Arkansas mildly inconvenienced Nick Saban on Saturday, giving him something to complain about as his juggernaut program marches toward another national title.
The Hog defense was out of its league, but the offense, ranked last in the SEC by several measures, moved the ball with surprising ease against the Tide’s army of blue-chip recruits. For the day, the Hogs had three 75-yard touchdown drives, with two of them coming before the game was out of reach. Arkansas rolled up more than 400 total yards, totaled 31 points, and got its first 100-yard rusher against the Tide since Darren McFadden in 2007. Ty Storey set a career high for completions in the first half and finished with 25 completed passes.
The Hogs unveiled a number of concepts that we hadn’t seen this year, utilizing the tight ends (10 total catches) and the running backs (7) more in the passing game. Storey let slip after the game that the offense had borrowed some ideas from the Kansas City Chiefs, who are setting the world on fire in the NFL right now.
Let’s take an in-depth look at some the concepts that worked on Saturday.
In many ways, Chad Morris and the offensive staff decided to return to what Bret Bielema was trying to do in Fayetteville, just out of shotgun and with some Morris twists. It makes sense, given the personnel: by my count, Arkansas ended the game with 59 consecutive offense plays run with at least one tight end on the field, a far cry from what we’ve seen so far this year.
And with tight ends comes power running.
Ty Clary and Hjalte Froholdt pull to the strongside, while the other three linemen and tight end Austin Cantrell block down. This is something that we’ve seen for five years, with two exceptions: first, it’s out of the shotgun (well, pistol); and second, the Hogs send Deon Stewart in a jet motion to the weakside. This little misdirection gets Alabama’s linebackers flowing the wrong way, so they’re not ready for the pulling linemen.
Watch Froholdt land a solid block while Clary gets enough of his man to spring Rakeem Boyd.
Boyd had runs of 32 and 31 on the power play. Arkansas has run some power this season, but against the Tide, the Hogs favored power over their inside zone concepts (namely split zone) that they’d been running more often.
If the Tide got wise to the power, the Hogs complemented it with the counter.
Counter also features two lead blockers, but this time it’s Cantrell and Johnny Gibson coming from the backside. Here again, Alabama defenders find themselves outnumbered at the point of attack, and Boyd helps out by spinning down for a couple extra yards.
Expect to see a lot more power running moving forward, coupled with the trademark misdirection that the Morris offense provides.
The screen game will be critical for this offense. Inexperienced quarterback, pass protection problems, need for easy completions to maintain tempo — you name it, the Hogs need it, and a successful screen game will fix it.
One screen in particular worked to get Alabama defenders out of place: the tight end screen.
Here, Cantrell is in a wing to the right. At the snap, Boyd runs a swing route to the right, while the outside receiver runs a post. Cantrell’s first few steps look like he’s pass blocking, causing his man (the middle linebacker) to rush the quarterback.
Alabama is in Cover 1 Man, where the strong safety’s job is to come underneath at the snap and “rob” the underneath. Seeing Boyd on the swing, he thinks he’s figured the play out and races outside. That’s when Cantrell slides off his block and comes wide open in the middle.
A couple drives later, the Hogs try the same concept, but with a totally different setup.
Alabama is playing zone, so the Hogs have to dislodge two linebackers in the middle for the screen to work. The far side linebacker is taken care of by Deon Stewart, who comes in “orbit” motion from the play side as a misdirection. The linebacker follows him too far and is taken out of the play. Boyd’s swing route takes care of the other ‘backer. Cheyenne O’Grady slides off his block and is once again wide open.
On their opening drive, the Hogs use stacked receivers to get an opening.
It’s third down, and Saban, who has undoubtedly watched Arkansas get overwhelmed by Auburn and Texas A&M on third down blitzes, dials up a Cover 0 blitz (man coverage, no safeties).
Tight end Grayson Gunter is the far receiver (using tight ends lined up as receivers was a common theme in this game). He motions into a stack on the left side. The defender responsible for him has outside leverage, so Gunter is able to take a couple steps outside and hard cut back inside, where he’s wide open. It’s an easy, quick throw.
A couple plays later, the Hogs go back to the stacked look to attack the Tide in zone. Now Michael Woods is the inside receiver who motions away into the stack. Alabama is in zone, so the Tide only has one defender against the stack. This sets up a quick screen.
In the third quarter, the Hogs will go back to this stacked look, running the screen first and the reverse pivot on the very next play. Both passes were complete.
Arkansas’ coaches have finally figured out that tight ends are the offense’s strength, so they tried another way to get them involved: line them up as receivers. The corner route became a go-to.
This setup and execution was some the best playcalling of the game, because minutes after it paid off, it had Saban chewing out his defensive backs.
On the Hogs’ first touchdown drive in the first quarter, they call a 5-wide “levels” concept on 2nd-and-10.
Levels is a pretty classic pass in the NFL and college. It rose in popularity as a favorite of Peyton Manning during his Colts years. It’s an easy pass, and Storey finds the outside receiver Stewart underneath. O’Grady is aligned as the “trey” receiver (inside-most, running the deeper square-in)
Flash forward a few plays later: it’s third-and-goal at the Alabama 8. The Hogs really need a touchdown. Here’s what they dial up:
This is an “under” concept. Notice that’s almost identical to the levels, except that O’Grady is running a corner instead of a square-in.
Check out the Alabama safety literally falling down when O’Grady breaks outside instead of in. The Tide mishandle the exchange, and O’Grady is wide open. Splitting bigger tight ends out wide and “setting up” plays for them will create serious mismatches in the passing game.
The running back wheel already has a great history against Alabama. The Hogs pulled it out again as a way to involve the backs in the passing game.
The Hogs ran the wheel route away from a bunch set...
...and while in a “tight” set.
Tying it all together
The Hogs suddenly look dangerous on offense, with a capable power running game and an efficient short passing game. There’s a lot left to work on. The offense needs a better deep passing game to stretch the defense more and to keep from having to go on long drives against good SEC defenses.
The coaches also have to keep innovating. Arkansas had an advantage this week in the fact that Alabama hadn’t seen a lot of this stuff on film. But now Ole Miss and every future opponent has film. Chad Morris was hired in part because his offense is supposed to always be one step ahead. Can he stay ahead?
Here’s some final stats based on my film review. I left Cole Kelley’s “Steamboat” package plays out, as they are their own offense.
“Base” is a run with a single pulling guard. “Power” is a strongside run with two pulling guards. “Counter” is a weakside run with either two pulling guards or a pulling guard and a tight end.
“Doubles” is a 2x2 formation where the tight end and one receiver are on one side, and twin receivers are on the other. “Spread” is a 2x2 formation where all receivers, including any tight ends, are split out. “Trips” is a 3x1 formation where the outside receiver is on the line; if there’s a tight end to the trips side, he’s in a “wing” (off the line). “Trio” is a 3x1 formation where the middle receiver is on the line. Most uses of trio by the Hogs included a wing TE and two receivers on the trio side. “Trey” is a 3x1 formation where the inside receiver (usually a tight end) is the guy on the line, and two receivers line up outside of him off the line. “Bunch” is a trio that’s really close to the offensive line. “Jumbo” is a 3-TE set. “Twins” is a 2x1 formation for the I-formation where two receivers are split to one side. “Twin TE” formations include two tight ends on the same side.
Doubles with a wing tight end looks to be the main formation. Trey with a tight end on the line and trio with a wing tight end are also common. At least 69 of the 72 plays I watched had at least one tight end on the field.
Up next: Ole Miss. The preview will come later this week, but it’s safe to say the Hogs will need all the offense they can get.