Well, it happened again. Arkansas blew a lead and lost a game.
This one, though, feels a little different. This feels like the kind of game that will be a little-known trivia question years from now: “Remember that time Ole Miss knocked our starting quarterback and top two running backs out of the game and we almost beat them anyway?”
The Hogs lost Rakeem Boyd (7 rushes, 109 yards, TD, 36-yard reception) early in the second quarter, Devwah Whaley (12 rushes, 67 yards) early in the third quarter, and Ty Storey (12 of 16, 122 yards, TD, 7 rushes, 73 yards) early in the fourth quarter. You can talk “next man up” all you want, but Arkansas cannot replace those three, especially all in the same game. The Hogs have survived without Whaley for the last two, and almost certainly would have survived this game without Boyd, if Boyd was the only one who got hurt. By the game’s end, Arkansas simply did not have the offensive production to run out the clock, and defense was forced into a situation in which it was clearly overmatched.
“But Arkansas got too conservative late in the game!”
Disagree. The Hogs threw on first down with four minutes left, and then threw on third down before punting instead of trying to run more clock. It’s easier to see this with other fanbases, but all fans have a tendency to call a run that gains six yards a great call, and a run that gains two yards a conservative call, even if it’s the same play. Complain about playcalling all you want, but when Chase Hayden is taking the handoff from Cole Kelley (instead of Boyd taking the handoff from Storey), there’s only so much you can do.
“But why didn’t the coaches have a backup plan in case the three most important players got hurt?”
“The real problem was the defense’s late-game collapse!”
I’d say yes and no. Yes, the 97-yard touchdown drive at the end was way too easy, and yes, I have some thoughts about the defense, but looking at the overall numbers, the last few minutes were actually just a violent regression to the mean. Arkansas held Ole Miss to the same number of points it scored last season (37), when its offense was worse. If I would have told you before kickoff that Ole Miss would score 37, you’d probably take it. Again, Arkansas lost this game because its offense was on track to score in the mid-40s or 50s until its most important players started dropping like flies.
A few observations:
- Good passing games have exposed this defense. Colorado State, North Texas, Alabama, and Ole Miss are the four pass-first teams Arkansas has faced this year, and all three torched the Hogs. Any team that tries to run the ball on Arkansas is in for a long night, because the Hogs can take away the run and make the Kellen Monds and Jarrett Stidhams of the world look bad. The good news for Arkansas is that Missouri is the only team left on the schedule with a pass-first identity. Next week’s opponent, Tulsa, has one of the worst passing games in the country.
- Chavis stuck with four-down linemen. The current trend in college football is defending pass-first spread offenses with three down linemen who all line up inside the tackles. It’s called a “Tite” front and it allows a defense to get six defensive backs on the field while still taking care of the straight-ahead run game. Georgia and Texas are among the many teams who use it frequently, and it’s actually Iowa State’s base defense. While Arkansas was surrendering 600 yards to Ole Miss, the Cyclones were busy holding 6th-ranked West Virginia to just 145 yards of total offense in a dominant win. Iowa State has become the Air Raid’s worst nightmare (wins over Texas Tech, TCU, Oklahoma, and West Virginia in the last two seasons) with significantly less recruitable talent than Arkansas. Meanwhile, Arkansas left four down linemen on the field for the entire game, even when it was clear that it wasn’t working. Unless you can get overwhelming pressure with your front four, an extra defensive tackle isn’t helping as much as a sixth defensive back would. What’s odd is that Chavis was famous at Tennessee and LSU for his 3-2-6 dime package, called “Mustang”. Either he hasn’t installed in Fayetteville or he doesn’t think he has the personnel to run it yet. It’d be real nice if an Arkansas media member would ask him during media availabilities this week.
- Arkansas’ offense bogged down on the edge of the red zone. Arkansas entered the game 103rd in the FBS in success rate between the 30 and the 21, and 100th in success rate between the 20 and the 11. It showed. For the game, Arkansas ran exactly one play inside the Ole Miss 20: an incomplete pass that led to a field goal. The touchdowns came from 39, 39, and 69, while four drives bogged down between the 30 and the 20, all leading to Connor Limpert field goals. This is unfortunate, since by my count, Arkansas attempted just four deep passes for the entire game: a touchdown to Cheyenne O’Grady, a touchdown to La’Michael Pettway, an incomplete pass to Michael Woods that drew a pass interference, and the final interception. Maybe taking more deep shots early in the game would have made the last one unnecessary.
- Special teams came through in the clutch. It’s been a wild trajectory for Arkansas’ special teams this season, but they had their best performance on Saturday. Reid Bauer did what every teams begs their punter to do: he placed a perfect punt that rolled to the Ole Miss 3 with the game on the line. Can’t do it much better. Limpert hit all four field goals in the rain, while De’Vion Warren gave Arkansas a chance on its final series by returning the kickoff to midfield, although most of it was wiped off by a penalty that I’ve never seen before and can almost guarantee I will never see again in college football.
- Arkansas has found its offensive identity. After searching for several weeks, the Hogs have found what they want to be over the last two. The Razorbacks want to be a run-first team that mixes explosive runs with an efficient passing game. Boyd and Whaley are solid backs, and Storey has gotten his efficiency up over the last couple weeks as the coaches have designed shorter, safer passes that keep the offense moving.
- This game showed why Arkansas is recruiting Kelly Bryant. The former Clemson quarterback will visit Fayetteville for the Tulsa game, and the Hogs would really like to have him. Storey’s done a fine job at quarterback — and further improvement could, theoretically, make it unnecessary for the Hogs to sign Bryant — but the QB run game is an essential part of this offense, and Chad Morris needs an elusive, willing runner that can take a beating. Storey rushed for 70 more yards against Ole Miss, but he’s been hit hard all season. That isn’t going to stop. A more elusive runner like Bryant could avoid the kinds of direct contact that knocked Storey out of the game for good in the fourth quarter.
Just to drive the point home, it’s hard to defend a lead against a good offense when you lose your top three runners by the early part of the fourth quarter. Tough stuff.
How much more progress Arkansas makes during this season will depend on the long-term health of Boyd, Whaley, and Storey. Hopefully, all them will be available for Tulsa.