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Box Score Breakdown: San José State 31, Arkansas 24

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Arkansas, a very bad team, lost to a very bad team.

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

I was in the stands for the 2012 UL-Monroe loss and last year’s North Texas loss. This is much worse. This can be compared to The Citadel loss in 1992. That loss told Hog fans that Jack Crowe wasn’t going to get it done. Frank Broyles agreed and fired Crowe the next day.

There will be no next-day firing of Morris because Arkansas’ administration, apparently learning nothing from Jeff Long giving a coach with a 2-14 SEC record a massive buyout, gave Morris, a coach with a 14-22 record at SMU, a $14 million buyout. Arkansas is already paying buyout money to Bret Bielema and Mike Anderson. There’s no way to pay Morris that much money. So patience is the only option.

Don’t #TrustTheProcess

There are two basic types of coaches: tactical coaches and process coaches. Tactical coaches bring superior X’s and O’s. They make the current talent play above its level. Over time, they’ll try to upgrade the talent base, sometimes with mixed results. Process coaches focus on upgrading the talent base. Sure, they’d love to also be strong schematically, but they focus on recruiting, development, or both. Process coaches take a long time to get going because upgrading the talent base is a lot of work, and it gets harder to do it without early results.

In hiring Morris, Arkansas thought it was hiring a tactical coach. Hog fans expected a guy who could get creative with the existing talent and find ways to make the most of what he had. After a 2-10 season in which Arkansas showed no semblance of a superior offensive scheme, Morris is now trying to re-sell himself as a process coach, largely because he has to. So now Hog fans are stuck with a coach with no strong track record of recruiting or development who is pinning his hopes on recruiting and development to overtake the likes of Auburn, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Missouri (forget Alabama and LSU at this point). If that’s how the Morris hire had been pitched to fans back in 2017, would you have been okay with it?

A commoditized offense

In the business world, the cycle by which new innovations are created and spread is well-defined. There are innovators, who get maximum benefit from innovations because they create them and use them when they are rare. But they also assume maximum risk and cost in case of failure. Then there are early adopters, who also get high benefit for a while, because the innovation is still rare. Because being an early adopter requires the ability to recognize good ideas, many early adopters later become innovators themselves. Then there are second adopters, who are more risk-averse but still get some benefit, and finally there are late adopters. When they adopt the innovation, the innovation becomes commoditized (standard, widespread, unlikely to be further innovated, unlikely to provide significant advantages to its users).

Football innovators of recent years include Hal Mumme, Chip Kelly, Gus Malzahn, Rich Rodriguez, and Urban Meyer. All of them had influences, but they are generally acknowledged as having created new ideas that are now widespread in college football. Early adopters of these innovations are generally good hires: think Mike Leach (Mumme) and Dan Mullen (Meyer). Leach in particular has since become an innovator of his own.

Chad Morris is an early adopter of the Malzahn system. But it’s becoming sadly apparent that he’s not much of an innovator of his own. Everything he does on offense is now commoditized: even Les Miles is now running RPOs over at Kansas. It’s no longer unique, it’s no longer new, it no longer provides — to quote Charlie Weis — a “decided schematic advantage”. If Morris isn’t capable of innovating himself, it’s starting to look like the best time to hire him was way back in 2011. The window on his effectiveness as a tactical coach may have closed, and I’m not seeing much reason to #TrustTheProcess at this point.

Advanced stats

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Quick recap

  • Once again, Arkansas had no trouble moving the ball but couldn’t finish drives. An offense that’s supposed to be notable for explosive plays is one of the least-explosive early-downs offenses in the country.
  • No explosiveness means Arkansas must go on long drives to score. That’s not good, because this team is terrible in short-yardage and gets almost nothing from its run game. Issues protecting the quarterback mean that every two or three pass attempts are affected.
  • Turnovers, not a problem through three weeks, finally bit the Hogs and ended several drives prematurely.
  • The defense, bad on standard downs a year ago, allowed the worst standard downs offense in the country to walk all over it. The Hogs were particularly bad against short passes and got almost no pressure on the quarterback.

Against two run defenses with a pulse (SJSU and Ole Miss), the Hogs have gotten nothing. There’s a good reason for this, as we’ll discuss below.

I don’t think too much blame can be assigned to Nick Starkel. Yes, he was bad and threw five picks, but he also had to throw for 384 yards and three touchdowns just to give the Hogs a chance, so the Hogs’ Pass EV ended up ahead of the Rush EV. Of course, the Hogs were facing one of the worst secondaries in the country, so anything less than about +5 is still abysmal.

The Hogs limited SJSU’s explosive pass plays and stuffed 30% of their run plays, but the Hogs allowed too many good runs to become great runs (8.1 bonus yards per opportunity) and way too many successful pass plays (52% passing success rate). The defense got very little pressure, recording just one sack.

The real problem was the run game. Yes, five interceptions were bad too, but Arkansas having to throw the ball 50 times is a nightmare against a Mountain West school. Here’s how the individual runners looked:

Devwah Whaley’s one-game resurgence appears to be over, but Rakeem Boyd’s numbers are very interesting. He was very efficient, posting a 50% success rate, just one stuff in 18 attempts, a solid 2.8 line yards per rush, and an excellent 39% opportunity rate. Based on these numbers, he should have carried the ball more (and Whaley less).

But there’s something missing here: explosiveness. The average yards gained of Boyd’s nine successful runs was just 18% of the remaining yards to the endzone. That’s very low. And he averaged just 5.9 bonus yards per opportunity. For the season, he’s now at 6.8 bonus yards per opportunity, a year after averaging 10.5 bonus yards per opportunity.

What happened? Why did Boyd go from above-average explosiveness to below-average explosiveness? Let’s ask running backs coach Jeff Traylor, back in July:

Coach Tru (strength and conditioning coach Trumain Carroll) had him all spring so he put on 15-18 pounds of muscle. I think he was 193 pounds last year when he got here and he’s about 215-218 right now.

Ah yes, Bielema’s old “beef ‘em up and slow ‘em down” strategy. That’ll do it. I’m not sure what the fascination is with slowing fast players down, but it seems to have carried over from the Bielema staff to the Morris staff.

The fact that Morris doesn’t seem to understand that fast guys are necessary for explosive runs and explosive runs are necessary for his offensive to work is not a good sign. A year after ranking 59th in opportunity rate and 44th in bonus yards per opportunity, the Hogs are now 89th in opportunity rate and 60th in bonus yards per opportunity against a significantly weaker schedule.

Film Study

#1 - 4th and Fail

Let’s start with a play that set the tone: a 4th-and-2 stuff near the goal line in the first quarter. Arkansas has fullback Hayden Johnson in a wing to the right and Whaley to Starkel’s left, suggesting that a sweep right is coming. Instead, the Hogs have called for a Counter G, with right guard Ricky Stromberg pulling and leading to the right. This means that Stromberg and tight end Blake Kern (had to look his name up in the game program) are assigned to make key blocks, while the best lead blocker on the field (Johnson) is a decoy.

Let’s watch it fail miserably:

The first and biggest problem is that Kern, assigned to down block the defensive end, does not succeed. The end drives him back a yard and gets his arm around Whaley, killing the play. But there’s more that’s wrong here:

  • SJSU has the same number of guys (five) on each side of the center, so the misdirection of a counter play doesn’t work.
  • Boyd is much better at running counters than Whaley, so it was not a good call for the personnel.
  • If you watch closely, you’ll see center Ty Clary make an inaccurate snap and then get driven back seven yards by his man.
  • Left guard Austin Capps doesn’t actually block anyone, despite the fact that the play is going right over his position.

Credit to Stromberg, tight end Chase Harrell, and left tackle Myron Cunningham, who actually landed and held their blocks.

#2 - Death by Hot Route

Arkansas’ defense just got demolished in this game. It was all-around embarrassing. In the first half, the Spartans ran 39 plays for 305 yards. Here’s an example of what they did.

On this play, the Hogs are in some kind of matchup defense (quarters, maybe?) and they’ve called for a blitz by the strong-side linebacker. San José State designed plays to use their speed advantage over the Arkansas defense (!!!). Here, they’ve got a wide receiver, Isaiah Holiness, in the backfield, and he’s about to take the Arkansas defense to church.

Nobody accounts for Holiness, who makes an easy catch on the hot route and goes for 32 yards.

BONUS QUESTION: Watch that gif several times and tell me: what was Bumper Pool (#10) supposed to be doing on that play?

Conclusions

Without explosive runs, the Hogs’ only chance on offense is to throw a ball a bunch. I’m not sure that Morris’ run-first scheme has a sophisticated-enough passing game to make that happen. He’s going to have to be creative for the rest of this year, and I think he’ll need to make some staff changes in the off-season. The Hogs will need a more experienced offensive coordinator who can help scheme a more pass-heavy offense that’s built around the receivers. With an offensive line that’s somehow worse than last year and big recruiting misses on linemen, offensive line coach Dustin Fry seems like a strong candidate to be shown the door as well. And John Chavis? There were some positives last year, but so far in 2019 the defense has regressed. He might be looking forward to retirement at this point.

If there’s good news, it’s that the young guys, Morris’ recruits, did fine. Trey Knox and Mike Woods had nice games once again, while Stromberg, a true freshman, is going to be a good one. Right now, there aren’t many options beyond waiting for the young guys to grow up and get better. Despite long odds, “trusting the process” is now the only option. Morris is up against the clock of his buyout schedule to make things work.