansas is often victimized by big plays here, so don’t be surprised if the Gamecocks do poorly on third down overall but manage to hit one long touchdown pass.
This is why I absolutely think South Carolina has to run the ball well on early downs. The Gamecocks are really bad at third-and-medium and not much better at third-and-long.
Here are Bentley’s targets:
- Bryan Edwards: 42 targets, 25 catches, 337 yards, 8.0 yards per target, -3 EV
- Hayden Hurst (TE): 26 targets, 17 catches, 221 yards, 8.5 yards per target, +11 EV
- Shi Smith: 21 targets, 12 catches, 170 yards, 8.1 yards per target, +3 EV
- OrTre Smith: 8 targets, 6 catches, 73 yards, 9.1 yards per target, +10 EV
Edwards probably gets more targets than he can handle. Hurst, the tight end, is very dangerous. Arkansas hasn’t faced a true pass-catching tight end this season, so that should be interesting. I’m a little worried that he could soften up the middle of Arkansas’ coverage and open up some windows for Bentley.
Missing from the lineup is Deebo Samuel, whose +22 EV this season still leads the team by a large margin. Samuel managed 250 receiving yards, 30 rushing yards, and a pair of kickoff return touchdowns in just three games before being lost for the season against Kentucky. South Carolina’s offense hasn’t looked the same without him, and they definitely don’t have a Christian Kirk-like player on offense now.
On special teams
Neither team has very good special teams. The S&P formula calculates special teams efficiency: Arkansas is 112th nationally and South Carolina is 108th. Here’s a quick rundown:
- If you can believe it, South Carolina has a worse field goal unit than Arkansas. That’s because they keep trying: two placekickers have combined to go 3 of 10 in field goals and miss an extra point. Seven misses in five games. Incredible. Hopefully neither team tries one on Saturday.
- South Carolina’s punting unit is below-average, with Joseph Charlton allowing 18 returns on 23 punts with just 4 dropped inside the 20.
- South Carolina averages 7.6 yards on 7 punt returns this season. That’s about average. Samuel took two kickoffs back for touchdowns, but without him, the Gamecocks average fewer than 20 yards per kickoff return, which isn’t very good.
- The Gamecocks’ lone special teams strength is kickoff coverage. Opponents start inside their own 25 after 91% of Gamecock kickoffs. The Hogs will be better off taking touchbacks on kickoffs to the goal line.
Keys to the game
- Stop the run. It’s pretty simple: Arkansas’ pass defense is good enough to win this game, barely. They need the run defense to keep South Carolina from establishing its offense. Remember the chart with all those PUSHES? Well, the Hog defensive front needs to PUSH. They don’t need a bunch of tackles for loss or forced fumbles — they just need enough stops to frustrate South Carolina into abandoning the run and picking on Arkansas’ decent secondary.
- Mind the tight end. Tight ends didn’t burn the Hogs last year, but this 3-4 defense hasn’t seen one yet. The Hogs need to keep Hayden Hurst from looking like another well-known tight end with the initials “HH”. In a worse-case scenario, Hurst becomes the third-down converter for Bentley. Don’t let that happen.
- Second down fireworks. I think Arkansas will be able to run on standard downs. Not well, but decently, and with high efficiency. South Carolina’s biggest weakness will be stopping the pass on second-and-medium. Brandon Allen mastered this down-and-distance in 2015, but Austin hasn’t gotten there yet. The Gamecocks will play soft and won’t get much pressure, so it’s an ideal time to hit short and medium passes to get those Gamecock defenders out of the box.
If Arkansas can’t win this game, it’s hard to see another conference win until the season finale against Missouri. The Gamecocks are weak in all the places they need to be strong to beat Arkansas, like rushing, early-downs pressure, and special teams. Still, the Hogs have a way of playing into their opponents’ hands, so we’ll see.