Well, that wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Arkansas allowed Heisman frontrunner Tua Tagovailoa to complete 10 of 13 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns, and still, I don’t believe any of Arkansas’ recently-acquired momentum was lost. A 52-0 beatdown would have killed a lot of that momentum, but now one has to think that War Memorial Stadium will packed and loud for Ole Miss last week, as fans think this team is on the brink of delivering Chad Morris his first SEC win. The crowd at Razorback Stadium remained loud to the end and gave the Hogs an ovation as they left the field.
The game itself was pretty silly, as Alabama utilized incredible skill, a little luck, and some favorable officiating to end any threat of a close game early. The Tide recovered a fumble into the end zone for a touchdown to go up 14-0. A blatant targeting on Rakeem Boyd was uncalled (Arkansas fumbled on the next play), and Sosa Agim was a victim of very clear holding on several occasions, including on a long touchdown pass to make it 28-7. I’m also not sure that I’ve ever seen four replays in a game all go against the home team. The whole thing is odd because Alabama definitely didn’t need that help. I don’t think there’s a conspiracy in favor of the Tide; rather, I think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: officials subconsciously believe that because Alabama is well-coached, they must not make any mistakes.
Special teams finally had a breakthrough, with De’Vion Warren earning 2.1 EV for his big kickoff return that allowed Arkansas to cover the 35-point spread. Connor Limpert made his four extra points and a 41-yard field goal. There were no special teams catastrophes for the first time in four weeks, although punting went back to being not great.
John Chavis’ defense was wildly overmatched as expected, and I’m not sure whether it’s something to be concerned about. Alabama has amazing receivers, an amazing line, and an amazing quarterback, but those receivers seemed a little too wide open. Then to watch Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond really struggle in primetime games has to make one wonder if Arkansas’ pass defense is actually really bad - like 2015 or 2017 bad - but that badness has been masked by playing two teams with bad passing attacks. We’ll find out against Ole Miss.
The offense, meanwhile, looked suddenly competent, and against an elite defense to boot. Groupings of swing passes, screens, snag routes, and wheel routes served to thoroughly confuse the Alabama defense, delivering open receiver after open receiver throughout the game. Quarterback Ty Storey set a career-high for completions by the midway point of the second quarter and finished 25 of 39 for 230 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Storey’s bad EV is largely due his goal-line fumble, which cost him 5.5 EV.
It may too early and too harsh to say that the staff has “given up” on the receivers, since Saturday’s gameplan may have been Alabama-specific, but it was pretty clear that the pass game focus shifted to the tight ends and running backs, led by a suddenly-resurgent Cheyenne O’Grady (7 catches, 48 yards, 2 TDs), who led the team in EV for the second straight week. He’s Arkansas’ best offensive player right now. Tight ends Austin Cantrell (2 catches, 21 yards) and Grayson Gunter (1 catch, 10 yards) also saw lots of snaps, while Chase Hayden (2 catches, 26 yards) and Rakeem Boyd (5 catches, 24 yards) joined the fun out of the backfield. Boyd added 102 rushing yards on 15 carries, becoming the first Hog since Darren McFadden in 2007 to rush for 100 yards against Alabama. Arkansas’ 176 team rushing yards are also the most against the Tide since that ‘07 game.
The use of tight ends and backs in the short passing game allowed the receivers to work more downfield stuff as the Tide defense crept closer to the line. That paid off with a 37-yard completion to Deon Stewart in the second quarter during a touchdown drive. Warren (17-yard TD catch) and Tyson Morris (10-yard catch) also had downfield receptions, while the more physical La’Michael Pettway (3 catches, 17 yards) and Michael Woods (2 catches, 6 yards) had some short receptions in traffic.
The offensive line also deserves a shoutout. Alabama got some pressure but only sacked Storey once. With added help from the tight ends, run blocking was massively improved. And there’s more good news: the three best defensive fronts Arkansas will face this season are in the rearview mirror. With the possible exception of Mississippi State, none of Arkansas’ remaining opponents has a dominant defensive front.
I’m hoping to have a more in-depth breakdown of some of the concepts Arkansas debuted. Hopefully it will be in the Ole Miss preview.
Speaking of Ole Miss, next week’s game in Little Rock launches a critical back half the schedule. If the Hogs can sustain its offense at the level we just saw Saturday, and the defense can play the way it did against Auburn and Texas A&M, then the Hogs have a puncher’s chance in all six games. The Hogs have to go 5-1 to reach a bowl (unlikely, but certainly possible), but any hopes to call this season a positive building block begin with the Ole Miss game. Future opponents Vanderbilt and Mississippi State are struggling on offense, Ole Miss is struggling on defense, and Tulsa and Missouri are struggling on both sides of the ball.