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Box Score Breakdown: Ole Miss 31, Arkansas 17

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Hog fans’ worst nightmares were realized on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the Hogs lost the kind of games fans might remember if they decide to pay to fly a “Fire Chad Morris” banner over the stadium in a year or two.

The Hogs got outclassed against a team with a completely rebuilding offense and, most importantly, against a team that has a negligible overall talent advantage. Arkansas’ offensive staff still seems to have no idea how to make an offense work in the SEC. Chad Morris is now 3-11 at Arkansas and 17-33 for his head coaching career. There’s still plenty to be optimistic about and plenty of time to get better this year, but if Arkansas ends up on the wrong end of a few more games like this one, he won’t get enough chances to prove he’s anything other than a sub-.500 coach.

Okay, let’s take a closer look at this monstrosity.

Grading the Hogs

  • Sosa Agim: A. Agim was a wrecking ball inside. He could only do so much, as Arkansas’ defense was weak on the edges, but he blew up several plays.
  • Kamren Curl: B. Curl’s wild 73-yard fumble return was the highlight of the game and meant that the defense scored as many touchdowns as the offense.
  • Nick Starkel: B. Keep reading for my calm, measured thoughts on this.
  • Defensive Depth: D. I get that the Hogs are short at defensive end due to injuries and have very little depth at linebacker. But giving up nearly 500 yards is not good, even when the offense keeps putting you in bad positions.
  • Coaching: F. Arkansas’ staff didn’t go out recruiting this week to prepare for Ole Miss. And that is what they came up with? The absolutely abysmal playcalling will show up in the advanced stats section below, and I’ll even walk us through some of the most awful calls. But there’s one more thing I want to discuss.

Two years in a row. This is the second time in two years that the offensive coaching staff — mainly Morris and OC Joe Craddock — watched all of fall camp and then promptly picked the obviously worse option to start at quarterback, only to have to make an early-season switch. It irks me because once again, anonymous angry posters on Hogville come off looking smarter than the coaching staff. Almost everyone saw this ridiculousness coming: Ben Hicks started the year, struggled, and was quickly replaced by Starkel, but by then, it was too late to win a game that will be critical for bowl eligibility. Raise your hand if you saw that coming.

It annoyed me listening to the TV announcers after Starkel made a nice throw: “That’s what Starkel brings to this offense.” What, good passing? That’s what Starkel brings? What did Hicks bring? Cookies and lemonade to the team meetings?

It’s pretty obvious what happened: Morris recruited his old SMU quarterback and got him to come to Fayetteville, but then a better quarterback became available on the transfer market, so Morris got him too. Starkel is the better quarterback, but Morris felt he owed something to Hicks for luring him away from the school where he’s the all-time leading passer, so he let him start the year. In that way, I feel bad for Hicks, who seems like a good teammate and a decent quarterback... just not quite good enough to start at two different schools: SMU landed grad transfer QB Shane Buechele, who has looked fantastic in the Mustangs’ 2-0 start.

Starkel was +3.4 EVA and Hicks was -3.9 EVA. Starkel almost doubled Hicks’ adjusted net yards per attempt. Starkel was sacked fewer times.

Advanced stats

(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the glossary. This might be a good week to check it out, as several new definitions employed here have been recently added.)

Quick Advanced Stats Recap

  • Arkansas struggled on early downs, especially first-down running. That put the offense behind the chains and into must-pass situations. This part of the game improved significantly after Starkel entered the game, but it remains a work in progress.
  • In those too-frequent must-pass situations, the Hogs were actually pretty good, which is a good sign for the rest of the year. The offensive line held up nicely in pass protection.
  • For the second straight week, the Hogs were poor at finishing drives. Five drives featured a first down inside the Ole Miss 40, and the Hogs got a total of 10 points out of them. A combination of bad luck, bad playcalling, and penalties were responsible.
  • Ole Miss’ offense looked exactly what Rich Rodriguez wanted it to: the Rebels were ultra-conservative and run-heavy on early downs, allowing them to stay on-schedule. QB Matt Corral was limited to easy throws.
  • The Rebels weren’t very efficient in the run game, but they generated just enough explosive plays to run away from the Hogs in the second half.

Arkansas’ run game really let it down. The Hogs lost a fumble and got stuffed on 4th and 2. Offensive penalties, which were not a huge problem in 2018 or the opener, were a killer. An illegal formation penalty wiped out a touchdown in the third quarter and was really a game-changing moment.

Ole Miss’ defense is definitely improved, but I doubt they’ll finish in the top half of the SEC. So if the Hogs couldn’t do better than -8.3 Rushing EVA against the Rebels, it’s hard to see how they’re going to be able to rely on the run game to win any SEC games. Boyd is fine, but for the second week in a row, Devwah Whaley and Chase Hayden looked really bad. They don’t seem like reliable options at this point. It seems the Hogs are going to have to throw the ball a lot more than Morris probably wants to.

Arkansas lost the field position battle, but only by a little bit, thanks to getting one extra meaningful possession (the Hogs had the first and last meaningful possessions of the second half). This game was simply lost in terms of offensive performance. The Hog offense performed 17 points worse than the Ole Miss offense. That’ll do it.

Keep an eye on leverage rate; we’ll be back to it in a minute.

Defensively, John Chavis’ defense, usually good on third downs, allowed Ole Miss to go +11% in marginal third down conversions. Arkansas wasn’t bad on third downs themselves (-3%) but were bad on first and second down, leading to too many third and longs. More on that coming up.

We talked in the preview about how the first team to establish the run will win the game. I even mentioned that the two teams would try to accomplish this in different ways:

Offensively, that means keeping the Rebels out of the backfield, so keep and eye on line-yards and stuff rate. Defensively, Ole Miss wants to create big runs, so active linebackers and safety help against the run will be big.

Arkansas had a stuff rate of 30% and averaged just 2.5 line yards per rush. That’s not gonna do it. A decent stuff rate is 20% or lower and decent line yards are ~2.8 or higher. The Hogs did do a decent job of generating opportunities (runs of 6+) but didn’t turn those into big runs, averaging just 2.8 bonus yards per opportunity. Ole Miss, on the other hand, had a 0.44 Rushing Gini (above 0.35 = fairly explosive) and averaged 11.1 bonus yards per opportunity run (anything about about 8 is good). The Rebels really took this game over in the second half after they’d worn the Arkansas defense out.

The drive-level data at the top of this chart shows you that the Hogs did a decent job of creating scoring chances: 42% of drives (5 of 12) featured a first down inside the Ole Miss 40. But for the second straight week, the Hogs were terrible at converting those chances into points. The five scoring chances ended in a touchdown, a field goal, a missed field goal, a turnover on downs, and a lost fumble. That’s awful, and that’s how a game that should have been fairly close turned into a rout.

The bottom part shows when the yards were accumulated. You can see that neither team could get much from their run game in the first half. The Hogs saw their passing adjusted net yards jump in the second half after Starkel came in, but the Hogs ran the ball a little better in the second half as well. A combination of bad luck, bad playcalling, and penalties kept Arkansas from scoring more points with Starkel in the game.

Ole Miss’ Scottie Phillips had a nice night and ended up with positive EVA. It was a rough night for Rakeem Boyd, who ended up with -2.47 EVA, although almost all of his negative EVA was on the 4th and 2 where he got stopped. For the passing data on the left side, know two things:

  • Receivers are recorded alongside the quarterback who threw to them. So Trey Knox appears for both Hicks and Starkel, since he caught passes from both.
  • “Null” includes passes with no recorded intended receiver. Starkel did not have any of these, but most of Hicks’ incomplete passes were recorded as nulls.

Okay, some of this stuff is obvious: Starkel good, Hicks bad. The receivers didn’t help either by dropping some throws, but they’re decent already and will only get better. Let’s dive into the real problem: playcalling.

You’ll notice on the stats report above a key stat near the bottom: leverage rate. Leverage rate is the percentage of all snaps where the offense is in “standard downs”; that is, where the down and distance don’t make it obvious whether a run or pass is coming. A first down is always a standard down (except for some late-game situations when a team is trailing). A 3rd-and-7 is a “passing down”, or a down when the defense is pretty sure a pass is coming. Specifically, first down, 2nd and 7 or less, and 3rd/4th and 3 or less is a standard down. Everything else is a passing down. Leverage rate really measures how often the offense was on-schedule.

Arkansas’ leverage rate was 54%. Barely half of Arkansas’ snaps were on-schedule. The Hogs had so many negative plays that 46% of their offensive snaps were taken in situations where Ole Miss’ defense could expect a pass.

On those 46% of snaps, the Hogs were +0.09 EVA per play with a 42% success rate and solid explosiveness. The problem was the other 54%: the Hogs were -0.34 EVA per play with a 35% success rate on standard downs. That’s really, really bad. The Hogs got a pitiful 2.0 line yards per rush on standard downs, indicating that they couldn’t run the ball on early downs.

Unsurprisingly, this figure did improve after Starkel entered the game. In the first half, just 47% of all plays were run on standard downs, which is about as bad as it gets. In the second half, that figure jumped to 60%, which is still bad, but not awful. In the first half, Arkansas’ standard downs success rate was 20%... that jumped to 52% in the second half.

How does that happen? Take a look:

Oof. First down was a nightmare for running the ball. More than half of Arkansas’ first-down runs went for zero yards or a loss. That’s how you fall behind the chains so often.

Several other issues show up in the film study:

Issue #1 - Rakeem Boyd tipping run plays

On Arkansas’ second drive of the game, the TV announcers noted that Boyd is tipping plays by where he lines up. When he’s offset to the quarterback, it’s a run. When he’s even with the quarterback, like in this screenshot, it’s a pass. That kind of stuff is easily fixable, but it’s also pretty bad that Arkansas’ coaches didn’t notice it before this game.

Issue #2 - WildHog falls flat

Was this the big offensive reveal? Goodness, I hope not. Boyd running the WildHog didn’t work at all. Plays like this one above were poorly designed. This was a counter into the boundary, but it took too long to develop and had Boyd following De’Vion Warren as a lead blocker. Yuck. On a different attempt, Warren didn’t come in motion, so Ole Miss’ linebackers didn’t have to shadow him, so the run was stuffed for a big loss. The Hogs didn’t run the WildHog in the second half and I’d be happy if we don’t see it again this year.

Issue #3 - Whatever the heck this was

No gif, so you’ll have to imagine the stupidity. Starkel throws to Mike Woods, who was supposed to throw to Cheyenne O’Grady, who was wide open in the middle of the field for a touchdown. Nevermind that this play was totally unnecessary as Arkansas’ offense was moving the ball just fine on this drive without gimmicks, but here’s what went wrong:

  • Starkel’s pass to Woods was a forward pass, so he couldn’t attempt a second pass. That’s why he panicked and scrambled backwards for a 14-yard loss. The throw was supposed to be a lateral.
  • O’Grady wasn’t open anyway because while no Ole Miss defender was anywhere near him, O’Grady was expecting the ball over his right shoulder, not his left.
  • Woods scrambled backwards instead of just going out of bounds or trying to make progress.

I re-watched this more times than anyone should (expect Joe Craddock, who should be made to watch this play every single day) to figure out what was going on. Then I realized: maybe the lateral wasn’t supposed to go to Woods. Maybe it was supposed to go to Treylon Burks on the other side. That’s why O’Grady was looking to his right, and that’s why all the blockers went right:

Here you can see Woods all alone up top, while Burks (bottom-left) looks like he’s wondering what happened. It was bad play design if Woods was, in fact, supposed to get the ball. No one told O’Grady, at least.

Conclusions

Arkansas’ offensive line remains a disaster and the Hogs aren’t likely to out-coach anyone on the schedule. So that’s not great. The positive takeaway is that Nick Starkel is, as we all knew from the beginning, a competent quarterback who can help the Hogs rely a little less on Rakeem Boyd. Honestly, there’s no reason for Hicks to play again this year, barring injury. It sounds mean, but that’s the risk he took when he transferred to Arkansas. If the games against Colorado State, San Jose State, or Western Kentucky reach rout status, then John Stephen Jones and K.J. Jefferson should be next in line to get snaps.

The Hogs should be 3-1 before re-entering SEC play. I can tell you that if the Colorado State or San Jose State games turn into 27-24 games because the staff is ‘going vanilla to keep [opponent who doesn’t give a rip] from getting film’, then there will be boos from restless fans. And no one wants that. Have some pride and beat some team by 60, please.