It’s a little less crowded on the Bielema Bandwagon today.
I think it’s fair to say Bret Bielema is on the hot seat after a 50-43 overtime loss to a previously-reeling Texas A&M team. With all the other SEC team struggling right now (Missouri, South Carolina, Ole Miss, LSU), the Hogs still have a very good chance to get to 6-6, but will fans be okay with that in a year when the SEC is down? I don’t think so.
On Saturday, we saw the same things we’ve seen for a while now. An up-and-down performance from an offensive line supposed to be the jewel in Bielema’s crown. A terrible defense that gives up huge plays, especially on third down. A subpar special teams unit that seems to do zero opponent preparation (sure, kick it to Christian Kirk, it’s not like he’s ever burned us before).
There were some good things, and we’ll get to those as well.
The offense looked fine against a below-average SEC defense. The yards per play and success rate numbers were nice, and 43 points should win the game.
The defense, however, entered the game ranked 4th in isoPPP+ (explosiveness). It’s safe to say it will not leave ranked nearly that high. Entering as the only FBS team to not surrender a 30-yard gain all season, the Hogs gave up 3 plays of 50 yards in the first half alone. In the end, Arkansas held Texas A&M to just 42.6% success. Not amazing, but decent, and that should have been more than enough to win. To allow 50 points, 7.3 yards per play, and 0.15 EV per play on just 42.6% success means you got torched for huge plays.
A lot to see here. Let’s break it down:
- Blake Johnson’s punting helped Arkansas win field position. Arkansas gained more than 5 points in field position. Think of it this way: the combined value of all other kickoffs and punts nearly negated Kirk’s kickoff return touchdown. Not bad.
- Penalties cost the Hogs 3 points. Arkansas finished minus-4.6 in penalties while the Aggies went minus-1.8. Theoretically, Arkansas could have won in regulation if not for the offense shooting itself in the foot.
- Passing numbers are bad, but rushing numbers are really good. The Aggies have major issues, but run defense isn’t supposed to be one of them. As we’ll see in the Player EV scores coming up, David Williams and Chase Hayden were fantastic. Arkansas should be running the ball much more often. Meanwhile, the pass game had problems again. Austin Allen was sacked 5 times and threw the game-ending pick, which dragged an otherwise-decent performance into the negative.
- The secondary is still kind of decent. Letting Kellen Mond have a good game is pretty pitiful, but outside of two big plays — both in the first half — the secondary largely held its own. In fact, if you take out the Kirk touchdown in the first quarter, he was just 13 of 26 for 135 yards with one touchdown and one pick. The defense’s inability to disrupt the run game once again spoiled the day. The transition to a 3-4 front is hard and takes time, but Year 5 isn’t a good time for a reset and this is why. I still think Paul Rhoads is a good defensive coordinator despite this performance. His fate shouldn’t necessarily be tied to the head coach.
Heartbreak city in these numbers. Here’s a closer look:
- The offense and defense got obliterated on third down. For the second straight game, this is the most devastating stat. I’ll show the Adjusted Third Down Conversion rates in a minute, but it wasn’t the conversions as much as the big plays on them. The 81-yard pass to Kirk came on a third down. The 23-yard touchdown run by Keith Ford was on 3rd-and-6. The 44-yard touchdown by Ford was on 3rd-and-1. The Aggies outgained the Hogs 164 to 19 on third down. Goodness.
- Second quarter was a problem. Again. Against TCU, the Hogs had 6 plays for 10 yards in the second quarter, which took the life out of the crowd. Against A&M, the Hogs ran 15 plays for 51 yards. Arkansas had only three successful plays, all by freshmen: a touchdown pass by Cole Kelley on the quarter’s first play, and two runs by Hayden, including his touchdown. Arkansas had two three-and-out drives that totaled 6 yards. These numbers suggest Arkansas should have taken a 10- to 14-point lead into halftime. Instead, the Hogs led by 4. You just can’t miss those chances.
Good grief Christian Kirk. The man was entirely responsible for more EV than Texas A&M’s entire offense actually produced (15 to 10). The Aggies didn’t actually use a lot of folks. Mond scored +4 with heavy usage (37 plays). Ford, with two long touchdown runs, easily outperformed Trayveon Williams.
For Arkansas, Jonathan Nance led the team in EV for the second straight week. He is Arkansas’ offensive MVP this season (among non-linemen) and it isn’t particularly close. He’s +14 on the year. Williams played well also. He’s +5 on the year and in second place. The worst players this season? Austin Allen (-5), Devwah Whaley (-3), and Deon Stewart (-2). There’s still plenty of time for those three to turn things around.
As I mentioned above, it wasn’t the conversions, it was the big plays A&M generated as they converted.
It’s too early to say if Arkansas has fixed its short-yardage issues, but the Hogs were 100% on third-and-short for the second straight game. The use of Kelley as a bulldozer is great work by offensive coordinator Dan Enos. With the offensive line struggling to protect Allen (and the need for a spark in short-yardage), I expect we’ll see plenty of Kelley this year.
BONUS: Take the ball first in overtime!
Here’s a crazy stat: Arkansas has played seven overtime games under Bret Bielema, including yesterday. The Hogs have won the coin toss in six. That’s nuts.
Arkansas has chosen “defense first” in those six, as is conventional wisdom. But conventional wisdom is wrong (with some exceptions). Yesterday was Arkansas’ 19th overtime game. The Hogs are 7-2 when getting the ball first (in the decisive frame) and 5-5 when playing defense first, including 2-4 under Bielema. Conventional wisdom says you should play defense first because it allows you to ‘know what you need.’ Let me help you out: YOU NEED A TOUCHDOWN. Try for one of those. It’s kind of the objective of your entire offense.
Here’s a good rule of thumb for all sports: never voluntarily give up the lead. If you choose defense first, you’re almost guaranteeing that you will put your team within one play of instant defeat. Why would you put that pressure on your own team?
The whole ‘hold the opponent to a field goal then we go for the touchdown to win’ doesn’t work either. There’s something psychological about that that messes with playcalling. I remember the 2009 LSU game, when the Hogs held LSU to a field goal and then proceded to execute the most conservative sequence I’ve ever seen Bobby Petrino call before Alex Tejada shanked the field goal that would have sent the game to double overtime. Knowing they had the field goal in their back pocket caused the Hogs to play for it, which essentially negated the value of getting the ball second in the first place.
There are some exceptions to the rule. For example, in the 2015 Ole Miss game, Bielema knew he couldn’t stop Ole Miss and so the Hogs’ best chance was to go for 2 after scoring second. The plan to score second almost backfired (as it often does) but was salvaged by a 4th-and-25 conversion. Another case would be if the opposing offense is in a funk (like John L’s offense in the 2012 ULM game) and you want to put them out there immediately and let them fail.
A surprisingly feisty New Mexico State team visits Fayetteville for an 11 a.m. kickoff. Here’s guessing it won’t be a sellout. Arkansas better not overlook this one: NMSU beat New Mexico, thumped UTEP by 27, and lost to Arizona State by just 6.