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Arkansas vs. Tulsa Preview

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Two struggling teams face off in what figures to be a grind-it-out battle

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas
Really need to win this one, coach.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it’s time. Having blown all chances to earn extra fan goodwill with an SEC win, the Tulsa game represents the first case of “well, you really ought to win this one” that Chad Morris and the new staff face.

Don’t get me wrong, this is Year Zero, and the final win-loss totals mean less than the general progress that we see. That said, Arkansas has looked like a team capable of winning this game for three weeks now, so losing it would be a bad look.

The good news for Arkansas is that Tulsa is on a downslide of its own. The Golden Hurricane are just 1-5, and fourth-year head coach Philip Montgomery is starting to feel the heat. After going 16-10 in his first two seasons, Montgomery is coming off a 2-10 season and this year’s team only looks marginally better. They’re probably better than their record suggests: a front-loaded schedule means that they could be favored in three of their final six games.

Despite the offensive reputation of both Morris and Montgomery, as we’ll see in the preview, this will be a fast-moving game featuring two teams that want to run the ball early and often. This grind of a game might be over before the afternoon slate of games kicks off.

When Tulsa has the ball

We’re debuting a new kind of graphical preview: a radar graph. The further out from the center the point is, the better the team is in that category. I’m testing to see if this presentation leads to fewer boring charts and more narrative. There’s a poll at the bottom of this article; please vote and let me know which format you prefer.

Here’s a good way to read this chart: notice that Tulsa’s radar is “wider” to the Efficiency and Rushing side and “shorter” to the Passing and Explosiveness side. That tells you that Tulsa is better at doing things associated with the first two and worse at doing things associated with the latter two.

Montgomery is trying to run the Art Briles “veer-n-shoot” offense that he learned as Briles’ offensive coordinator at Baylor from 2008 to 2014. The basic idea calls for spread formations, a run-first approach, and a good deep passing game, all at a very fast pace. Finding a quarterback for such a scheme is difficult, as few quarterbacks have both mobility and a big arm, like Robert Griffin III.

Baylor had success replacing Griffin by trying to throw the ball more with guys like Bryce Petty, but the same plan hasn’t worked at Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane are one of the nation’s worst passing teams (good news, beleaguered Hogs secondary!) and as a consequence are also one of the most run-heavy. They’ll run on 68% of standard downs — good for 16th nationally — and even in obvious passing situations, they still want to run (44%, 11th nationally).

Running Backs

  • Shamari Brooks, 120 rushes, 475 yards, 4.0 average, -7.4% marginal efficiency
  • Corey Taylor II, 92 rushes, 411 yards, 4.5 average, +2.8% marginal efficiency

Brooks toted the rock 28 times for 100 yards and two touchdowns in last Thursday’s 25-24 loss to South Florida. Tulsa rushed 63 times for 274 yards in their lone win: 38-27 in the opener over UCA.

The Tulsa run game features decent efficiency (42nd) but is very unexplosive, which forces the offense to go on long drives in order to score. They’re a pitiful 114th in standard downs explosiveness and 98th in rushing explosiveness.

A lack of explosive plays means that only half of Tulsa’s gained first downs (52.8% to be exact) are gained on first or second down, ranking 129th out of 130 teams. That means that for Tulsa, most sequences get all the way to third down, making it the most important down, even moreso than for other teams.

Quarterback

  • Seth Boomer, 36.5% completion, 306 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, -11.5% marginal efficiency

Receivers

  • Justin Hobbs, 43 targets, 256 yards, 6.0 yards per target, -0.5% marginal efficiency
  • Keylon Stokes, 34 targets, 220 yards, 6.5 yards per target, -3.1% marginal efficiency
  • Keenen Johnson, 30 targets, 271 yards, 9.0 yards per target, -4.0% marginal efficiency
  • Jarion Anderson, 29 targets, 168 yards, 5.8 yards per target, +0.3% marginal efficiency

Boomer is the second quarterback Tulsa has tried this year. His start on Saturday will be his third of the season. He’s completed just 19 of 52 passes and was just 6 of 21 for 79 yards last week against South Florida. It will be quite the shift from facing Tua Tagovailoa and Jordan Ta’amu to facing Tulsa’s offense.

Like Arkansas, Tulsa requires the quarterback to run. Boomer has 10 non-sack carries for 77 yards over his three starts.

The good news for Tulsa is that the Golden Hurricane are surprisingly apt at converting third downs. They’re converting 47.4% of third downs this year (21st nationally), lead by two key measures: they’re good at avoiding third-and-longs (24th), and they convert a surprisingly-high percentage of the third-and-longs they do face (32.7%, 22nd). Oddly, they are not as good on third-and-short (69.2%, 82nd).

Arkansas’ defense under John Chavis has focused on winning third down. The Hogs are 44th nationally in third down success rate defense, and despite getting shredded by Ole Miss on third-and-long, the Hogs are still fine overall: 19th in third-and-medium and 45th in third-and-long defense. On “blitz downs” (2nd-and-14+, 3rd/4th-and-5+), Arkansas is 4th nationally in denying big plays, with just 1.9% of opponent snaps in those situations gaining 20 or more yards.

So in open play, it’s weakness versus weakness, as Tulsa’s offense and Arkansas’ defense are both bad. But on third down, the best of both sides come out. It should be a fun battle.

When Arkansas has the ball

Even with Ty Storey looking likely to be back, the Hogs are likely to be run-heavy once again. Opponents usually try to run on Tulsa — USF had 47 rushes for 250 yards — to the tune of 64.3% on standard downs (23rd-highest). They’ve had success when doing so, as the Golden Hurricane rank just 105th in rushing efficiency defense and 78th in rushing explosiveness defense.

Running Backs

  • Rakeem Boyd, 53 rushes, 403 yards, 7.6 average, -2.3% marginal efficiency
  • Chase Hayden, 41 rushes, 139 yards, 3.4 average, -5.5% marginal efficiency

Boyd looked like he was gearing up for a 250-yard rushing game against Ole Miss when he was knocked out early in the second quarter. The coaches say he’s fine and should be good to go against Tulsa. That’s big news, because the loss of Devwah Whaley means that a struggling Hayden will be the guy to get snaps when Boyd needs a breather. Hayden’s numbers look worse than he’s actually played, since most his 12 carries against Ole Miss came against a stacked box, but still, he doesn’t provide the explosiveness Arkansas’ run game requires.

The “x-factor” could be, as always, T.J. Hammonds. The junior from Little Rock hasn’t played since the Texas A&M game, and it appears he spent his Sunday searching his own name on Twitter and confronting fans who mentioned him without praising him (including yours truly). That’s not really a good sign, but perhaps Hammonds has an ace up his sleeve: Morris mentioned that he will be part of the gameplan on Saturday. If Boyd is limited or Storey is unable to go, his ability to produce big plays will be sorely needed. Hopefully he can have a 2017 Coastal Carolina kind of game.

Quarterback

  • Ty Storey, 57.0% completion, 983 yards, 7 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, -2.1% marginal efficiency

Receivers

  • La’Michael Pettway, 36 targets, 277 yards, 7.7 yards per target, +3.4% marginal efficiency
  • Jordan Jones, 21 targets, 168 yards, 8.0 yards per target, +3.4% marginal efficiency
  • Michael Woods, 21 targets, 144 yards, 6.9 yards per target, -10.2% marginal efficiency
  • Cheyenne O’Grady (TE), 18 targets, 166 yards, 9.2 yards per target, +10.4% marginal efficiency

As I discussed in the Ole Miss preview, Arkansas’ offensive staff is working hard to give Storey short, easy throws so his completion percentage (and marginal efficiency) stays high, because that’s how the passing game can best complement Boyd’s running skills. Storey had hit on 12 of 16 throws when he was knocked out of the Ole Miss game, a week after hitting 25 of 39 against Alabama.

If Storey isn’t cleared from concussion protocol and cannot go, I would imagine the staff would start true freshman Connor Noland in his place. I have no inside information on this; only the knowledge that the staff was already giving Noland second-team reps last week, plus the fact that Kelley has really struggled in the non-goalline quarterback role. If it is indeed Noland, expect the game plan to look the same as it would for Storey, as Ty wasn’t being asked to do anything spectacular anyway. The guy that could be asked to do spectacular things at the quarterback position will be in the stadium Saturday, but he won’t be eligible to play.

Tulsa’s defense has been competent against the pass this year, ranking 62nd in pass efficiency defense and 35th in pass explosiveness defense. They don’t get much of a pass rush and rank 115th in sack rate.

Tulsa’s problems in stopping the run, combined with issues getting into the backfield (115th in sack rate, 97th in stuff rate) mean that opponents frequently face short third downs. The average third down yards to go against Tulsa this year is 6.4 (120th). Despite this, the Hurricane are decent at stopping third downs, ranking 30th on third-and-short and 17th on third-and-medium. Overall, Tulsa allows opponents to convert 38% of third downs, good for 62nd nationally.

Arkansas has been bad on third downs, ranking 118th nationally with a 31.9% conversion rate. The Hogs are fine on third-and-short, but have been helpless on third-and-medium (124th) and third-and-long (107th). The key will be to keep third down distances short.

Keys to the game

  1. Establish the run. Whoever gets the carries needs to take advantage of Tulsa’s struggling run defense. This will keep the offense ahead of the chains and help the Hogs get into manageable third downs.
  2. Re-establish third down defense. Arkansas’ solid third-and-long defense took a beating against Ole Miss, but the Hogs cannot afford to lose ground here. Tulsa’s offense is dependent on converting third downs, so the Hogs need to get stops here.
  3. Find some big plays. Whether it’s Boyd or Hammonds in the run game, Pettway or Jones in the pass game, or De’Vion Warren on kickoff returns, the Hogs need break this slobberknocker of a game wide open with some fireworks.

Vote in the poll

Let me know which preview format you prefer, this one or the Ole Miss one. And please leave a comment with any suggestions.

Poll

Which preview format do you prefer?

This poll is closed

  • 37%
    Bar graphs
    (43 votes)
  • 62%
    Radar graphs
    (73 votes)
116 votes total Vote Now