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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Colorado State

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Can the Hogs finally finish strong in a shootout?

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Colorado State Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

At last Saturday’s College Gameday appearance in Austin, a Texas fan held up a sign saying “We Want Maryland.” The joke requires explanation: the Longhorns played a home-and-home with lowly Maryland in 2017 and 2018 and lost both games. Now that Texas is “back” – Joe Burrow’s 471 passing yards notwithstanding – the sign-holder wants revenge.

Someday, when Arkansas is “back”, maybe a Hog fan will hold up a sign saying “We Want Rutgers”, a reference to the home-and-home sweep the Hogs suffered at the hands of the Scarlet Knights in 2012 and 2013. But having to hold up a sign saying “We Want Colorado State” would be the height of embarrassment.

The Hogs are simply trying to salvage a split against the Rams, who last year defeated the Hogs 34-27 in Fort Collins in a game that cost me my free trial of YouTube TV. Leading 27-9 late in the third quarter, the Hogs collapsed under the weight of bizarre coaching decisions, a tired defense, and a non-existent passing game.

That Colorado State team was not good. It finished 3-9, with blowout losses to Colorado, Florida, Illinois State (!), Boise State, and Nevada. Despite major attrition – the Rams lost their starting quarterback, running back, and top two receivers – CSU is expected to be significantly better.

How much better was Starkel?

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

Nick Starkel has been named Arkansas’ starter for the Colorado State game. Starkel relieved Ben Hicks in the second half and looked much more comfortable as a passer, completing 17 of 24 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the move has resulted in some justified optimism... and some really unjustified over-reactions. Yes, Starkel was better, but was he that much better?

I compiled the following graph showing Arkansas’ cumulative Offense EVA over the course of the game. The first half (Hicks) is in purple, and the second half (Starkel) is in red. To make things fair, I removed the final drive of the game, where Starkel went 7 of 7 for 81 yards and a touchdown. Why? Because the score was 31-10, Ole Miss was not playing their hardest, and that’s pretty classic “garbage time” stat accumulation. If you want to argue that Starkel was better, he needs to be better without those seven plays.

(NOTE: Hover over the graph for play-by-play. This may not work for mobile users.)

With the final drive removed, Arkansas’ first half EVA was -7.1 and Arkansas’ second half EVA was -7.4. This is all offensive plays, so runs are included, but we didn’t see an overall upgrade to the offense before junk time.

So is the Starkel hype unjustified? Not necessarily. Note on the graph that the biggest losing plays of the second half were runs, like Rakeem Boyd getting stuffed on 4th and 2 and Devwah Whaley fumbling in plus territory, neither of which were Starkel’s fault. As we saw in the box score breakdown, Starkel had +3.6 EVA and Hicks had -3.9 EVA on passes, although again, those figures include Starkel’s final drive.

Let’s compare the two more directly.

Again, this data does not include the final drive. We see the problem in the first graph: while Hicks was fine on passing downs (Standard = 0), he had a disastrous time trying to throw on standard downs, totaling nearly -8 EVA... the entire rest of the offense combined (Hicks on passing downs, all Starkel, runs, and penalties) had just -3.5 EVA.

The by-down data shows us the same thing. Hicks totaled -5.4 EVA on first down passing. Starkel wasn’t great, but he was better on both first and third down, while both quarterbacks were positive on second down.

Film Study

Starkel threw several quick outs, making them his most popular play. This was his first pass attempt. Notice the good protection against a five-man rush, and notice how Starkel sets his feet and gets the ball out really quickly. He throws a smooth ball.

Very few of his passes were inaccurate, and most that were had a reason:

Starkel does a nice job of looking off the linebacker to allow Cheyenne O’Grady to break open over the middle, but right guard Myron Cunningham is pushed back into his face and he sails the throw.

A few plays later, he handles a free rusher nicely by finding his hot route:

Despite all the talk about Starkel not knowing the playbook as well as Hicks, finding the hot man is the sign of a quarterback knowing what he’s doing.

Finally, we see Starkel throwing on the run:

Good awareness of the edge rusher, and really good throw and catch by O’Grady.

It now looks like the better passer will start for the Hogs. It remains to be seen if that leads to a better offense overall.

Previewing Colorado State

The Rams took down the Hogs last season, but it proved to be the high point. Dealing with a young team and off-field issues with coach Mike Bobo’s health, Colorado State sank to 3-9. They had a big passing game (389 yards against Arkansas), but couldn’t run the ball and had one of the worst defenses in the FBS.

Little appears to have changed. The Rams hung with rival Colorado in the season opener, but lost 52-31. Last week, they beat FCS Western Illinois 38-13.

Scouting report

  • Despite heavy offensive attrition, Colorado State’s offense has probably improved over last year. New quarterback Collin Hill (369.0 yards per game), who started a few games down the stretch in 2018, is really talented.
  • The Rams lost 2018’s top two receivers. So celebrate the departure of 6-foot-6 Olabisi Johnson, who torched the Hogs in 2018... but worry about 6-foot-6 Warren Jackson, who already has 15 catches on the year. Colorado State always seems to have elite receivers: Rashard Higgins of the Browns and Michael Gallup of the Cowboys are CSU alums.
  • Colorado State’s run game is quite bad. They lost last year’s leading rusher and through two games have had serious trouble generating explosive runs. They’ll use a lot of misdirection, including jet sweeps, to try and find something.
  • The offensive line is competent. They limit sacks and prevent the running back from being hit behind the line, but they don’t open huge holes in the run game.
  • The defense is still really bad, and it’s hard to tell if they are improved. Colorado rolled up 500 yards of offense and more than 7 yards per play. Western Illinois couldn’t throw the ball... but they couldn’t throw the ball against FCS transitional program North Alabama in Week 1, either.
  • I would guess that Colorado State’s pass defense is better than its run defense, but the Hogs should be able to move the ball either way.

When Arkansas has the ball

Last year’s Colorado State team was defensively challenged. The Rams’ best attribute was their ability to stop long runs: they ranked 68th in opponent-adjusted bonus yards per opportunity. Run defense was a nightmare: 103rd in Rush Defense PAN, 126th in Rushing Success Rate, 126th in Opportunity Rate, 125th in Line Yards per Rush, and 125th in stuff rate. Yikes. Devwah Whaley rolled up 165 yards on 26 carries in last year’s game.

The Rams couldn’t stop the pass, either, and Cole Kelley torched them, going 6 of 9 for 108 yards and two touchdowns, but Ty Storey was 5 of 13 for 36 yards and two interceptions in his first career start. Colorado State ranked 115th in Pass Defense PAN and 125th in ANY/A.

In the opener, Colorado rushed 40 times for 243 yards and four touchdowns while Steven Montez was 13 of 20 for 232 yards and two more touchdowns. The Buffaloes did not have a turnover.

When Colorado State has the ball

I’ll admit, this game scares me a little. The Rams’ ability to score means that Arkansas cannot take its foot off the gas before the clock reads 0:00. But through 14 games, Chad Morris’ record in shootouts is not good. The Hogs blew a 27-9 lead against Colorado State last year and then blew a 33-24 lead against Ole Miss a few weeks later. Although the Ole Miss game included some injury-related circumstances, in both games the Hogs almost completely shut down the offense late in the game and tried to run the clock out on a victory. It didn’t work either time and it’s unlikely to work if the Hogs try it on Saturday.

The Rams are more than capable of cracking 30 points against the Hogs’ defense, especially if the offense gives them good field position. On the other hand, their inability to run the ball means that the Hogs can make them one-dimensional and break them down with interceptions or pressure.

Against Ole Miss, the Hogs were very strong up the middle but very weak on the edges. That’s not great news, because Colorado State will make very little effort to run the ball up the middle, but they will try to run on the edge:

These kinds of sweeps are how they complement their run game, which has below-average efficiency and almost no explosiveness.

Their passing game is mostly pro-style. You’ll see play-action and bootlegs. They’ll mix deep and shallow throws. Ole Miss really hurt the Hogs with easy throws into the flats, and Colorado State will try the same thing:

You can see why this game could be high-scoring. Colorado State’s offense has a lot of ways to create matchup problems with the Razorbacks defense. The Hogs will have to tackle better in space or those short passes will go for big gains.

One thing to watch is CSU’s turnovers. The Rams gave the ball away four times against Colorado and it probably cost them the game. The Rams are also heavily-penalized, both last year and through two games this year. A bad running game and lots of penalties mean that it’s hard for them to put together long scoring drives despite a high-efficiency passing game. Mistake-heavy offenses (both offenses in this game) need big plays to put up a bunch of points.

Keys to the game

  1. Do the little things. As we just discussed, both these teams commit a lot of little mistakes. The Hogs were not heavily penalized last year and with Ben Hicks under center committed zero turnovers and only one pre-snap or procedural penalty. But with Nick Starkel, we’ve seen two turnovers and three such penalties in a little over one half of play. Even if Starkel does provide an upgrade to the offense, it won’t mean much if the Hogs cannot sustain drives due to small mistakes.
  2. Limit explosive plays. On the other side, CSU is even more likely to shoot themselves in the foot with mistakes. They’re going to have a hard time putting together several scoring drives without big plays. The Hogs must tackle in space and not bust any coverages.
  3. Pedal to the metal. We still need to see the Hogs finish strong in a high-scoring game. The offense has faded late in recent examples, a problem that goes back to the Bielema era. Getting conservative before the opposing defense hits its breaking point can cost you. This game is a great chance to finish strong in the fourth quarter.