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Arkansas vs. Colorado State Preview

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A big road test for the Hogs could quickly turn into a shootout.

Eastern Illinois v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Any chances of Arkansas making a bowl in Chad Morris’ first season may hinge on a road win against Colorado State.

The Hogs opened as 12-point favorites (I’ve seen it as high as 13.5), which is more a factor of the Rams’ (0-2) rough start to the year. This piece will take an in-depth look at Colorado State’s offense and defense, including some key factors to watch.

Overview

Head coach Mike Bobo is in his fourth season. He came to Fort Collins after 14 seasons as Georgia’s quarterbacks coach (2001-2014) and offensive coordinator (2007-2014) under Mark Richt. He’s considered a master developer of pro-style quarterbacks, tutoring Matthew Stafford, D.J. Shockley, Aaron Murray, and others.

However, his seat his warming. His record is just 21-20 and he’s now 0-4 against archrival Colorado following last week’s 45-13 thrashing in the Mile High Showdown. The first quarter proved to be a nightmare for the Rams’ defense, as Colorado’s quarterback was 12 for 12 through the air and the Buffaloes piled up 254 yards of total offense… in the first quarter alone.

That loss follows a 43-34 upset loss to Hawaii in Week 0. Hawaii was just 3-9 last year, but the Rainbow Warriors jumped to a 37-7 lead in the third quarter before the Rams mounted a mini-comeback that made the final score more respectable.

Scouting report

Strengths

  • Solid quarterback play. Washington grad transfer K.J. Carta-Samuels has already thrown for 713 yards (356.5 per game) and six touchdowns with two interceptions, including a 537-yard performance in the Week 0 loss to Hawaii.
  • Good receivers. CSU is short on depth, but long on top-end talent at receiver.

Weaknesses

  • Awful pass defense. The Rams are allowing opponents to complete a staggering 77 percent of passes for 378 yards per game. Hawaii and Colorado quarterbacks posted QBRs of 97 and 98, respectively.
  • Subpar run defense. The Hogs have rushing problems of their own, but the Rams defense is hardly a brick wall. Hawaii rolled up 199 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground, while Colorado totaled 258 yards and 6.4 per carry.
  • Iffy run game. Leading rusher Izzy Matthews is averaging just 4.1 yards per carry and the Rams as a team have zero rushing touchdowns. The quarterback is not a run major threat.

When Colorado State has the ball

Bobo’s pro-style roots mean he wants to keep his offense balanced (around 50-50 run-pass), but he’s working with a bad defense and has seen his team fall behind big in the opening minutes of both games, so CSU has tilted pass-heavy (58% pass) so far this year.

Quarterback

  • K.J. Carta-Samuels, 62.7% completion, 356.5 yards per game, 6 touchdowns, 2 interceptions

Receivers

  • Olabisi Johnson, 12 receptions, 239 yards, 3 touchdowns
  • Preston Williams, 15 receptions, 237 yards, 2 touchdowns
  • Warren Jackson, 6 receptions, 84 yards
  • Cameron Butler, 6 receptions, 35 yards

The Rams only returned two receivers with a career catch (Johnson and Williams), and they have more than half the teams completions and almost three-quarters of its receiving yards.

Bobo’s pro-style system will use two- and three-wide formations on standard downs and shotgun four-wide looks on passing downs. I saw a lot of I-formation early against Colorado…

…but in both games, the Rams failed to establish the run and quickly abandoned their efforts in favor of a more pass-happy spread attack.

Running Back

  • Izzy Matthews, 30 rushes, 93 yards, 3.1 yards per rush

CSU hasn’t had a chance to get the run game going. Matthews is a senior with nearly 2,000 career rushing yards, but he hasn’t averaged better than 4.8 yards per rush in a season since his freshman campaign in 2015.

The Rams offensive line includes a lot of veterans but lost 2017’s two best players to graduation. Hawaii didn’t manage a sack but Colorado got three.

When Arkansas has the ball

After plummeting to 103rd in Defense S&P+ last season, Bobo fired his defensive coordinator and hired John Jancek. The longtime Butch Jones assistant was Tennessee’s defensive coordinator from 2013 to 2015 until he was let go despite fielding competent defenses in Knoxville. He’s bounced around in assistant roles in 2016 and 2017 and now inherits a mess in Fort Collins.

The Rams are missing a lot of key pieces even from that defense. Linebacker Josh Watson, the team’s top tackler, is back, but very little else is. Colorado State is breaking in two new safeties and a new cornerback and it has shown so far. Hawaii shovel-passed the Rams to death, with quarterback Cole McDonald throwing for 418 yards and three touchdowns while adding 96 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. And last Friday was a debacle, with quarterback Steven Montez completing 22 of 25 passes for 338 yards and four touchdowns.

In watching film, the safeties seem to have trouble covering the entire field (Ty Storey, Jordan Jones, and La’Michael Pettway are probably happy to see that) and the defense also misses a lot of tackles, leading to tackling being a group effort.

The Rams have also struggled with anything on the edge, and both opponents have attacked them in that way. Hawaii found success with a little inside shovel play.

Colorado used “pop” passes to a sweeping receiver, and the Buffaloes were able to open up huge running lanes with the outside run game.

The main player to watch is Watson, the middle linebacker, who leads the team with 28 tackles. The Rams have just one sack through two games and just eight tackles for loss (the Hogs had eight in the opener against EIU).

Keys to the game

  1. Attack the edge of the defense. The Rams have had trouble setting the edge this year, allowing opponents to run wild on outside runs, quarterback scrambles, and shovel passes. We didn’t see much of that from Arkansas against EIU, but that could change Saturday.
  2. Bring some havoc. If given time, Carta-Samuels may shred this Arkansas secondary and could turn this game into a shootout. The Rams have struggled to establish the run and had some difficulty protecting the quarterback last week, so they are dependent on their QB having time to throw.
  3. Win turnovers. The Hogs went +5 in turnover margin against EIU. Don’t expect that to continue, but until Arkansas’ run game improves, the Hogs cannot afford to give the ball away.