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Arkansas vs. New Mexico State Scouting Report

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Numbers suggest Aggies vs. Hogs Part II could be another shootout

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Texas A&M Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Well, we’re back. Fan disappointment is at an all-time high for the Bret Bielema era, and although the Texas A&M game holds up on second watching (I’m still bitterly disappointed, but the Hogs didn’t play that badly), I can’t help but wander how many fans will be in Fayetteville to watch New Mexico State.

It’s a shame, really. The Hogs could use their support. These Aggies (2-2) are the best New Mexico State team in a decade, at least. They drilled UTEP 41-14 last week (UTEP is really, really bad, though), beat rival New Mexico (who won 8 games last year) and took Arizona State to the wire in a 37-31 loss.

In both the eye test and the advanced stats, this New Mexico State team is for real. Do not be surprised if this is a close game at some point in the second half.

Scouting report

Strengths

  • Dangerous passing attack. Lots of short, safe throws allow the Aggies and their senior quarterback to keep the chains moving constantly.
  • Good pass rush. This is obviously a huge concern for an Arkansas line that struggles to block edge rushes that have two legs and two feet and are able to find their way onto the football field.

Weaknesses

  • Bad against the run. They are decent at preventing big plays, but their 3-4 front is not disruptive at all: they’re 75th in Rushing Success Rate, 98th in line-yards per carry, 106th in opportunity rate, and 76th in stuff rate (hitting backs in the backfield).
  • Unspectacular special teams. Arkansas is always ripe to be exploited by a special teams catastrophe, but the Aggies don’t have many candidates. They have 8 punt return yards all season and their longest kickoff return is 27 yards. Their kickoff unit is weak: opponents bring the ball past the 25 on nearly 30% of Aggie kickoffs. Their placekicker has also missed 2 extra points.

When Arkansas has the ball

New Mexico State’s defense is very similar to Arkansas’. Coordinated by former Boston College coach Frank Spaziani, the Aggies run a 3-4 and their front has trouble disrupting the run, which could be a problem against the Hogs.

As you the can see, the Hogs should be able to line up and run it right down the middle pretty much all game. The massive line-yards differential is due to the fact that a) Arkansas rarely has rushes for negative yards, and b) New Mexico State rarely tackles runners for negative yards.

There’s potential for some small bursts as well, as evidenced by the big difference in opportunity rate (percentage of runs to gain 6+ yards). What Arkansas doesn’t do well is 80-yard runs (see the isoPPP+ comparison), but the Hogs seem to always get at least 3 or 4 yards and frequently get 6- to 10-yard bursts. Expect to see a lot of that on Saturday.

When the Hogs try to pass, there could be trouble, as New Mexico State can get after the quarterback. If you haven’t yet, check out my analysis on Arkansas’ offensive line against Texas A&M. I expect to see the Hogs continue to mix things up to try and find the best combination.

This panel is closer, but Arkansas wins the most important stat: Passing Downs Success Rate. When faced with a must-pass situation, getting the necessary yards is top priority. Again, the Hogs have to keep Austin Allen clean. Letting New Mexico State have a 4- or 5-sack night would really not be good.

So why is there a huge difference between Arkansas’ Passing Downs SR and Arkansas’ overall Passing SR? Well, because obviously, teams don’t just throw on passing downs. Passing downs indicate a down-and-distance situation where a team is likely to pass, like a 3rd-and-7. But you can throw on standard downs, too, like 1st-and-10 or 2nd-and-4. Arkansas does, but not very well. In fact, the Hogs are so bad when trying to pass on standard downs that it drags down the overall passing numbers, even though the numbers on only passing downs are still pretty good. So basically, if Allen only threw the ball on third down, Arkansas’ passing numbers would be better.

Overall, I think Arkansas will move the ball with ease, provided the line can keep Allen upright. New Mexico State just isn’t good enough to stop the things they need to be able to stop.

When New Mexico State has the ball

Things get dicier when the Aggies take the field. They’re an all-shotgun, pass-happy team that uses mostly 3-wide personnel with a running back and an H-back. They’ll also use plenty of 4-wide. Head coach Doug Martin, who boasts a 41-93 career record (including 12-40 in Las Cruces), coordinates the offense. I don’t think he’s a spectacular head coach, but he has an extremely experienced offense. Quarterback Tyler Rogers is a 4-year starter with more than 7,700 career passing yards. Senior running back Larry Rose III, also a 4-year starter, has nearly 4,000 career rushing yards.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I typically break up my charts into Standard Downs and Passing Downs. I put overall rushing numbers in the Standard Downs chart and overall passing numbers in the Passing Downs chart. As I mentioned above, teams don’t just run on standard downs and pass on passing downs, but it helps me organize the numbers into two charts instead of four. New Mexico State is a particularly strong case of this not working well. The Aggies are averaging more than 50 passes a game this season, so even on standard downs, they’re only running 34% of the time and passing the other 66%. I decided not to change the chart format (I’ll keep rethinking organization and am open to any suggestions), but keep that in mind.

Rose, the running back, is pretty elusive, breaking 8 tackles in 18 carries last week, according to PFF College. This is not a run-friendly system, though, and he’s a little boom-or-bust. Overall, 43% of Rose’s carries (27 in all) gain at least six yards. That’s pretty good, and he averages 11 yards per carry on those runs. However, on the rest of his runs, he has 36 carries for 56 yards. I think it’s reasonable to predict that half of his carries will go almost nowhere. The key will be limiting the gains on the other half.

When passing, the Aggies get the ball out quick, making sacks difficult. Rogers can sling it. He was 40 of 57 for 398 yards against Arizona State and 34 of 57 for 401 yards against New Mexico. The throws are often short. On film, I saw a lot of basic concepts like speed outs and slants. Rose is very involved in the passing game: he’s second on the team with 27 targets and 20 catches, most of them short.

The Aggies have a pair of huge-play wideouts. Jaleel Scott has 369 yards and 4 touchdowns. He’s averaging 10.3 yards per target. Isaiah Lottie has 228 yards and 4 touchdowns on 13.4 yards per target. For comparison, Jonathan Nance is second in the SEC with 18.2 yards per target.

Outside of those two guys, plus Rose on short dump-offs, the Aggies don’t have a lot of big-play guys. Anthony Muse (19 targets, 138 yards, 0 TD), OJ Clark (14 targets, 85 yards, 1 TD), and Conner Cramer (13 targets, 112 yards, 1 TD) are other names.

Keys to the game

  • The secondary can flex its muscles. Arkansas’ secondary played the pass really well against TCU and then got hit for a couple of busts against Texas A&M. Now they have a chance to clamp down on a perfectly-decent passing attack that doesn’t boast a major run threat to worry about. Obviously, not giving up any big pass plays is part of it, but I’d like to see the secondary make some plays against the short game. If Arkansas is going to get back to 6+ wins this year, the defense is going to have to play well, and the secondary is going to play a major role in that. I won’t consider it a major success if Arkansas wins but gives up 35 completions.
  • Win first down. This is often a key, but it’s important for Arkansas’ offense. The Aggies can get after the passer, so if Arkansas has trouble on first down, they may have to pass on second down, and that could mean a protection nightmare. I tend to think the Hogs should the run the ball on 100% of first downs. Take some shots on second down, sure, but so many drives are killed by first-down disasters that the offense can’t recover from.
  • Find reliable targets. The Hogs will have to pass some, and with Jared Cornelius out for the year, Austin Allen needs a buddy. Right now, he doesn’t trust anyone, as evidenced by the fact that he really spreads the ball around on third down. If he had a guy he trusted, that guy would be racking up third down targets. He likes Nance for big plays, but my money’s on a comeback performance by Deon Stewart, who has had a really rough start to the year (9 targets, 3 catches, 31 yards, -3 EV). If he or the equally-bad LaMichael Pettway (5 targets, 1 catch, 7 yards, -1 EV) can’t get it going, it may be time to get some younger guys more snaps.