Is it who you are, or who you say you will be? Because there’s a difference, and the college football world is starting to call Bret Bielema’s bluff. Because the football team he says he’ll have and the football team he has are two different things.
TCU came into Fayetteville on Saturday and did to Arkansas what Arkansas has done to only a handful of SEC opponents in Bielema’s five years. The Frogs sufficiently slowed the Arkansas run game, clamped on the pass, and overcame bad quarterback play by posting a 71% (!) rushing success rate. This allowed them to control time of possession, keep Arkansas’ offense out of sync, and feel like they dominated the game despite leading by only a touchdown until the last couple of minutes.
How many times has Arkansas reached a 70% rushing success rate in an SEC game under Bielema? Zero times.
I’m reminded again of Trent Wooldridge’s scathing reaction to the Belk Bowl:
How is it that something you pride yourself in can be so bad? How is it that something about which you imply "IF NOTHING ELSE, we will be this" can fall so short of its meticulously marketed and cultivated expectations?
And here’s SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, previewing the Hogs this off-season:
This is an identity he has sold.
He would be well-served to better establish it.
His identity has been one of a powerful run game that keeps the chains moving with efficient rushing and girth in short yardage. This style will supposedly wear teams down and allow you to control the late stages of a game. But practice doesn’t match theory.
They’re catching on, coach.
Arkansas’ 2014 team finished 22nd in Rushing S&P+. They were efficient, in line with what Bielema says he’s building at Arkansas. The run game was hardly by itself: Arkansas finished 6th in Defense S&P+ and the Hogs were also 28th in Passing S&P+.
That team went 7-6.
In terms of advanced stats, the run game peaked in 2015, finishing 10th. The Hogs soared to 1st in Passing S&P+ and 1st in overall Offense S&P+.
And went 8-5.
The two-year run of fun passing games is now over. Keon Hatcher, Drew Morgan, Hunter Henry, Jeremy Sprinkle, and Dominique Reed have left the program. Dan Enos was brought in to work quarterback wizardry, and he did just that. But with a depleted receiving corps and issues at offensive tackle, he’s (understandably) asking Bret Bielema to come through with that efficient power run game that he promised he’d deliver to Fayetteville. He’s still waiting.
At this point Arkansas’ offensive identity rests entirely on what Bret Bielema says he wants. The talk about trying to “out-Alabama Alabama” is over. It’s silly, really. Set the bar a little lower: try to “out-TCU TCU.”
Advanced stats review
It’s all backwards. Just 54 plays for Arkansas. A 59% success rate for TCU. Brutal.
Don’t let the performance of Arkansas’ defense go unnoticed. The Hogs held TCU to minus-2.4 EV despite being on the field for most of the game and with no momentum whatsoever. Remember, this is a unit that is 1) transitioning to a 3-4 scheme, 2) replacing six of the front seven, and 3) playing without top cover corner Ryan Pulley. Major kudos to Paul Rhoads, the staff, and those players, especially in the secondary. If Arkansas manages to figure some things out on offense, the defense seems capable of carrying them to 6 or 7 wins.
Also, good for Cole Hedlund, who’s getting a college education on a scholarship. I hope he does well in life. Also, this had better be the last time I ever type the words Cole Hedlund.
Lots to observe here. Let’s break it down:
- Give proper credit to TCU. The Frogs are well-coached and did exactly what they wanted to do. They brought almost everyone back from a team that nearly beat Arkansas last year and thought they had the talent to finish the job. Their defense, especially their secondary, has improved tremendously since last season, and their offense limited mistakes mostly by keeping the ball out of Kenny Hill’s hands.
- The run game was bad, but not as bad as the pass game. The Hogs posted a 41% rushing success rate. That’s not terrible if the other part of your offense is Brandon Allen throwing it to Hunter Henry, but as I said above, Enos needs that promised efficient run game to come through this year, and it really didn’t. The Hogs averaged 6.1 yards per rush on first down (fulfilling one of my Keys to the Game) but didn’t run well on second and third down and finished with minus-0.13 EV per rush. Short yardage remains a mystifying problem. The passing game, however, was abysmal. Only 6 of Austin Allen’s 27 dropbacks produced a successful play, and the Hogs essentially lost a quarter of a point every time they tried to pass. Protection was shaky but not terrible. Receivers couldn’t get open and Allen couldn’t find them. If there’s any good news, it’s that the receiving corps is probably the most likely to improve as the season goes on.
- A missed field goal triggered the collapse. Key #3 in the preview was no gifts. Gifts include special teams gaffes, and for the second straight year, a missed chip-shot field goal started the avalanche. A 23-yarder went wide left, and TCU marched 80 yards and 15 plays to take the lead for good. Arkansas ran six plays in the second quarter — two three-and-outs — and didn’t have a single successful play. A fourth-quarter missed field goal flipped field position, leading to a TCU touchdown two drives later, and then a fumbled kickoff set up TCU’s final touchdown.
- Arkansas’ bend-don’t-break defense worked, kinda. TCU won time of possession and recorded a 59% success rate on offense... and only had 14 points with 2:30 left in the game. The Hogs used the added speed on the field that the 3-4 scheme offered to prevent big plays and allow TCU to shoot itself in the foot on offense. Yes, I would prefer it if the defense clamped down entirely, but Paul Rhoads isn’t exactly working with Alabama’s defense here. Holding TCU to 14 through the first 57 minutes was pretty much the best-case scenario.
Here are the running backs, for those wondering:
David Williams probably should have had more carries. I’m not sure what else to say here.
It’s probably not worth it to overreact. TCU has a very good chance to go 10-2 and may be the 3rd- or 4th-best team Arkansas plays this year. Cross-division games against South Carolina and Missouri still look winnable, as do SEC West matchups with Ole Miss and Texas A&M, two programs with far more anxiety than Arkansas. There will be a lot of talk about whether Bret Bielema’s ceiling is 7-5 and whether the program is headed in the right direction or not, but the fears of a 4-8 season are, at this point, unfounded.
A Week 3 bye seems early, but it probably comes at a good time. If Bret Bielema wants to avoid any hot seat talk, he needs to beat Texas A&M, a program that appears to be collapsing. The Aggies blew a 34-point lead against UCLA and then struggled to put away Nicholls State. They have poor quarterback play and their defense isn’t as good as they’d hoped.
I’ll make a post next week looking at what Arkansas needs to improve on before kickoff in Arlington.