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Box Score Breakdown: Mississippi State 54, Arkansas 24

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Don’t worry Hog fans: it will all be over soon.

NCAA Football: San Jose State at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

If there were any lingering doubts about Chad Morris’s ability to get things turned around in Fayetteville, those were pretty much ended Saturday. It was a game in which the Hogs needed to show progress, and it ended in a brutal 54-24 loss. Technically, there’s still a chance for Morris to save his job: wins over Western Kentucky and bad-away-from-home Missouri would be enough. But it’s not likely at this point.

Mississippi State had its largest halftime lead in a conference game in 20 years. The Bulldogs set a school record for total offense in an SEC game (640) and rushed for 460 yards. Arkansas’ starting quarterback — this time Ben Hicks — was pitiful against a bad defense, going 4 of 13 for 44 yards and an interception before being pulled late in the second quarter.

There were several other issues that I noticed during the game:

  • On the second series, the Hogs had to call a timeout because they couldn’t get lined up right. The crowd booed loudly, and there’s a good reason: that was only the sixth play of the game, so it should have been part of the Hogs’ scripted plays. Most teams script their first 10-15 plays... how do you mess that up?
  • After recovering a Bulldog muffed punt in the second quarter, the Hogs’ first play was a weakside run to the short side. It was the exact same playcall as the Rakeem Boyd touchdown just a few plays before: same formation, same call, same personnel. Is that significant? Maybe not... but I wonder if it was made out of confusion: “What? We got the ball back? Quick! Hurry! Run that play that worked earlier!” The term “in over your head” applies here.
  • Mississippi State’s defensive line — which is not that good — ran all kinds of stunts and games against Arkansas’ offensive line. It honestly looked like a college team playing a high school team. The left side of Arkansas’ offensive line is probably the worst I’ve ever seen in major college football. Sometimes it wasn’t even complicated (hopefully one of these days someone tells Shane Clenin that he was supposed to block that guy):
  • Morris sent Hicks back on the field on the field down 31-10 in the second quarter to a chorus of boos. That was the most in-over-your-head, pitiful coaching move I’ve seen in a long time. How in the world were Chad Morris and his hired yes-man Joe Craddock the only people in the stadium that knew that was a bad idea? You’re down by 21. Your quarterback has played terribly, not just this game but all season: Hicks has not led the offense to more than 10 points in any half he’s quarterbacked this year. The crowd is booing every time he leaves the field. And then he throws a pick-six. That should not have happened. Ben Hicks should not have been subjected to that. He deserved better.
  • We’ve said this before, but the design of Arkansas’ passing game is so bad. From a schematic standpoint, it’s just awful. I still have no idea what Chad Morris wants his offense to look like. I’m going to keep saying that until he’s gone or until I figure out what he even wants. He clearly doesn’t want the misdirection/option run game that I thought he’d learned from Gus Malzahn, because if he did, he’d have been running it with KJ Jefferson all season.
  • Arkansas won the toss and deferred. The other three times that’s happened, the Hogs promptly gave up a score and fell behind before ever touching the ball. Guess what happened this time?

In His Own Words

Oh yeah, and there’s one more thing.

Morris is one of the most coach-speaky coaches in the country — which is annoying — but there are some sinister undertones to what he says. Take his post-game responses to questions about K.J. Jefferson and Ben Hicks, for example.

Speaking of Jefferson, Morris was quick to note that he had “kept it as simple as possible” for KJ, saying this before giving the freshman any serious praise. This is patronizing and insulting, and it’s an attempt to justify not playing KJ in the first place. First, this is Morris trying to steal some credit for KJ’s success. Second, Jefferson has been on campus exactly as long as Nick Starkel, but I haven’t heard Morris say he was simplifying the offense for Starkel since the first week or two.

Now compare that to what Morris said about Hicks. Morris did note that the offense didn’t work well with Hicks, but he quickly noted that Hicks had to deal with “some drops.” I re-watched all 13 throws by Hicks and only saw one pass that could be considered a drop: an early-second-quarter pass on 3rd-and-2 to Tyson Morris that was partially deflected by the defender. It was a good throw and Morris probably still should have caught it. But that’s it. The other eight non-completions were on Hicks. Several were too high, two were behind Mike Woods over the middle, and the pick-six was a hideous throw that would have been incomplete if it hadn’t been picked off.

So Morris tried to take some credit for KJ’s success and then threw his receivers under the bus to protect Hicks. Why? Because he knows he’s badly mishandled the quarterback situation and is trying to defend the indefensible. This is not the mark of a competent coach who’s leading a rebuilding program in the right direction.

What Now?

There are three games left, and the Hogs have a ton of freshman who can get better and help build this program no matter who the coach is in 2020.

The obvious thing that needs to happen is that John Stephen Jones or KJ Jefferson need to get all remaining snaps at quarterback. Jefferson seems like the most obvious candidate. He ran the inverted veer well and is more athletic than JSJ, making him a serious threat to run. After the game, Rakeem Boyd opened some eyes by noting that JSJ and KJ’s athleticism “opened up more holes for me.” The read option run game works best when you have a running quarterback. Both quarterbacks also made really nice throws, though Jefferson’s was more of a great catch by Treylon Burks.

If Jefferson starts and plays well over the next three games, there’s a decreased chance that he’d consider transferring in the event that Arkansas changes coaches. Obviously, a coaching change will trigger a wave of transfers that the Hogs can’t afford, but keeping KJ would provide a good start for the next coach.

So who should start? Well, given the way Chad Morris’s decisions to this point have played out, he should consider what his instinct tells him... and then follow George Constanza’s lead and do the exact opposite.

Hicks should probably not throw another pass in a Razorback uniform. I feel bad for the guy: the boos when he entered and left the field were loud on Saturday. They weren’t really directed at him, but he’s aware that they were about him. His coach repeatedly put him in a bad situation. He’s forced to run a badly-designed offense on a poorly-coached team when obviously-better options to replace him are available on the bench. That’s not a fun situation to be in. Morris being the last person to realize what needs to happen is yet another strike against him.

Starkel should be told that he’ll get another shot to win the quarterback job in the spring, but for now, his mechanics and decision-making are not in a good place. It’s been a long fall for the former four-star recruit, and I hate that he hasn’t gotten the coaching he needed to meet his potential as a passer.

Advanced Stats

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

Quick recap

  • Mississippi State had a historic offensive day, led by insane standard downs success. The Hogs didn’t get destroyed in terms of stuffs or line yards, but Mississippi State was both efficient and explosive on the ground.
  • The Bulldogs threw the ball as well as they had to. They had a solid 47% success rate on passing downs and were +14% in marginal third downs, so they were able to recover even when the Hogs managed to contain the run.
  • Arkansas’ offense generated a bunch of explosive runs, but that’s pretty much it. The Hogs matched the Bulldogs’ explosiveness on the ground, but didn’t quite match their efficiency or their volume.
  • Arkansas’ passing game was a nightmare once again. No further explanation is required.

I’m not sure I’ve seen +21.4 Rushing EVA by a single team in a single game. That means the Bulldogs’ run game generated 21.4 points above the average FBS team.

Both teams ran well, but Mississippi State’s 63% rushing success rate ended all Razorback resistance. This kind of efficiency was the fear going into the game, from the stats study:

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 efficient (113th).

Another problem for Arkansas’ defense: Mississippi State entered the game among the SEC’s worst teams in terms of protecting the quarterback, but the Hogs didn’t get a single sack. They got decent pressure, but never finished the job against MSU backup Tommy Stevens, who was filling in for the injured Garrett Shrader.

It’s especially telling how bad Arkansas’ defense is, given that these are the quarterback situations they’ve been facing this year:

  • Portland State: starter knocked out in 3rd quarter
  • Ole Miss: starter for this game has since been benched
  • Colorado State: starter knocked out in 3rd quarter
  • Kentucky: wide receiver made first career start
  • Alabama: starter out
  • Mississippi State: starter out

Next week’s opponent, Western Kentucky, is rolling with Ty Storey after the original starter got hurt. The final opponent, Missouri, has been dealing with injuries to Kelly Bryant that have forced them to play former Fayetteville Bulldog Taylor Powell at times.

That’s a wall of green for Mississippi State’s offense. Arkansas’ defense almost entirely consists of Sosa Agim making plays: linebackers and secondary were absolutely ravaged in this game. I started to create a montage of Bumper Pool missing open-field tackles but decided it was too cruel and called it off. I probably could have created such a montage for several defenders in this game. Kylin Hill is a really good running back... but not that good.

Offensively, the Hogs got another solid performance from Boyd (11 carries, 114 yards, TD), while Jefferson and A’Montae Spivey also added opportunity runs. The Hogs allowed no sacks, but the line struggled, as mentioned above.

Conclusion

A few weeks ago, I wrote that as long as the Hogs finished better than -4 in adjusted scoring margin, Morris should probably get another year, because that would be noticeable progress over last year. If the Hogs ended up worse than -4, then firing Morris becomes a legitimate option. Well... things have gone south. The Hogs entered the Mississippi State game sitting at -6.9 (95th) and left at -8.6 (105th). Last year’s Hogs were -9.3 (101st), so this year’s team isn’t even a full point better than last year’s. Out of 130 FBS teams, it’s actually worse. Morris fielded the worst team in modern Arkansas history and then did it again.

So yeah, here’s AD Hunter Yurachek mentally changing his Thanksgiving plans, because things are about to get busy in his office.

There are still three games left.

I wrote about John Stephen Jones running the option in the Alabama game. That’s what Arkansas needs to do from here on in. Jefferson executed the inverted veer well and provides a more athletic version of JSJ. The Hogs should consider a run-heavy approach with a maximum of 20 pass attempts per game over the rest of the season. Morris needs to get creative with end-arounds, sweeps, powers, counters, options, and draws. All the kind of stuff he learned from Malzahn and ran at the high school level. Give easy throws like swings, quick outs, slants, and screens. Pick shot plays rarely and carefully.

That’s the only way Arkansas moves the ball over the rest of the year. The pass game design is simply bad and the passers for it aren’t good enough. The Hogs have to have a running quarterback and a run-heavy approach to make this work. The Hogs will enter next Saturday with a big advantage: not only does the defensive staff know a lot about Ty Storey, but WKU’s defensive staff has basically no film on Jefferson or JSJ. Time to let the young guys show what they can do.