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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. San José State

The Spartans may be just good enough to keep the Hogs honest.

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

The excitement is back! The Hogs didn’t let fans fall too far into apathy before they made things exciting in a 55-34 romp over Colorado State. With a new quarterback and the emergence of star freshman receivers, the Hogs may suddenly be fun to watch for the first time in a few years. Whether a bowl game is back on the table is a question that wasn’t answered against Colorado State and won’t be answered this week.

Of course, the Hogs still have some major issues. The two big ones that fans have noticed are run defense and protecting the quarterback. A week to work on that before SEC play restarts would be ideal. You know what would be really nice? If the Hogs could play the nation’s worst rushing team AND the team with the nation’s worst pass rush.

Oh, hi there, San José State.

Turning it around

Arkansas’ offense is back into positive EVA territory for the season (FBS games only):

I think the big question at this point is whether or not the emphatic finish to the Colorado State game is a sign that the offense truly has turned the corner. San José State probably won’t provide the final test for this, but if the Hogs struggle to put this game away early, there will be some grumbling. This is the kind of game that Arkansas should win by enough points to let backups play most or all of the fourth quarter.

Meet the Spartans

(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the glossary. Also note that all stats presented here are a two-year average, with 75% of value being last year’s stats and 25% being this year’s stats.)

San José State is one of the toughest jobs in the entire FBS. As a school, it has a lot going for it. One of the most diverse large public universities in the country, it supplies Silicon Valley with a huge number of graduates, and it’s the flagship school of the California State University system.

Football has been a different story. Ever since SJSU became a full-fledged FBS program in the 1990s, the Spartans have had few victories. Former Hog assistant Fitz Hill won just 30% of his games as head coach from 2001 to 2004. The current sacrificial lamb is Brent Brennan. He’s 4-23 as the Spartans’ coach, with two his four wins coming against FCS programs. SJSU went 1-11 last year, although to their credit, they were pretty competitive in most of their games, even hanging with Oregon in a 35-22 loss.

The Spartans are 1-1 this year. They knocked off FCS Northern Colorado in Week 1 then lost 34-16 against Tulsa in Week 2. They did not play last week.

Scouting report

  • The Spartan offense has some similarity to Colorado State. They’ll try to be balanced on standard downs, but that rarely works and they’ll spend much of the game behind the chains, where they’re more comfortable anyway.
  • San José State really can’t run the ball. They’ve had to install a read-option package for their backup quarterback in order to generate some rushing yards. When the starting QB is in the game, they are pretty one-dimensional.
  • The Spartans can sling it a little. They have a veteran quarterback and while they aren’t super efficient through the air, they were actually of the nation’s better teams at generating big pass plays a year ago. Pass protection is decent.
  • The defense only does one thing well: limit big runs. They have a hard time disrupting the run but their linebackers are the strength of the team. Don’t be surprised if the Hogs have to throw a little on standard downs to keep the Spartans honest.
  • Their pass defense is a nightmare, and it starts with the nation’s worst pass rush. They were dead-last in the FBS in sack rate in 2018 and failed to register a sack against Tulsa in Week 2.

When San José State has the ball

No non-flexbone team in the country was more one-dimensional on offense than the Spartans a year ago, and things don’t appear to have improved much.

The Spartans have the nation’s worst offense on standard downs, meaning that they don’t spend much time in standard downs (126th in leverage rate). Their 50% standard downs run rate is 124th nationally. If they do hit a successful play, which is rare, it often goes for a big gain.

They can find their grove on passing downs, where they run the ball just 28% of the time and churn out a decent number of successful plays. The Hogs’ defense has a hard time containing big plays on passing downs, so we could be in for yet another “long touchdown on third-and-forever” if the Hogs don’t get that corrected.

Quarterback Josh Love can sling it a little bit: he threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns against Northern Colorado and 189 yards and one touchdown against Tulsa. It’s not much, but it’s all they can do offensively.

Hoooo boy that running game is a mess. It’s bad in short-yardage, bad at avoiding stuffs, bad at big runs, and bad at turning big runs into bigger runs. Things are so bad that SJSU’s leading rusher so far this year is actually backup quarterback Nick Nash, an elusive freshman who does some read-option stuff but isn’t particularly accurate as a passer.

Just some good ol’ triple option out of the Pistol. Nash ran 8 times for 48 yards and a touchdown against Tulsa, a week after breaking a 49-yard run against Northern Colorado. When he’s in the game, expect the Spartans to be more run-heavy.

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Love, the “passing” quarterback, will play most snaps and is not a threat to run. He is a threat to drop some dimes like this one:

Despite a relative dearth of offensive talent, the Spartans will occasionally show off some nice play design, like on this touchdown:

Overall, though, it’s hard to see how San José State’s offense keeps this thing close. It will be no shame if the Hogs allow the Spartans to hit 200 yards through the air, but that probably won’t be enough to score more than a couple touchdowns, given how one-dimensional the Spartans are on offense.

When Arkansas has the ball

The Hogs found their grove against Colorado State and now get to face another defense in the bottom half of the Mountain West.

Remember that these numbers consist of 75% last year’s stats and 25% this year’s stats. That ratio will obviously change once we get more 2019 data in the system. The Hogs have already moved up from 127th to 117th in ANY/A and that number will rise to an even more accurate level by the time we’re previewing Texas A&M next week.

The Spartans can limit big runs, but that’s about it. Linebacker Ethan Aguayo already has a ridiculous 34 tackles through two games. The secondary is more experienced than it was in 2018, but the defensive line lost some key playmakers from a unit that already wasn’t super active. In their loss to Tulsa, they allowed the Golden Hurricane to average +0.16 EVA per rush, although they did limit line yards to just 2.2 per carry, which is decent.

Stopping the pass is a different story. Tulsa, not expected to be a great passing team, averaged +0.41 EVA per pass, took zero sacks, and recorded an impressive 57% passing success rate.

Not getting much pressure is kind of a theme for the Spartans:

Keys to the Game

  1. Put the game away early. The Hogs would really like to rest heavily-used Rakeem Boyd and the poor starters on the defensive front who have had to play 60 minutes of every game so far. To do that, the Hogs can’t really let up before this thing gets out of hand. While Arkansas’ first quarter against CSU was unsustainable for four quarters (the Hogs were on pace for 96 points and 1,100 yards of offense), I thought the offense really got into a funk for a while. Do that against SJSU and you’re one big pass play away from having to start playing really hard again.
  2. Pass protection. The Spartans don’t have much of a pass-rush, so if Nick Starkel spends much time under pressure, that will be a bad thing. And with college and NFL quarterbacks dropping left and right, the last thing Arkansas wants is to lose its quarterback because it couldn’t protect him against San José State.
  3. Stop the option package. If Arkansas’ secondary has improved against downfield throws by as much as I suspect it has, there’s a good chance that SJSU is going to have a very hard time moving the football in its base offense. If they fall behind and look lifeless, I have to imagine that they’ll throw in their freshman quarterback and let him run some read-option to test Arkansas’ weak edge rushing defense. If that happens, we’ll get to see what improvements the Hogs have made after a couple of rough weeks.