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Box Score Breakdown: Arkansas 55, Colorado State 34

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Arkansas’ offense roared to life in a shootout win.

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

So, what did we learn?

Not much, actually. The Hogs got some strong individual performances, but this game is unlikely to change anyone’s opinion of either Chad Morris as a coach or the 2019 Razorbacks.

If you’re an optimist, you can point to improved offense and a 21-0 fourth quarter as a sign that this team is turning the corner and things are looking more and more like what Morris wants. If you’re a pessimist, you can note that the Hogs once again took their foot off the gas after an early lead and were tied 34-34 with a 3-9 Mountain West team entering the fourth quarter.

Regardless, this game finally provided the big plays and highlights that Hog fans have waited a long time for.

Grading the Hogs

  • That O’Grady touchdown: A+. Oh yeah, we’re watching that again in Film Study, just because.
  • Devwah Whaley: A+. A bad start to the season is behind him, as Whaley’s whopping +6.1 EVA performance was an emphatic return to his high-efficiency ways.
  • Trey Knox and Treylon Burks: A. The freshmen receivers combined for 10 catches, 182 yards, a touchdown, and +10.4 EVA, most impressively showing strong hands and the ability to box out defensive backs.
  • Connor Limpert: A. His 54-yard bomb is the second-longest of his career, and he joins Steve Little and Kendall Trainor as the only Razorback kickers with multiple 50-yard makes in a career. Good company.
  • Halftime adjustments on defense: B. Colorado State gashed the Hogs on the ground for 156 bonus yards in the first half... and 9 in the second half. The defense has some issues, but kudos to John Chavis for fixing some of them in-game.
  • Second and third quarters: C-. A fast start turned ugly as the Hogs once again struggled to play with a lead. The Hogs’ offense totaled -6.8 EVA in the second and third quarters, although they turned on the jets in the fourth.

Advanced stats

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

Quick Recap

  • In a complete reversal from last week, the Hogs did an excellent job of staying on schedule, as Colorado State was completely unable to force negative plays. The Hogs both ran and passed well on early downs.
  • Nick Starkel’s first start gave the offense exactly what it had been lacking: explosive pass plays. This opened up the rest of the offense.
  • Colorado State, normally a strong passing team, took the Hogs by surprise by relying on a very boom-or-bust run game. Unfortunately for the Rams, the “boom” part dried up in the second half and CSU just wasn’t efficient enough to keep moving the ball. A quarter of Colorado State’s runs gained zero yards or went backwards.
  • Starting quarterback Collin Hill had a rough night and was knocked out of the game in the third quarter. Backup Patrick O’Brien had a (lucky) 75-yard touchdown pass, but once the big runs dried up and CSU was forced to pass, it was a matter of time before the pass rush buried O’Brien.

Here’s an easy way to see how this game was won. First, the rushing numbers:

  • Colorado State: 35 rushes, 240 yards
  • Arkansas: 32 rushes, 222 yards

Pretty similar. Now some passing numbers:

  • Colorado State: 20 of 33
  • Arkansas: 20 of 35

Also pretty similar. But there’s one difference: Colorado State’s 20 completions went for 205 yards. Arkansas’ 20 completions went for 305 yards. Counting sacks, Colorado State had 36 pass plays for 185 yards and Arkansas had 36 pass plays for 301 yards.

Passing explosiveness was the key to this game. It was already the key before Cheyenne O’Grady’s ridiculous 62-yard touchdown reception, but that just cemented things.

Starkel’s 15 successful pass plays in this game picked up an average of 35% of all available yards. Arkansas’ average field position on those successful passes was its own 47, so that’s just under 19 yards per successful pass (35% of 53 = 18.55 yards per completion on successful passes). (This is a new stat, replacing Gini. See the glossary for more.)

We also have to talk about the run game.

Whaley busted out of his slump with a passion. He punched in the go-ahead touchdown and ran with attitude.

This game actually showed us what we kind of expected to see before the year started:

Rakeem Boyd was the explosive back. He led the team in bonus yards, but it came at the expense of fewer line yards, more stuffs, and a lower success rate. Whaley averaged a ridiculous 3.9 line yards per carry (4.5 is the max under the line yards formula). Of his 9 runs, 5 were successful and 4 gained at least six yards. None were stuffed.

Nick Starkel is Whaley’s new best friend. I wrote about why way back in the season preview:

The more conservative option is the veteran Whaley. He’s the least-explosive back, but he has the lowest stuff rate and the highest line yards. Basically, he keeps things moving without generating a ton of firepower. If Arkansas’ passing game improves, Whaley’s value goes up significantly.

The reason why is obvious: when Arkansas’ passing game struggles, the Hogs are dependent on the big plays Boyd provides, but when the Hogs can throw the ball, a chain-mover like Whaley is a nice complement. The Hogs will need both this year.

Film study

#1 - Knox and Burks work the outside

The three-headed monster of Knox, Burks, and O’Grady were extremely productive. Knox in particular was a problem in one-on-one matches to the outside:

During the first two drives, Starkel force-fed Knox and Burks in these outside one-on-ones. Unable to stop them, the Rams had to bring safety help over the top, something that Portland State and Ole Miss didn’t do.

By the third drive, Colorado State’s defense was aligning like this:

Keep a close eye on the top safety, who has to help the boundary corner defend Knox at the top of the screen.

You hear a lot about the run setting up the pass, but that’s a classic example of how the pass sets up the run.

#2 - Run defense gets off to a bad start

Arkansas’ porous run defense will be the topic of closer examination in the future. Again, it’s worth noting that the Hogs allowed 156 bonus yards in the first half and just 9 in the second half, but 156 bonus yards in a half is ridiculously bad, especially against an opponent not known for collecting bonus yards.

The bad news started on the second play of the game.

One theory here is that De’Jon Harris filled the wrong gap. That’s possible, but I’m not convinced. After watching it several times, I noticed that defensive tackle T.J. Smith has trouble engaging the center. He’s unable to get his right leg under him before the center spins him to his (Smith’s) right and sits on him. If Smith’s gap assignment was to his left, that would explain why the hole was so wide open. The Rams’ left guard and left tackle had double-teamed defensive end Mataio Soli, so the guard did a nice job of getting to the second level and cutting off Harris from trying to double back.

While this play appears to be more of a one-off, Arkansas’ trouble defending edge runs (and passes) could continue to be a problem this year. We’ll discuss that in the future.

#3 - O’Grady bulldozes everybody

There’s not actually much to break down here. It’s a well-designed play, as Colorado State has a linebacker on O’Grady who cannot stay with him. Starkel evades a free rusher and delivers a nice throw. O’Grady shows off an impressive combination of strength and balance while Colorado State’s defenders show off how not to tackle.

I think what makes this all possible is that O’Grady caught the ball on the run, allowing his momentum to help him make a play. Bobby Petrino’s offenses were built around hitting receivers in stride so they could make a play after the catch. Bret Bielema’s offenses were not, and Morris’ offense appears to be somewhere in the middle of the two. Good things happen when you give good athletes a chance to make a play down the field.

Conclusions

Maybe Arkansas turned a corner with its emphatic finish. Or maybe the Hogs’ struggle to protect the quarterback or seal the edge on defense will doom its bowl chances. It’s hard to know how to react to this game. What is important is that the Hogs won a game that they lost last season, and things were fun again. Sometimes it’s the little things.