We’ve seen this story before.
In 2014, the Hogs thrashed Texas Tech in Lubbock. Bret Bielema talked smack about Kliff Kingsbury. Then in 2015 the Hogs had trouble getting Dan Enos’ offense in sync and lost the return game in Fayetteville. Kliff Kingsbury talked some smack of his own.
There’s probably a little less animosity this time around, but the Hogs need to finish the job to call this Big XII home-and-home a success. The Hogs knocked off TCU 41-38 in Fort Worth last season. But it’s hard to say progress was made unless Arkansas also wins the return game.
And it won’t be easy. TCU finished just 6-7 in 2016, crippled by an inefficient offense. But nearly everybody is back — the Frogs return the 2nd-most production of any Power 5 team — and they are probably an 8-4 team at worst this year. The same cast of characters we met last year are back this year, even as new Hogs stand up to meet them.
- Pass defense, including pass rush. There’s no other way to say it: Arkansas’ receivers punked TCU’s secondary last year. Keon Hatcher literally turned TCU cornerback Ranthony Texada around and into the ground on his touchdown late in the fourth quarter. But almost all of those Hogs are gone. Flanker Jared Cornelius (2 catches, 17 yards), fullback Hayden Johnson (1 catch, 18 yards), and tight end Austin Cantrell (1 catch, 4 yards) are the only returning Hogs that had a catch in that game. The TCU secondary went on to finish 22nd in Passing Defense S&P+. The Frogs also finished 10th in Adjusted Sack Rate. They won’t be that good in 2017: sack leader Josh Carraway (8.0 sacks) is among the few Frogs that are gone.
- Offensive skill players are experienced and talented. Almost every Frog receiver is back, including slot receiver and returner KaVontae Turpin, who had a massive game last year (7 catches, 126 yards, 64-yard kickoff return, 36-yard punt return). Turpin spent most of the rest of 2016 battling nagging injuries and it remains to be seen if he’s quite the player he was this time last year (he had zero catches in the opener). Running back Kyle Hicks, who rushed for 1,000 yards last season and had two touchdowns against Arkansas, missed the opener with an undisclosed injury but is expected to play.
- Erratic offense. The Frogs’ Air Raid offense can put up big yards and points on defenses that lack the speed or discipline to stop them, but TCU has a tendency to shoot itself in the foot. The Frogs hung 46 on Oklahoma and 62 on Baylor, but also scored 10 against West Virginia, 6 against Oklahoma State, and 6 against Kansas State. Quarterback Kenny Hill (3,208 yards, 17 TD, 13 interceptions) was benched twice but has recovered the starting job. If you can’t cover their receivers they can hurt you, but if you can, the Frogs are penalty-prone (76th in penalty yards per game), sack-prone (66th in Adjusted Sack Rate), and turnover-prone (62nd in giveaways per game).
- Run defense is not disruptive. Here is, I think, where much of the game will be decided. From the FAMU recap:
The 2014 and 2015 teams were very efficient and not very explosive. In 2016, something flipped. The run game, led by Rawleigh Williams III instead of Alex Collins, was a little more explosive, but at a major efficiency cost: Arkansas fell from 2nd to 102nd in rushing success rate from 2015 to 2016. That’s a staggering drop. Arkansas, with this offensive system, cannot afford to be boom-or-bust.
TCU’s defense didn’t give up too many big runs in 2016 (36th fewest runs of 6+ yards), but they couldn’t prevent teams from pounding out decent gains: 62nd in rushing success rate, 83rd in line-yards per game, 102nd in short yardage, and 108th in stuff rate (hitting the back behind the line). Arkansas wasn’t well-equipped to take advantage of that in 2016; they may be better this time around.
When Arkansas has the ball
As mentioned above, Arkansas may can take advantage of TCU’s defensive front in the run game. The Hogs didn’t overuse it against Florida A&M, but it seems like the “Blast” series is going to be Arkansas’ strong suit. Here’s a closer look:
This very basic play is also known as “iso”. It’s a simple A- or B-gap run that will follow Arkansas’ two elite run blockers: center Frank Ragnow and left guard Hjalte Froholdt. In this gif, the pair double-team the nose guard before Froholdt peels off the block the mike at the second level. Fullback Hayden Johnson shoots through the B-gap and “isolates” the weakside linebacker to block — hence the name — and the back follows him through.
If you can’t beat the blocks of Ragnow, Froholt, and the fullback, this play is very difficult to stop for less than 4 yards without stacking the box, which opens up the play-action pass, the end around and jet runs that Arkansas, and the outside run game, like this play:
This is a Power-O. Powers usually feature a pulling guard, but here, as Arkansas did with Travis Swanson (now the starter for the Lions) back in 2013, it’s Ragnow pulling and leading the way. Arkansas also runs a variant called the Power-G, where the playside guard pulls and leads on an outside run.
Back to TCU’s struggles in slowing run game efficiency, I think both Devwah Whaley and Chase Hayden, but especially Hayden, can use quick first steps to ensure that the Hogs pick up medium gains on every run play.
When TCU has the ball
Unlike some Air Raid systems that have utilized more of an H-back to improve the run game, TCU remains a classic 4-wides spread offense. They’re going to stretch an Arkansas defense that’s missing top cover corner Ryan Pulley, out for the season with an injury.
To stop the Frogs, the Hogs will play mostly Man Free.
The Hogs will be in base nickel, so an outside linebacker (probably RAZOR Dwayne Eugene) will be replaced by nickelback Kevin Richardson II. The cornerbacks will man up the outside receivers while Richardson II and safety Josh Liddell will man up the slots. HOG Randy Ramsey will rush most of the time. The defensive backs will have help over the top from free safety Santos Ramirez. The inside linebackers have some options. They can 1) spy on Hill, who is mobile, 2) man up the back if he goes out for a pass, or 3) blitz. You’ll probably see a combination of two of those used on nearly every play.
Last year, the Hog cornerbacks played excellent coverage against TCU’s outside receivers, but the slots sprung free all game. I’m not sure if cornerbacks Henre’ Toliver and Kamren Curl can replicate last year’s production in this game, but I do expect Arkansas to cover the slots better, and I also expect to see more lateral mobility from the Hog linebackers, which will be a plus for stopping underneath routes.
Keys to the game
- Bend-don’t-break. It’s a term fans love to hate, but realistically it’s the best way to stop this kind of offense with Arkansas’ current talent. TCU has a tendency to shoot itself in the foot, so the Hogs need to make sure they’re not returning the gifts the Frogs may give. In order to pull this off, the cornerbacks need to hold up in man coverage, the free safety has to be solid over the top, and we need to see lateral quickness from the linebackers. The pass rush arriving would be nice, too.
- Be efficient on first down. Against FAMU, Arkansas averaged just 0.06 EV per snap on first down. That would be a good number against TCU, but it’s subpar for a game against an FCS team. Arkansas has been fantastic on second and third downs under Dan Enos, but the Hogs risk becoming one-dimensional if they can’t establish the run on first down. Look for Arkansas to run right at TCU behind their best linemen on first down. They need to get 4 yards on at least 50% of first-down runs.
- No gifts. This could honestly be a key every week, but TCU’s offense has the ability to demoralize a defense, so the Hogs can’t give the Frogs the gifts that could start an avalanche. That means limiting three-and-outs, special teams gaffes, and turnovers. The Hogs realistically do not need a career game from Austin Allen in order to win, but they do need their field general to lead an efficient offense that doesn’t make mistakes.