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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Western Kentucky

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Ty Storey and Western Kentucky come to Fayetteville looking to embarrass the Hogs.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Western Kentucky Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

We keep talking about “last chances” for Chad Morris, but this is the last of the last chances. It’s pretty obvious that Arkansas cannot afford to bring Morris back for a third year if the Hogs lose this game. In fact, winning it alone may not be enough.

A strong performance would go a long way, so Morris is pulling out all the stops, announcing this week that he’s benching his transfer quarterbacks in favor of freshmen John Stephen Jones and K.J. Jefferson. It’s been a long time coming: both Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel have struggled to command Arkansas’ offense, and their stats have been disastrous: among qualified SEC quarterbacks, Hicks is the third-least accurate (26% of his passes are judged uncatchable) and Starkel is the third-most interceptible (14%).

With JSJ and KJ in command of the things, expect the Hogs to run the ball a lot more. And expect those runs to look a little different.

The Spread-to-Run Offense

The Hogs have not run the ball well, which is no secret. The Hogs are 13th in the conference in Rushing PAN, ahead of only Tennessee. Explosive runs have come here and there, but the Hogs have a -10.7% marginal rushing efficiency, also 13th (ahead of only Florida). Inability to stay on schedule with the run game means the Hogs end up abandoning it, becoming among the nation’s most pass-heavy teams on later downs.

The Hogs have several issues. With thanks to SEC Stat Cat for some of these concept-based data, let’s go over them:

  • Arkansas’ base read option isn’t very efficient. The inside zone read — often just called the “read option” or “zone read” by fans — is the foundation of an RPO, spread offense. Most RPOs (run-pass options) feature an IZ read where the quarterback decides whether to hand the ball off or throw a short pass to a receiver. Attaching a quick pass on the back end of the IZ read allows this offense to be run with a non-mobile quarterback (the original IZ read had the quarterback run if he didn’t hand it off). About 51% of Arkansas’ run plays this year are inside zones, with the vast majority being read plays. The Hogs average a decent 5.2 yards per rush on these, but the success rate is a dismal 38%. That means the Hogs are breaking the occasional big run, but that’s about it. The majority of these plays aren’t producing.
JSJ keeps on an IZ read. RPOs will pair this run concept with a backside throw
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  • The Hogs can’t overpower their opponents. Arkansas’ second-favorite series of run plays is the inside power series, at 29% of all run plays. These are powers, counters, and isos: the stuff of big man football. Bret Bielema loved these plays. So did Joe Gibbs of the Redskins. So did Tom Osborne at Nebraska. The inside power series has been adapted for the spread offense and run in Malzahn-like systems for several years. The Hogs don’t get much production from these. They are successful on a decent 44% but get just 4.8 yards per rush. The counter (17%) is the favorite play, and the Hogs get 50% success and 4.7 yards per play when running it. It’s efficient but not explosive.
Boyd running counter in last year’s Alabama game.
  • Arkansas’ base offense cannot run on the edge. Only 20% of Arkansas’ run plays are edge runs. With Hicks and Starkel in the game, the Hogs get 39% success and 5.0 yards per rush on the edge. Ugh. Edge runs include the outside power series (tosses, sweeps, veers) and the outside zone series (off-tackle zone runs).

But this is where things get interesting. Let’s compare the run game with Hicks/Starkel at quarterback to the run game with JSJ/KJ at quarterback:

  • Hicks/Starkel: 85% inside runs, 38% success, 5.1 yards per rush
  • JSJ/KJ: 58% inside runs, 65% success, 5.5 yards per rush

Arkansas’ run game with Hicks/Starkel in there isn’t very creative. The Hogs are badly inefficient and not good enough at RPOs to keep defenses from cracking down on the run: out of 21 qualified SEC quarterbacks, Starkel is 17th and Hicks is 19th in success rate on RPO throws. Rakeem Boyd’s explosiveness means that the Hogs get a few big runs, but too many drives break down because of an inability to stay on schedule.

On the other hand, the JSJ/KJ offense tests the edge routinely. With either of them in the game, the Hogs have 13 outside run attempts for 91 yards, posting a success rate of 77% and 7.0 yards per rush. The main outside run play is the power veer (aka the Cam Newton play), seen here:

The Hogs have run this concept 13 times this year: 9 by JSJ, 3 by KJ, and once with Hicks. While Hicks and Starkel rarely keep the ball on non-RPO read plays — allowing the defense to ignore their ability (or lack thereof) to run the ball — JSJ and KJ are giving about half the time and keeping about half the time, which requires the defense to account for them as runners.

What does it all mean?

Arkansas’ offense has been a disappointment this year. Some of it is just lack of execution and/or talent, like the problems running inside zone. But some of it seems to suggest a lack of creativity or play calling ability.

Take this run, from last year’s Alabama game:

That’s an inside power run and a good one at that. The motion to the backside causes three Alabama defenders to collide, inhibiting their ability to make the tackle. But we haven’t seen much of that this year. Arkansas has run the power concept 11 times. Against Mississippi State, Boyd ran for a 52-yard touchdown on it in the second quarter... and the Hogs only ran it one more time all game.

How will things change Saturday? Expect the Hogs to use a lot of power veer to push the edge against Western Kentucky. This will allow Arkansas to do the basics of what this offense is supposed to: spread the defense out and run it where they aren’t. But “run more veer” isn’t a gameplan... it’s barely a starting point. We need to see more creativity from the Arkansas offensive staff, or WKU is going to figure it out really quick.

Meet the Hilltoppers

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

Coach Tyson Helton’s first season got off to a disastrous start as the Hilltoppers lost to UCA in the season opener. Quarterback Steven Duncan was later injured and lost his starting role to Arkansas transfer Ty Storey, who has been... decent! WKU is hardly an offensive juggernaut, but the Tops have one of the top defenses in the Group of Five.

It is my unfortunate duty to inform you of the EV+ score prediction: Western Kentucky 27, Arkansas 18. Better hope that doesn’t happen.

When Western Kentucky has the ball

Expect the Tops to come out throwing on early downs. They don’t get much production from their run game, so they keep the chains moving by throwing on early downs. The strategy mostly works, and they are pretty explosive on standard downs. When they fall behind the chains, things go downhill. The Hogs have one of the nation’s worst passing down defenses, so they’ll really need to step up on Saturday, or else they won’t be able to get the Western Kentucky offense off the field.

The Hilltopper offensive line opens holes, but WKU has trouble turning those holes into big yards. They are one of the worst teams in the country at generating big runs.

WKU’s offensive line does a nice job of keeping Storey upright. The passing attack is fine. It will probably move the ball on Arkansas, so the Hogs need to force some mistakes. Storey throws a lot of interceptible balls, so the Razorback defensive backs need to jump on them. The Hogs have two interceptions since the opener, and none in the last few weeks.

When Arkansas has the ball

Congrats on the starting job, John Stephen, now you’re in charge of an offense that really needs to move the ball on standard downs... and is facing a really good standard downs defense.

Teams have been pretty run-heavy against WKU this year due to their solid pass defense, but the Toppers are really good at damaging drives early (44th in leverage rate, 18th in standard downs success rate) and finishing them late (5th in marginal third down defense). The good news for Arkansas is that if the offense does fall behind schedule, it has a decent shot of getting chunk yards back (WKU is 81st in passing downs SR and 113th in passing downs explosiveness).

This is probably the key matchup for the Hogs. WKU doesn’t give up big runs, but they can be had by efficient rushing attacks. That’s what Arkansas is going for by playing JSJ and KJ. The issue is that WKU’s ability to limit big runs means that even if Arkansas does run the ball efficiently, the Hogs will inevitably have to pass.

The passing game presents a nasty matchup for the Hogs. Arkansas’ passing game is, for a number of reasons, woefully inefficient. The Hogs simply have too many wasted plays due to bad play design, poor execution, bad play calls, or lack of talent. WKU has a defense that’s good enough to beat you if you waste too many plays.

The Hogs have been a terrible screen team all year, but now’s the time to figure that out. I’m not sure how much the Hogs can get down the field against the Tops with JSJ and KJ at quarterback, but I do think the Hogs can draw WKU defenders into the box and beat them with safe, easy throws.

Keys to the Game

  1. Make Storey make mistakes. Ty Storey has done a nice job for WKU this year, but he has clear limitations as a passer that were on display at Arkansas last year. He often telegraphs his intentions and holds on to the ball too long. The Hogs can turn those mistakes into turnovers and sacks.
  2. Run the ball well on first down. A more run-heavy approach will require a higher success rate than Arkansas has shown itself to be capable of in two years under Chad Morris. The Hogs need a 50% success rate on first down to keep ahead of the chains.
  3. Get creative on offense. Outside of a few trick plays and couple of well-designed screens, we haven’t seen much creativity from the offense. The Hogs need to use motion to get WKU defenders out of position and hit them with plays they aren’t expecting. I don’t really like Arkansas’ chances if they aren’t a little more creative.