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Arkansas vs. Vanderbilt Preview

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The Hogs look to pull out a dead-even matchup against Vanderbilt

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It was always this type of game that kept Bret Bielema from ever getting over the hump. In SEC games, Bielema was just 2-3 when favored (win: 2015 Missouri, 2016 Mississippi State; losses: 2014 Missouri, 2015 Mississippi State, 2016 Missouri), and this inability to win these hump games helped usher in his exit. Arkansas opened as a 2-point favorite against Vanderbilt, although the line has since swung back toward Vandy.

The Commodores (3-5, 0-4 SEC) come to Fayetteville still searching for their first conference win of the year under Derek Mason, who is 21-36 in his fifth season in Nashville. Mason has upgraded the Vanderbilt and installed a pro-style offense, but he still hasn’t gotten over the hump.

This year, Vandy took undefeated Notre Dame down to the wire in South Bend, losing 22-17. A 37-14 drilling by South Carolina is the low point of the year. The ‘Dores also led 9th-ranked Florida before losing 37-27, and last week pushed Kentucky before losing 14-7.

When Vanderbilt has the ball

The Commodore offense has been a weakness under Mason, but this is by far his best unit. A veteran quarterback means Vandy can sling the ball around. They’ll run on just 53% of standard downs (95th nationally, the national average is 59%) and play at a very slow pace.

The radar graph shows Vanderbilt’s strengths and weaknesses well: the offense is inefficient but very explosive. They generate a lot of big passes (and a few big runs), but in between are a lot of incompletions and runs for no gain.

Quarterback

  • Kyle Shurmur, 59.3% completion, 1,845 yards, 12 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 6.9 yards per attempt, +1.3% marginal effciency

Receivers

  • Kalija Lipscomb, 76 targets, 588 yards, 6 touchdowns, 7.7 yards per target, -1.0% marginal efficiency
  • Jared Pinkney (TE), 49 targets, 394 yards, 3 touchdowns, 8.0 yards per target, +3.2% marginal efficiency
  • C.J. Bolar, 33 targets, 271 yards, 1 touchdown, 8.2 yards per target, +6.1% marginal efficiency

Lipscomb is an extremely high-volume receiver, with nearly twice as many targets as Arkansas’ top man, La’Michael Pettway (37). Among pure wide receivers, he has more targets than the next four guys combined. It will be interesting to see how Arkansas covers him. Most defenses have their cornerbacks align based on the side of the field, but would John Chavis consider having Ryan Pulley trail Lipscomb at all times? Pulley is Arkansas’ best cover-corner by a large margin, and it’s hard to see Lipscomb being limited by Jarques McClellion, Kevin Richardson, D’Vone McClure, or a safety.

Lipscomb and Bolar are the only wide receivers that see lots of targets. In addition to using the tight end, Vanderbilt will also throw to backs coming out the backfield. Vandy’s top two backs have combined for 22 targets and 238 yards.

Running Backs

  • Ke’Shawn Vaughn, 72 rushes, 495 yards, 5 touchdowns, 6.9 yards per carry, -7.1% marginal efficiency
  • Jamauri Wakefield, 69 rushes, 315 yards, 2 touchdowns, 4.6 yards per carry, +3.7% marginal efficiency
  • Khari Blasingame, 55 rushes, 257 yards, 1 touchdown, 4.7 yards per carry, -8.7% marginal efficiency

The Hogs won’t catch a break in the run game, as Vaughn will return after missing the Kentucky game and part of the Florida game. Vaughn is very similar to Rakeem Boyd: he’s an explosive threat, but a lot of carries don’t get very far. He’s definitely Vanderbilt’s best runner and without him, the Commodore rushing attack becomes a nonfactor.

Overall, Arkansas’ secondary will likely struggle to stop the Vanderbilt passing attack on standard downs, but the Hogs are good at three things: not giving up big runs, red zone, and third down. Not giving up big plays on early downs will be key, and third down defense will play a huge role once again. The Hogs have dominated everyone except Alabama and Ole Miss on third down this year. Vanderbilt has one of the nation’s worst third down offenses, which is slightly odd for a team with a senior quarterback.

When Arkansas has the ball

Vanderbilt’s defense isn’t as good as it was a couple years ago, and the Commodores tend to get pushed around on standard downs. They’re 124th (out of 130) in Standard Downs Success Rate, mostly due to a defensive front that is not disruptive. Stopping the run has been a problem. The Dores are 115th in Rushing Efficiency defense, 123rd in Opportunity Rate defense, and 115th in stuff rate (hitting the ballcarrier in the backfield). It’s not surprising, then, that opponents generally attack Vandy on the ground (65% run rate on standard downs, 14th-highest in the country).

Running Backs

  • Rakeem Boyd, 75 rushes, 502 yards, 1 touchdown, 6.7 yards per carry, -2.0% marginal efficiency
  • Chase Hayden, 50 rushes, 182 yards, 3.6 yards per carry, -1.8% marginal efficiency
  • Maleek Williams, 20 rushes, 115 yards, 2 touchdowns, 5.8 yards per carry, -5.2% marginal efficiency

So this game will be somewhat similar to the Tulsa game. Expect Boyd to get at least 20 carries and Hayden to get at least 10. Boyd is averaging 8.1 yards per carry against SEC teams this year with two 100-yard performances (Alabama, plus Ole Miss in one quarter).

While Vanderbilt struggles to get stops, they do prevent big runs (34th). That’s a theme with this defense: it’s very bend-don’t-break. The problem with this is that Vanderbilt’s defense does break too often: an ability to create third-and-longs means Vanderbilt is 123rd in third down defense, so getting off the field can be a problem.

Quarterback

  • Ty Storey, 57% completion, 983 yards, 7 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, -2.1% marginal efficiency

Receivers

  • La’Michael Pettway, 37 targets, 307 yards, 4 touchdowns, 8.3 yards per target, +4.9% marginal efficiency
  • Jordan Jones, 23 targets, 183 yards, 1 touchdown, 8.0 yards per target, -0.1% marginal efficiency
  • Cheyenne O’Grady (TE), 21 targets, 201 yards, 3 touchdowns, 9.6 yards per target, +13.3% marginal efficiency
  • Michael Woods, 22 targets, 114 yards, 1 touchdown, 6.5 yards per target, -11.9% marginal efficiency

Storey returns after missing the Tulsa game with a concussion. He was 37 of 65 for 355 yards with three touchdowns and one interception against Alabama and Ole Miss, prior to his injury. If he can pick up where he left off, Arkansas’ offense will be balanced enough to move the football.

The Vanderbilt secondary is decent at preventing big plays, but there isn’t much of a pass rush, and the ‘Dores don’t contest many throws (opponents are completing 63.5% of passes against them, 111th nationally).

Overall, the Hogs must get balanced production from the run and pass. The Hogs must also generate good yardage on first down to keep from running into third-and-longs.

Keys to the game

  1. Breakthrough on third down. As we just saw, Vanderbilt allows a lot of short, efficient plays, meaning that their defense is generally contending with third-and-short situations. The Hogs haven’t been good on third down this year. Now’s the time to change that.
  2. Stops in the secondary. Arkansas’ secondary has been its biggest weakness this year. Without good coverage, Shurmur and the Vanderbilt offense will be capable of moving down the field with ease. The Hogs need to get some good coverage, and the pass rush needs to hit home.
  3. Win the hidden points. Arkansas’ special teams has improved massively since some early-season disasters. Punt and kick coverage are fine, while Deon Stewart is making some noise on punt returns. Connor Limpert has made 10 straight field goals, and opponents have struggled: Tulsa was the fifth team Arkansas has faced to miss at least two kicks against the Hogs. An Special Teams EV margin of +10 — like what we saw against Tulsa — means Arkansas almost certainly wins.