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Box Score Breakdown: Kentucky 24, Arkansas 20

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The Hogs lost again and now the passing game is broken.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

I’m running out of clever lead-ins for these recaps. I started writing here at Arkansas Fight in 2014, so I’ve recapped a lot of terrible Razorback football. We’ve seen a lot change over the last six years and Razorback fans are now starting to get the sense that we’re about to see more.

For the second straight year, the Razorbacks came out of the bye week and looked pitiful. The more time the players spend with the coaching staff, the worse they get. It’s concerning that in three games this year (Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Kentucky), the quarterback who spent all week getting the first-team reps looked awful, while the backup who didn’t get as many reps came in and played much better. That is a major red flag.

Grading the Hogs

  • Treylon Burks: A. He did all he could. On Arkansas’ lone second-half scoring drive, he returned a punt 26 yards to set the Hogs up in good field position, had a nice first down run, and then caught a slant and took it down to the 3. It was nice to see a freshman take over like that.
  • Ben Hicks: B. His pocket presence has improved tremendously since his disastrous start to the year. It’s a shame that for the second straight game, his offensive line let him down on the final drive.
  • Rakeem Boyd: B. More on him below.
  • The defensive line: B. More on this below as well.
  • The offensive line: D-. It opened some nice holes in the run game, but once again, the line absolutely collapsed in pass protection in crunch time. This time, it wasn’t even against a more talented opponent.
  • Nick Starkel: F. He was 7 of 19 for 41 yards. Most of his misses weren’t close. I don’t know what happened. Receivers were running wide open all game. Is his injury affecting his mechanics? Do his coaches not notice, as the SEC Network’s Jordan Rodgers did, that his footwork is a nightmare when he’s trying to throw?
  • Coaching: F. Just pitiful on both sides of the ball. The quarterback draw with Hicks on the final drive was one of the single worst playcalls I think I’ve ever seen.

So now what happens? If Arkansas goes 2-10 or 3-9, which is increasingly likely, do they really fire Chad Morris after two seasons? Firing a coach after two seasons is rightfully rare and should only happen if it blatantly obvious that things are going nowhere. The compromise option — force Morris to fire much of his staff and make major changes — is probably off the table at this point for the obvious reason that a good assistant isn’t coming to Fayetteville to have his job rely on a coach on the hottest seat in the country. The time to make changes was after last season, when I eventually came around to the thinking that OC Joe Craddock and offensive line coach Dustin Fry should probably be shown the door. At this point, it’s too late for that. Morris rolled the dice, and now he’s got six games to demonstrate why he, not his assistants, should still be employed at Arkansas after this year.

Advanced Stats

(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the glossary.)

Quick recap

  • As expected, Arkansas took what Kentucky’s defense gave them on early downs, showing season-best efficiency but little explosiveness. The run game was brutally efficient, but Arkansas didn’t run it enough on standard downs.
  • Unexpectedly, the Hogs were terrible on passing downs thanks to an absolutely disastrous performance by Starkel. This collapse of one the few parts of the game where Arkansas had been strong all year meant that Arkansas didn’t get enough points when Kentucky was reeling.
  • Arkansas was once again terrible at finishing drives. This is a play calling issue, and it serves as the primary argument for Morris and his offensive staff being in way over their head.
  • Kentucky may have rolled up 330 rushing yards, but the Hogs actually did exactly what they needed to: they created enough disruption against the run that Kentucky had a hard time putting together drives until the fourth quarter.
  • That disruption eventually stopped helping, because the Wildcats won this game on passing plays, with wide receiver Lynn Bowden completing 7 of 11 passes for 78 yards and a touchdown and converting a pair of back-breaking third-and-longs with his legs.

Prediction review

  • Projected score: Kentucky 29, Arkansas 26
  • Actual score: Kentucky 24, Arkansas 20
  • Adjusted score: Kentucky 21, Arkansas 17

Our projection was quite close, with the lower-scoring game occurring not because the offenses played worse than expected, but because the run-heavy game left us with fewer total possessions than expected. The adjusted score is even lower, because both of these teams are below average so their offensive performances are slightly downgraded.

Each team had just nine meaningful possessions (each had an end-of-half possession that ended in a knee). Arkansas won field position, special teams, penalties, and rushing, but lost the one thing we could have guaranteed they’d win: passing. That proved to be more than decisive, as there were 13 points of difference between the two teams through the air in a four-point game.

Here’s how the net Offense EVA flowed throughout the game:

Arkansas’ advantage peaked when the Hogs moved into Kentucky territory with a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. It faded for nearly two and a half quarters before Hicks briefly resuscitated the offense... but by then the defense was on its way out. Ugly stuff.

Before we dive into the details, get ready to get frustrated. Let’s start with a refresher on Kentucky’s defense, from the preview:

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).

...

If the Hogs can line up and consistently pound the ball against the Wildcats, that changes this game’s dynamic quite a bit.

Surely, surely, the Hogs’ coaches noticed this too. After all, they’re getting paid a lot of money to notice this kind of stuff.

Let’s find out.

Sure enough, the Hogs had a strong 47% standard downs success rate, but those successful plays gained just 17% of available yards. So the Hogs were very efficient, but not very explosive. But the Hogs’ leverage rate was only 65% — decent, but lower than expected given the high success rate — and the Hogs ran the ball on just 61% of standard downs, despite doing this on the ground:

All told, 54% of rushing attempts were successful. More than 40% gained at least six yards, and the average total yards gained on those runs was 16.2 yards. Despite Kentucky’s 330 rushing yards, the Hogs out-performed them across the board. But Rakeem Boyd (15 carries, 134 yards) had just 15 touches.

Part of the problem is that Boyd simply isn’t very durable. The hope was that he’d be more durable this year after battling nagging injuries in 2018. But this was the kind of the game that Arkansas needed a 25-carry, 160-yard performance, and Boyd just can’t provide that. So the guy with a 64% success rate, a 43% opportunity rate, 2.8 line yards per rush, and 14.3 bonus yards per opportunity couldn’t get enough touches to put his team over the mark. Backup Devwah Whaley has regressed badly over his career and is not a reliable number two option, leaving the Hogs with a “Boyd or pass” offense, which isn’t going to get them very far.

Of course, that analysis assumes that Boyd only got 15 touches because of durability, not because of coaching decisions. It would be hard to believe that the coaches would give Boyd only 15 touches if they knew he could handle more, but I guess you never know. I thought Arkansas threw it way too much on early downs. A standard downs run rate of 61% is much too low.

Back to the rushing numbers, you can see how Arkansas’ defense bought the offense plenty of time. Kentucky had as many runs stuffed (31%) as go for 6+ yards (31%). We discussed this in the preview:

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.

The defensive line got its push. It stopped Kentucky runners on a 3rd-and-1, a 3rd-and-2, and a 4th-and-1. It stuffed nearly a third of runs for zero yards or fewer. It held the Wildcats to a reasonable 2.3 line yards per rush (for context, that would be 11th out of 14 in the SEC over a full season) and a 31% opportunity rate (tied for 9th).

However, the Hog linebackers and safeties couldn’t close on successful run plays fast enough, allowing the Cats to collect a strong 8.8 bonus yards per opportunity run. Much of Kentucky’s run game work was done with sheer volume. But late in the second quarter, Kentucky still had zero points. They didn’t actually take the lead until late in the third quarter. The run defense gave up a lot of yards, but just like against Ole Miss, it bought the offense more than enough time to put this thing away, and the offense just wasn’t interested.

Arkansas was 127th out of 130 FBS teams in ANY/A last year... at 4.4 adjusted net yards per attempt. On Saturday, the Hogs were at 3.4 ANY/A. Just 31% of pass plays were successful. Arkansas allowed a wide receiver to put up respectable passing numbers while, despite a strong running attack, the Hogs’ own passing game could do almost nothing until Hicks came into the game. Arkansas’ staff watched Starkel struggle for basically three quarters and didn’t actually pull him until the Hogs lost the lead. It was a very reactive move that points to a coach who is in over his head.

This is about what you’d expect. Passing bad, running good. The ship that is Arkansas football springs a new leak every week. I’d love to spend hours diving into the film to see if we can piece together strategy and a path forward for the Hogs, but at this point it is fairly obvious that something new will go wrong every week, so it’s pretty pointless.

Arkansas averaged just 3.25 points per scoring chance (two field goals, a touchdown, and a turnover on downs), causing them to fall from 113th to 114th in the country in that statistic. Again, that’s all play calling. Good play callers make good calls when the offense is about to score.

Apropos of nothing, the nation’s top team at converting scoring opportunities into points is Appalachian State, which is coached by Arkansas Tech alum Eli Drinkwitz. He’d be a good hire for... someone. Anyway, carry on.

Conclusions

I don’t think Arkansas can keep Chad Morris around for another year if the Hogs go 2-10. If they go 3-9, it’s 50-50 at best. Going 4-8 means winning an SEC game and probably buys Morris another year. So it’s basically a two-game season at this point.

Here are the EV+ predictions for the two big ones:

  • Western Kentucky 20, Arkansas 15
  • Mississippi State 26, Arkansas 25

These are probably the only two chances to win a game. Morris probably needs to go 2-0 here, which is doable. Basketball season starts soon.