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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Kentucky

The Hogs will have to survive a fight in the trenches if they want their first SEC win.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Hammer Down Saturday. This weekend’s tilt in Lexington might mark Chad Morris’ last chance to keep a huge chunk of the fanbase from jumping off the ship.

Morris is 4-13 at Arkansas. He’s 0-10 in the SEC and has non-conference losses to Colorado State, North Texas, and San Jose State. He’s rebuilding, and his teams have shown competence at times, but at some point, progress has to be made. And Saturday, the Hogs will face a very vulnerable opponent.

Meet the Wildcats

Mark Stoops is in his seventh season in Lexington. He was hired the same year as Bret Bielema. Like Bielema, he took a long time to get the wheels turning and thus burned up a lot of goodwill at the beginning of his tenure, meaning that this season’s rebuild isn’t sitting well with fans. His first five seasons ended 2-10, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6, and 7-6. Last year came the breakthrough: years of building up the defense and constantly altering the offense led to a competent product that went 10-3 and won the Citrus Bowl, a huge accomplishment at Kentucky.

Then everyone left. Star running back Bennie Snell (1,449 yards, 16 touchdowns) is gone, as is all-SEC linebacker Josh Allen. The 2019 Wildcats opened the year with wins over Toledo (38-24) and Eastern Michigan (38-17) and have since lost three straight SEC games: Florida (29-21), Mississippi State (28-13), and South Carolina (24-7). Their already-poor offense has gotten worse, and the much younger defense has struggled at times.

Saturday’s game looms large for the Wildcats: a loss to the Hogs would put Kentucky at 0-4 in SEC play with Georgia and Missouri still on the schedule. At that point, 6-6 would be best-case scenario, and missing a bowl would be likely. Expect Kentucky to play like their season depends on it.

It also looms large for Arkansas: Kentucky is the weakest team left on the schedule. Right now, they’re actually slightly below Western Kentucky, Arkansas’ remaining non-conference opponent. Kentucky is 82nd in adjusted scoring margin; Arkansas’ next-worst SEC opponent is Mississippi State at 50th. If the Hogs are going to win an SEC game, this is probably it.

The EV+ prediction is in: Kentucky 29, Arkansas 26. This game is actually a 26-26 tie before homefield advantage is added in. It won’t take much to push the Hogs over the top.

Scouting report

  • Kentucky’s offense is balanced on early downs but will lean run-heavy if it gets ahead of the chains. The offense is very poor on third down and when it falls behind schedule.
  • The Wildcat offensive line is very good and keeps things churning on the ground.
  • The passing game has been mostly a disaster over the last few weeks. Stringing together completions of any distance has been a problem, although many completions go for big gains.
  • The defense is among the best in the nation at limiting big plays, especially on early downs... but it will give up short runs and passes all day long. It’s especially bad at disrupting an efficient run game.
  • Kentucky’s bend-don’t-break defense often breaks: the Cats are very bad on passing downs, including third down.
  • Kentucky has one of the nation’s best punters, which gives them a huge advantage if this game turns into a field position slog.

When Kentucky has the ball

A proper bend-don’t-break defense has three components: first, don’t give up big plays; second, be solid on third down; and third, be good at some form of disruption to put your opponent behind the chains every now and then. If you do those things, you can be terrible at standard downs defense and still be fine overall.

Arkansas was certainly terrible at standard downs defense last year: the Hogs’ defense finished 107th in standard downs success rate and 122nd in leverage rate. Opponents had little trouble picking up modest gains here and there. But the Hogs also had components of a passable bend-don’t-break defense: they were 27th in rushing marginal explosiveness, 42nd in marginal third down defense, and 31st in marginal sack rate. They gave up way too many huge pass plays (126th in marginal passing explosiveness) but many of the ingredients were there.

I wondered if John Chavis would try to build on that or go in a different direction. It seems we have an answer. Arkansas is still pretty bad on standard downs: 99th in leverage rate and 62nd in standard downs success rate. The Hogs still limit big plays: their marginal explosiveness defense has risen from 108th to 26th in the FBS, with passing marginal explosiveness defense jumping from 126th to 50th. But third down defense has collapsed from 42nd to 113th. Without the ability to actually get off the field, the bend-don’t-break approach doesn’t work. Instead, the Hogs are starting to look more like a disruptive defense: marginal sack rate has held strong (33rd) and the marginal stuff rate against the run has risen from 125th to 45th. The Hogs have also scored three defensive touchdowns in their last four games.

The increase in disruption has taken (some) of the pressure off a young secondary that has a hard time holding up in coverage. The Hogs are 102nd in passing marginal efficiency defense and are particularly bad when they know a pass is coming, ranking 117th in passing downs success rate defense. If the Hogs’ front can’t get a sack or pressure, then a completed pass is likely to be the result of any dropback.

All of this is very important for Saturday: if Chavis is actually building a disruptive defense in Fayetteville (as opposed to a five-game statistical quirk), then that disruption is going to have to show up in Lexington. It’s the key matchup in this game.

Stoops tried to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Bob Stoops and install an Air Raid offense at Kentucky. After this failed, Stoops re-invented his offense as a more balanced spread attack. The Cats want to be balanced on standard downs, but they aren’t efficient enough to be a grind-it-out offense, so they spend way too much time in the unhappy confines of passing downs.

The run game is their strength, and the performance of the offense over the last couple of games suggest that UK will go all-out to try and establish the run against an Arkansas defense that’s good enough to cause some problems.

The clash of Kentucky’s very talented offense line and Arkansas’ pretty talented defensive front is probably the matchup of the game. Just forcing a “push” would be a huge win for Arkansas’ defense.

Kentucky’s line grinds out line yards and keeps defenders out of the backfield. With the talented Snell gone to the NFL, the duo of Kasim Rose (330 yards, 5.0 per rush) and Kavosiey Smoke (283 yards, 6.2 per rush) has taken over backfield duties. Both backs are okay at generating big runs, but while Kentucky’s run game always moves forward, it doesn’t get quite as many big runs as it would probably like.

As is rapidly becoming the standard across major college football, they’ll use a lot of misdirection and test the edge in the run game:

The quarterback is a minimal threat to run, but they’ll do enough read stuff to keep the backside of the defense honest:

Here’s a quick breakdown of how Kentucky runs the ball:

  • First Down: Kentucky is very balanced on first down at 49% run and 51% pass. They are very good at first-down running: 49% success, 38% opportunity, and 3.0 line yards per rush.
  • Second Down (Passing Down): Kentucky is most run-heavy on second down. Even on second-and-long, they run 43% and pass 57%. Their success rate in these situations is low, but they get a lot of big runs when they are successful.
  • Second Down (Standard Down): The Wildcats are 69% run on second down and short or medium. They only get 2.2 line yards per rush in these situations, but they are fairly efficient.
  • Third Down (Passing Down): On third-and-long, the Wildcats run just 10% of the time. These runs are actually pretty good because the opponent is expecting a pass, but there have only been five this year (three successful).
  • Third Down (Standard Down): On third-and-short, Kentucky runs 76% of the time. This is where their offense often breaks down: these runs are successful just 38% of the time, and a whopping 46% of third-and-short runs are stuffed. That’s why Kentucky is 118th in power marginal efficiency.

Basically, Kentucky is very successful when running on first down. They become more run-heavy if they get ahead of the chains, but they get diminishing returns when running on second and third down. A key to slowing them down is to stop their run game after first down.

It’s been a while since Kentucky had a strong passing attack, but the Wildcats expected 2018 starter Terry Wilson to be competent leading the offense in 2019. Instead, Wilson was lost for the season with an injury in a Week 2 win over Eastern Michigan, leaving the keys in the hands of junior Sawyer Smith, whose time behind center has been an adventure.

Smith threw a 54-yard touchdown pass on his first drive in the game against EMU and then led the Wildcats to a 21-10 lead over Florida in the third quarter. That’s when the wheels fell off. Florida outscored Kentucky 19-0 over the rest of that game, and then Smith had two disastrous outings as the offense scored 13 points against Mississippi State and 7 points against South Carolina. Against the Gamecocks, Smith was 11 of 32 for 90 yards and two interceptions. He’s completing less than half of his passes and has four touchdowns against five interceptions this year.

Still, he has at times looked decent and Arkansas’ pass defense is the cure for whatever ails a passing offense. The Hogs gave up 400 passing yards to SJSU’s Josh Love, so there’s little reason to believe the Razorbacks can totally shut the Wildcats down through the air.

Here’s a more visual look at Kentucky’s offense by down and situation. Note that they generate more EVA by running than throwing in each of the five down types.

When Arkansas has the ball

Kentucky’s 2018 defense was almost too good for a program of Kentucky’s prestige, so the drop may not be a surprise. The Wildcats have tanked from 5th to 59th in adjusted points allowed per game and from 25th to 87th in Defense PAN.

They possess one of the most polarized units in the country: getting big plays against them is very difficult (especially through the air), but getting successful plays against them is quite easy. The key to attacking this defense is patience, something Nick Starkel has only shown in bits and pieces during his time as a starter.

We have to walk through these numbers slowly, because Kentucky is all over the place. Things that work against them work really well, and things that don’t work against them really don’t work.

  • Kentucky doesn’t give up big plays on standard downs (18th), but because the Wildcats have a hard time preventing successful plays (75th), they are unable to knock opponents off-schedule (96th in leverage rate).
  • Despite a decent pass defense, Kentucky is terrible on passing downs. They allow a whopping 44% success rate (118th) and give up a lot of big plays as well. They face a lot of third downs, but allow a high rate of conversions. Basically, their bend-don’t-break approach breaks way too often.
  • These numbers tell us that Kentucky will force long drives and wait for the offense to make a mistake or get greedy. They are pretty dependent on turnovers, penalties, or sacks.

I think the key here is who wins standard downs. Arkansas is really bad in all facets and Kentucky is somewhat mixed. The problem that Arkansas’ offense presents is that stopping it on early downs doesn’t guarantee much, since the Hogs are comfortable behind the chains. If Arkansas is patient in its offensive approach, then the offense will generate plenty of points.

Through five games, Kentucky has picked off five passes, recorded 24 deflections, and sacked the quarterback 12 times. Completions they do give up don’t generally go for big gains, and that’s helped them keep their ANY/A low. But they’ll give you shorter passes pretty much all day. Again, the key for Arkansas’ offense is to be patient in attacking and focus on keeping the chains moving, not going for the home run.

Florida’s Feleipe Franks has all day to throw, but gets greedy on a 1st and 10 and his deep heave is picked off. This is the kind of stuff that won’t work on Saturday.

This game has Cheyenne O’Grady written all over it (actually, all games do). Getting O’Grady 12 or even 15 targets could be a winning recipe against a defense that allows underneath completions.

The young receivers also need to step up: slants and swing passes to Treylon Burks and Mike Woods and deep outs to Trey Knox are probably also good plays. Downfield shots should probably be limited to one-on-one situations. If Arkansas can’t establish the run, those opportunities will be very rare.

There’s a lot of red when Arkansas tries to run the ball. Kentucky is bad at everything, while Arkansas is badly inefficient, able to only hit the occasional big run. If the Hogs can line up and consistently pound the ball against the Wildcats, that changes this game’s dynamic quite a bit. Of course, if Kentucky holds the Hogs under 100 rushing yards, that also changes things. This would be a good week for the run game to re-emerge.

I’d like to see Rakeem Boyd look a little more like his 2018 self and break off some big runs. The Hogs can survive a low success rate from him if he delivers several big runs. Kentucky’s defense is more likely to allow a big run than a big pass. This is the kind of game that would normally favor the efficient Devwah Whaley, so if he gets the hot hand, I wouldn’t mind seeing him get 10 or 12 carries. Whaley is also an excellent receiver (as is Chase Hayden), so utilizing the backs in the passing game could be devastating against a generous defense like Kentucky’s.

On special teams

Kentucky’s field goal unit has had a nightmarish season. Starter Chance Poore was just 3 of 7 when he was replaced by Matt Ruffolo, whose lone attempt over the last two games was a 29-yard make. If a UK drive breaks down around the Hog 30, expect Stoops to go for it, a fact that should figure into Arkansas’ defensive gameplan.

Punting is a different story. Punter Max Duffy is averaging a whopping 51.1 yards per punt, with a net of just over 49 yards. He’s allowed only a couple of returns, so it remains to be seen if Treylon Burks and the 12th-ranked punt return unit the country can make an impact on the game. The big takeaway from Duffy’s punting is that Arkansas cannot afford to turn this game into a field position slog. That’s what Kentucky wants. Arkansas needs some big plays on both sides of the ball. The Hogs need to finish drives and make Kentucky go backwards as often as possible.

Kentucky’s return and coverage units are fine. UK is 17th in punt returns, so they have plenty of means with which to create good field position. They are 81st in kickoff returns and 57th in kickoff coverage. Overall, the Wildcats can make kicking and punting work in their favor.

Keys to the Game

  1. Patience on offense. Kentucky will allow short stuff all day. Stops depend on the Hogs getting greedy or committing penalties. The Hogs need to keep going back to the run and working on easy passes to open receivers.
  2. Finish drives. As we’ve discussed at length, finishing drives has been Arkansas’ biggest offensive weakness this year. The Hogs are 113th in points scored per trip inside the 40. Kentucky is going to shorten this game, leaving fewer opportunities to get points. The Hogs cannot have good drives come up empty.
  3. Win second and third down. The Wildcat offense is strong on first down, but it struggles on both second and third down. The Hogs can survive allowing Kentucky to get decent standard downs production if it can get stops in short yardage and on passing downs.