Saturday marks the biggest game of the Chad Morris era so far. It’s the first SEC game where the Hogs are widely viewed as having a good chance to win. Former coach Bret Bielema was fired because he mostly seemed lose these kinds of games (well, not specifically the Ole Miss game...). We’ll see if Morris can get his team ready to play.
The Rebs (4-2, 0-2 SEC) come into Little Rock with the second-best offense in the SEC and the worst defense. They’ve played six games this season, all blowouts. Their lone impressive win was the opener, a 47-27 pasting of Texas Tech on a neutral field. Since then they’ve destroyed very weak teams — 76-41 over Southern Illinois, 70-21 over UL-Monroe, and 38-17 over Kent State — and looked utterly invincible on offense. In between those games was a 62-7 loss to Alabama and a 45-16 loss to LSU in which the offense was virtually non-existent.
- Jordan Ta’amu in 2 losses: 26 of 60, 311 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions
- Jordan Ta’amu in 4 wins: 94 of 127, 1,600 yards, 12 touchdowns, 1 interception
It’s safe to say the Rebels will either light up your defense or fade quickly. Given the quality of Arkansas’ defense, it seems unlikely that the Hogs can hold Ole Miss under about 30, although stranger things have happened. The real question will be if the Hogs’ offense is ready for a shootout.
Meet the new numbers
Bill Connelly and the SB Nation team have rolled out some new stat groupings that will help break down the game. Here’s a very brief overview. They’re called “Bill Walsh stats,” after the famous NFL coach who broke the game up into five parts:
- Open Play. These are standard downs between the 20’s. In average game, about half of all plays will be open play. For this reason, major disadvantages here can be difficult to overcome. Stats in this category will measure big play ability and early-downs success rate.
- Blitz Downs. Downs where the offense can expect a blitz, like third-and-long. Explosiveness is irrelevant here: all we care about is success rate and sack rate.
- Third Downs. There’s some overlap with blitz downs, but Third Downs includes third-and-short situations as well. Success rate is king.
- Backed-Up Offense. What do you do when you’re backed up inside your own 10? Turnover rate is the top stat here.
- Red Zone. Can you score once you get inside the 20? The 10? At the goal line? Success rate and turnover rate are the biggest stats.
For simplification purposes, I’m reducing these five into three categories: Open Play, Passing Situations (Blitz Downs and Third Downs), and Dangerous Situations (Backed-Up and Red Zone). We’ll walk through the numbers as the preview continues.
When Arkansas has the ball
First, if you haven’t, check out my review of how Arkansas jump-started its stagnant offense against Alabama.
So we’re left with an improving Hog offense against a weak Ole Miss defense. How will things shake out?
Arkansas’ biggest weaknesses have been field position and turnovers. Turnovers have to get fixed, and field position is partially a factor of not trying to return kickoffs and punts. Ole Miss’ defense is very bad in open field but usually manages to stiffen when it gets backed up. Forcing turnovers are the Rebels’ specialty.
On paper, the Hogs should have a field day with short runs. Ole Miss is very bad at preventing efficient runs (4 yards in most cases, 123rd), preventing opportunity runs (6 yards, 116th), and hitting the back in the backfield (103rd).
- Devwah Whaley, 231 yards, 4.4 average, 2.85 bonus yards/opportunity, +3.5% marginal efficiency
- Rakeem Boyd, 294 yards, 6.4 average, 9.17 bonus yards/opportunity, -5.0% marginal efficiency
Let’s start with Whaley, who is back after missing the last two games with a concussion. He leads the team in marginal efficiency (basically, success rate vs. average, positive is good), but is the least-explosive back. Basically, he’s nearly a guarantee to get 3 or 4 yards on every carry, but he’s also nearly a guarantee to not get much more than that. If the passing game is being forced to dink-to-dunk due to struggles with the deep game, Whaley’s lack of explosiveness will make it hard to keep drives alive.
Boyd is a boom-or-bust back. About half of his carries go for no gain, but he’s cranked out runs of 45, 32, and 31 this year — with the latter two coming against Alabama. His 6.4 yards per carry is even more impressive when you consider that 33 of his 46 carries have come against Alabama, Auburn, and Texas A&M, three of the best defenses in all of college football. Expect him to get the majority of carries against Ole Miss, but Whaley definitely has a role.
Ole Miss struggles to get to the quarterback and gives up too many big plays in the passing game. The Hogs need to improve completion percentage.
- Ty Storey, 54.8% completion, 861 yards, 6 touchdowns, 5 interception, -1.6% marginal efficiency
- La’Michael Pettway, 31 targets, 200 yards, 3 touchdowns, -0.8% marginal efficiency
- Jordan Jones, 21 targets, 168 yards, 1 touchdown, +3.4% marginal efficiency
- Michael Woods, 19 targets, 130 yards, 1 touchdown, -13.0% marginal efficiency
- Cheyenne O’Grady (TE), 13 targets, 125 yards, 2 touchdowns, +20.0% marginal efficiency
- Rakeem Boyd (RB), 14 targets, 104 yards, -1.4% marginal efficiency
Story completed just 32 of 70 passes in starts against Colorado State, Auburn, and Texas A&M, but was 25 of 39 against Alabama as the Hogs shifted the passing game focus to the tight ends and running backs. O’Grady has been a matchup nightmare, recording all of his statistics for the season (including his ridiculous +20.0% ME) in the last two games after missing the start of the season due to off-field issues. Boyd has caught 13 of 14 targets out of the backfield.
It will be a battle of weaknesses when the Hogs face third down. Arkansas doesn’t covert them well, and Ole Miss doesn’t limit them well. The Hogs would like to improve success rate on standard downs, something they did well in against the Tide.
While Arkansas’ overall passing numbers show a slight advantage to the Hogs over the Ole Miss defense, it’s a different story when Arkansas must pass. The Hogs are 128th out of 130 teams in success rate on blitz downs, which is to expected when you have a raw quarterback and a weak offensive line. The main takeaway here is that the Hogs need to throw the ball well on early downs so they aren’t reliant on completing third down passes.
The Hogs are nearly unstoppable at the goal line thanks to Cole Kelley and the “steamboat” package, which recorded two more touchdowns against the Tide. The key for the Hogs will be to create situations where Kelley can enter the game. That means good plays when the Hogs reach the Ole Miss 30-yard line.
When Ole Miss has the ball
Head coach Matt Luke has continued what his predecessor Hugh Freeze started: building a pass-happy, eye-popping offense built around a multi-dimensional quarterback and big, physical receivers. While looming NCAA sanctions could torpedo future progress, for right now, the Rebels have exactly what they need to stuff the scoreboard.
- Scottie Phillips, 637 yards, 7.1 average, 7.66 bonus yards/opportunity, +4.8% marginal efficiency
- Isaiah Woullard, 146 yards, 4.6 average, 6.00 bonus yards/opportunity, -2.5% marginal efficiency
After years of having almost no run game outside of quarterback scrambles, the Rebels have improved the ground game, and Phillips has been the lead guy. He rushed for 204 yards against Texas Tech and has padded stats against bad teams, but he also rushed for 96 yards against LSU. He’s busted a 20-yard run in five of six games so far.
As much as Ole Miss’ run game has improved, the Arkansas run defense has shown tremendous progress under John Chavis. The Hogs keep about two-thirds of runs from gaining six yards and give up very few long runs.
And here’s where Ole Miss finds its biggest advantage. This is the monumental mountain that Arkansas’ defense must climb.
- Jordan Ta’amu, 64.2% completion, 1,911 yards, 13 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, +9.9% marginal efficiency
- A.J. Brown, 56 targets, 586 yards, 4 touchdowns, +7.9% marginal efficiency
- D.K. Metcalf, 40 targets, 520 yards, 5 touchdowns, +19.2% marginal efficiency
- DaMarkus Lodge, 42 targets, 386 yards, 1 touchdown, +13.8% marginal efficiency
- Braylon Sanders, 15 targets, 212 yards, 1 touchdown, +11.5% marginal efficiency
- Elijah Moore, 14 targets, 157 yards, 2 touchdowns, +24.1% marginal efficiency
The Rebs’ big three receivers go 6’1, 6’4 and 6’2 and weigh in at 230, 230, and 204. Covering them is not easy, especially when they have a quarterback more than capable of delivering an accurate ball.
Arkansas tends to stiffen on third down, but usually allows opponents to run wild on first and second downs. As long as the Hogs don’t give up any explosive pass plays, they may be able to keep the score down by forcing enough third downs to get off the field. But that’s a tall task.
Just as we saw above, when forced to pass, Ole Miss’ advantage disintegrates. Virtually all of Arkansas’ defensive success has come on third-and-medium and third-and-long. Ta’amu holds onto the ball for too long and becomes less accurate when he has to throw. Again, the key will be to force passing situations.
As “open play” begins to move into the red zone, the Hogs get better and the Rebels get worse. The Hogs would love to force field goals down here, especially if they can get touchdowns on the other end.
Keys to the game
- Third-and-Chavis. Arkansas’ defense lives off third-and-long stops, having held every opponent except Alabama to a negative Adjusted Third Down Conversion rate. Ole Miss is not at its best here. The Hogs have to force these.
- Downhill running. On the flip side of #1, Arkansas must stay out of third-and-long. The easiest way to do this is to establish the run. Boyd seems like he should get most carries, but if his carries are too inconsistent, Whaley’s efficiency could become useful.
- Find O’Grady. The tight ends give Arkansas a big passing game advantage. The Hogs need to maintain the high level of innovation they showed last week. That means more touches for tight ends and backs. When the Rebel defense starts creeping up, then it’s time to hit the home run to the receivers.