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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Mississippi State

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Mississippi State limps into Fayetteville for a battle to stay out of the SEC West cellar.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Is this the Game of the Year for Arkansas? If it is, that’s not a great sign, but here we are.

Through one and three-quarters seasons, Chad Morris is 4-16 and 0-13 in the SEC. That’s the worst start to a coaching tenure in Hog history. A total lack of offensive identity has many fans wondering if there’s any point in giving Morris a third season. Despite the frustration, it’s not going to take much for Morris to guarantee he’ll be back. Beating Mississippi State basically guarantees it.

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

Other SEC teams are struggling, too, and Mississippi State is among them. The Bulldogs have cratered to 73rd as they’ve struggled to find a competent quarterback and get off the field on defense (sound familiar?). Losers of four straight, they’ll come to Fayetteville desperate for a win for fading second-year coach Joe Moorhead.

Let’s Have Some Fun

Almost everything about football this year has been bad and not fun, so let’s spice things up. Here’s a fun interactive graph I made.

The graph charts Arkansas’ net EVA over the course of the season. It’s a running total of Arkansas’ Offense EVA minus the opponents’ Offense EVA. On the menu (top right on a computer or tablet, top if you’re on a phone) you can select a particular game to get a closer look at the game flow. Hover over the line to see each play.

Pretty cool, right? There’s a lot we can get from this. You can see how the Hogs were so-so close until they ran into the Auburn-Alabama buzzsaw. If you choose the Auburn game, you can see how the Hogs got off to an awful start, played Auburn to a draw for half the game, then fell apart at the end. Choose Colorado State, and you can see the offense’s fast start, struggles for a while, and then strong finish. Choose Texas A&M and you can see a back-and-forth, evenly-matched game.

Here’s another one. This charts key run/pass ratios. The default is all-season, but you can again choose any individual game (don’t choose “Arkansas”... that will ‘null-out’ the whole chart) to see what stats were key.

There’s lots to explore here, too. Hundreds of words of recaps all distilled down to some images. Choose Colorado State and see that the Hogs gave up too many big runs but won with a big passing performance. Choose Kentucky and see that both teams ran well, but the Hogs inexplicably couldn’t throw the ball. And so forth, and so on. If you find any interesting tidbits, leave ‘em in the comments!

Meet the Bulldogs

Mississippi State comes in at about a field goal worse than Western Kentucky on a neutral field, so this is a big, big game if the Hogs don’t want to go 2-10 again.

Scouting report

  • The Bulldogs are run-heavy and are very efficient when running the ball, but they have one of the least explosive offenses in all of college football.
  • For the first time in a while, the Hogs are facing an offensive line that really struggles to protect its quarterback.
  • The Bulldog defense doesn’t give up many big plays, but does allow a lot of efficient ones.
  • The defensive front generates very little havoc and can be pushed around a competent offensive line in the run game. They don’t get a ton of pressure on the passer.
  • The backside is fast: they don’t allow many big runs or big passes, but they do allow a high completion rate.

Overall, this game presents an interesting mix of matchups: Mississippi State’s ability to curtail big plays is a big problem for an Arkansas offense that’s pretty dependent on them, while the Bulldogs’ inability to protect the quarterback means Arkansas’ defensive front has an opportunity to shine.

When Mississippi State has the ball

At 127th out of 130, the Bulldogs are among the nation’s worst teams at generating big plays, which plays right into Arkansas’ hands (29th). On the other hand, MSU is 34th in offensive efficiency, which is bad for a Razorback defense that isn’t (113th).

In short, expect MSU is be very conservative on early downs and work hard to stay ahead of schedule, as the Bulldogs are only 72nd in leverage rate. Similar to the Kentucky game, Arkansas will need to create some havoc on early downs to get MSU behind the chains. This is setting up to another game where we get late in the third quarter and Mississippi State only has 14 points or so. The Razorback defense isn’t good, but it keeps buying the offense time to make a move.

It’s strength-on-strength in the trenches. The Hogs have made a living by stopping short-yardage runs and generating run stuffs. Mississippi State really cannot afford to go backwards in the run game. The Bulldogs don’t get many big runs, but they will be more than happy to wear the Hog front out. The best chance to disrupt drives is to put MSU behind the chains.

Running back Kylin Hill is the workhorse. He’s run for nearly 800 yards at 5.1 per carry. After a really bad three-game stretch against LSU, Tennessee, and Auburn (combined 43 carries, 92 yards, zero touchdowns), he went for 150 and a score last week against Texas A&M. He doesn’t get many big runs but he keeps the chains moving.

When the Bulldogs get the pass away, they are pretty efficient, although not very explosive. But that’s a big if: they are 111th in sack rate, and the Hogs really need to feast here. Arkansas’ defense is among the worst in the Power 5 when the pass is in the air, so preventing the pass at all is the best the Hogs can do.

MSU has turned to freshman Garrett Shrader to run the offense after Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens struggled to start the year. Shrader has played okay, throwing for more than 1,000 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Shrader is a run threat: he’s hit 60+ rushing yards in each of his last five starts. Scrambling on third down is a big threat, so the Hogs will have to actually make the tackle if the rush gets to him.

When Arkansas has the ball

Mississippi State doesn’t allow many big plays, but can be beaten by efficient offenses. They allow a very high leverage rate (95th) and don’t get much disruption against the run or pass. They are decent on third down (55th), though not on passing downs in general (97th in passing downs success rate).

This chart is why I think that if the Hogs are going to make the switch to John Stephen Jones as quarterback, they should do it for this game. Arkansas has not run the ball efficiently at all this year from whatever offense Morris is working on, but running the ball efficiently is an ideal way to attack the Bulldogs.

I diagrammed the option-heavy offense the Hogs ran with JSJ earlier this week. The result was unexpected rushing efficiency: +20% marginal stuff rate, +18% marginal line yards, +23% marginal opportunity rate... and that’s with JSJ playing barely half the game. Obviously, there are some catches. Alabama still had starters on the field for the touchdown drive, but they probably weren’t giving 100% effort as the score was 48-7. We don’t know if JSJ can attack the defense vertically, and you can only last without a vertical attack for so long.

We could also see a two-QB look, with JSJ getting some drives and Nick Starkel or Ben Hicks getting some. No one wants that, but it might be the best way to ensure that the Hogs are consistently providing different threats to the defense. After all, MSU’s pass defense isn’t great.

The Bulldogs don’t get a ton of pressure and allow a lot of short, safe throws. They are decent at limiting big passes, but that’s all they can do here.

My guess on what will happen is that Hicks (or Starkel, if Hicks isn’t 100%) will start and JSJ will be used in a similar role to last game. If Hicks plays well and the offense puts up yards and points, then JSJ will only get a handful of snaps and his role will be situational. If Hicks struggles, then JSJ could up taking all snaps well before we get to garbage time. That wouldn’t necessarily be an optimal use of limited practice resources, but I certainly understand the logic behind it and I don’t think it would be a bad coaching decision. How it’s handled in-game is key.

Keys to the Game

  1. Find a way to move the ball. This is not the time to dogmatically insist that “we are going to install our offense and we are thinking long-term.” The Hogs need to find a way to score points in this game, or there may not end up being a long-term. Throwing different looks at the Bulldogs, perhaps with two different quarterbacks, might be a good strategy. The key will be managing that in-game and making sure that the guys on the field are the ones that give the offense the best chance to score.
  2. Pressure the quarterback. Arkansas has faced some of the best pass protections in the country this year and finally a team that struggles to keep its quarterback upright comes to town. The Hogs’ secondary will be in for a long night if Shrader has time to throw or chances to scramble, so the rush has to hit home.
  3. Win turnovers. This is probably going to be a grind-it-out game where every possession is valuable. After winning the turnover battle in a couple losses (Ole Miss, Texas A&M), the Hogs lost it badly against Auburn and Alabama. Going +1 would be really big.