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Box Score Breakdown: Arkansas 20, Portland State 13

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It was ugly, but probably not as bad as you think

NCAA Football: Portland State at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

You know the worst part about that game? It was played at 3 pm. Mid-afternoon games in the SEC in August should be banned. Did Arkansas really want to put a 20-13 win over a middling FCS team on the SEC Network that badly? Just play it at 6 and put it on pay-per-view.

I had harsher words for the Hogs’ effort in that game... and then I looked at the advanced stats. They are, uh, not that bad. The final score was pretty much a fluke. Arkansas thoroughly outplayed Portland State and while there are definitely some concerns with the passing game, a lot of things can be chalked up to a very vanilla game plan. All of that will be discussed in detail.

Here’s what we’ll look at in this post:

  • Part I. Grades
  • Part II. Advanced Stats Review
  • Part III. Film Study
  • Part IV. Conclusions

Grading the Hogs

  • New uniforms: A+. Clean and classic. Don’t ever change them.
  • Tusk V: A+. A very good-looking razorback had a successful debut.
  • Grass field: A. I’m still not sold on the tusk-y font in the endzones, but overall the field looks very good.
  • Hog Town: A. This was a really nice offseason addition. Despite the heat and the smallish crowd, Maple Street was hopping with food trucks, tailgaters, and live music. The Fayetteville pre-game scene has been needing this.
  • Secondary: A. John Chavis’ defense came out flying. I wrote before last season that active safeties was a hallmark of a Chavis defense, but we didn’t see much of that last year. We definitely did on Saturday. Kamren Curl and Joe Foucha were all over the place: rushing the passer, cracking down against the run, and snagging interceptions (each had one). Cornerbacks Jarques McClellion and Montaric Brown also did well, and McClellion had the most impressive pick of the night. I also enjoyed the three-safety looks with Myles Mason joining Curl and Foucha on passing downs (more than on that in Film Study).
  • Rakeem Boyd: B+. He’s one of the best backs in the SEC when he’s healthy.
  • Treylon Burks and Trey Knox: B-. The freshmen receivers showed speed and physicality despite limited opportunities in the passing game.
  • Offensive Line: C+. We’ll get the numbers in a second, but they actually did a pretty good job. There’s room for improvement, of course, but I’m not complaining at this point.
  • Quarterbacks: D+. Not a great debut for Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel, though a conservative game plan didn’t help. Judgement is being reserved for when the offense has to open up, and that starts next week.

Advanced Stats Review

(Confused about the stats? Check out the glossary here.)

The big-legged Portland State kicker created three points by himself, with two long field goals (50 and 47) and an extra point to his name. The Hogs got a badly-imbalanced performance from the offense, with the run game mostly going forward and the pass game mostly going backwards.

Let’s break that down further:

This is why you probably shouldn’t panic. The run game had a 50% success rate, 100% short-yardage success rate, just an 8% stuff rate, a 40% explosive run rate, and 3.8 line-yards per rush. All of those are either the best or second-best of the Chad Morris era. An 8% stuff rate is a particular upgrade for an offensive line that allowed the back to be stuffed on more than 20% of runs last season, good for 111th in the FBS.

Boyd’s performance was really solid, valued at 5.94 points. Fully half of his runs were explosive and 61% were successful. I loved the use of De’Vion Warren on the rocket motion. All three of his runs were explosive. Devwah Whaley and Chase Hayden didn’t play quite as well, but they only had nine rushes each.

Okay, now let’s talk about the passing game. It definitely wasn’t great. Remember that there are two components of offense: efficiency and explosiveness. Arkansas’ passing efficiency (success rate) was just 36%. That’s bad. Not the end of the world, but not good against an FCS team. What made things look really bad was the fact that the Hogs coupled a subpar efficiency with really low explosiveness (Gini). Combine that with low rushing explosiveness, and the offense basically had to string together drives of 10+ plays if it wanted to score.

This means that finishing drives was the real problem. Another stat seems to back this up: the Hogs gained 59% of available yards, meaning that they gained 59% of all possible yards they could have gained given where each drive started. Hitting 59% usually correlates with 30+ points. Instead, the Hogs basically had two red zone turnovers (the bad clock management at the end of the first half is effectively a turnover) and were forced to kick a field goal from inside the 10. That’s how a team ends up with 20 points when it otherwise played well enough to score more like 30. The massive difference between Arkansas’ and Portland State’s available yards gained suggests that the final score ended up being a lot closer than how the game actually went.

Low pass game explosiveness might be a problem this year, but it also might be a result of a vanilla game plan. Remember last year’s Eastern Illinois game, when the Hogs basically just ran deep routes all night in a 55-20 romp? What did that tell us about the rest of the season? Nothing. It told us nothing. Arkansas was unable to replicate that performance in any way, shape, or form for the rest of the season. Blitzing the crap out of some poor FCS team might make fans feel good, but it doesn’t mean all that much.

Film Study

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? John Chavis has a beard, and now he has the Cyclone Dime defense.

This new take on a Dime defense, known as the “Broken Stack,” is trendy in college football. Matt Campbell has run it at Iowa State for the last three or four years and turned the Cyclones into a rare good defensive team in the Big XII. This defense is particularly good against Air Raid teams, see ISU 66, Texas Tech 10 (2016), ISU 31, Texas Tech 13 (2017), and ISU 14, #4 TCU 7 (2017). The defense really broke into the national scene in 2017, when, after falling behind #3 Oklahoma 14-0 in Norman, the Cyclones almost totally shut down Heisman winner Baker Mayfield the rest of the way to win a stunning upset. Kirby Smart also uses it at Georgia, and he got it from Texas DC Todd Orlando. Several Big XII teams use it, and some use it as their base defense.

While Chavis has been known as a Dime defense innovator for years (the 3-2-6 “Mustang” was his signature look at Tennessee and LSU), the Broken Stack defense represents an evolution in college football. It emphasizes matching the offense’s versatility and creating confusion for the offense. If there’s a spread offense, this is the “spread defense.”

If you look at the screenshot, you’ll see that if it wasn’t third-and-long, Portland State could probably run the ball here at get four or five yards easily. Arkansas will give that up (especially on 3rd and 8) and will be happy to wait for a sack, incomplete pass, fumble, interception, or penalty to derail the Portland State drive. The more complicated the offense, the more likely it is to fall victim to this kind of mistake.

This kind of defense obviously works best if you have a really good linebacker or two (the Hogs have that in De’Jon Harris and Bumper Pool) that can close space between the tackles. Depth at safety, something Arkansas didn’t have last year, is also important.

With three down linemen, pressure can come from a lot of places, and it’s hard for the offense to diagnose:

Portland State was just 2 of 13 on third down against the Hogs, good for -16% marginal efficiency. The Hogs showed this look in most passing situations.

Conclusions

The passing game still needs to be much better, but I’m not sure that this game tells us just how much more improvement is needed. That’s it, that’s the conclusion.

Next week’s game at Ole Miss (15-10 losers to Memphis) is going to tell us a whole lot more. It might be the game of the year for the Hogs. Buckle up.