Are you still mad? You should be.
The conversation surrounding Arkansas’ 30-28 loss* to Auburn on Saturday has focused entirely on one play, and with good reason. The SEC officiating crew definitely made one terrible mistake — which they admitted to — and most who watched it, including NBC Sports rules analyst Terry McAulay, believe that when the SEC crew had a chance to correct their mistake in replay, they again made a bad call for a different reason. Either call going a different way is likely a win for Arkansas... the second call is definitely a win.
In case you somehow missed it, Arkansas led 28-27 with 30 seconds left and Auburn, in field goal range, needed to spike the ball on third down. Auburn QB Bo Nix fumbled the snap and then spiked it anyway... behind him, a move known in American football as a “fumble”. Within two seconds, Arkansas safety Joe Foucha was on top of the ball, and the game should have been over. The problem was that an official had blown the play dead when Nix spiked the ball. Auburn was called for intentional grounding (you can’t spike it if you do anything else after taking the snap), which was a meaningless penalty, since it was enforced for a loss of just one yard.
In replay, officials realized that Nix’s spike had gone backwards and thus was a fumble. However, they did not award Arkansas the ball, despite Foucha ending up with it, because Arkansas didn’t recover the ball in the “immediate continuing action” after the whistle blew. The idea of an immediate recovery is the only way officials will ignore a wrongly-blown whistle. A 10-second runoff was enforced along with the one-yard penalty, but Auburn was able to trot kicker Anders Carlson onto the field with no hurry and hit a field goal to win*.
There were two different officiating issues here:
- Officials blew a live play dead. In baseball, when the foul-line ball boy touches a fair ball thinking it’s foul, he’s getting fired for sure. Interfering with a live play is the cardinal sin of officials and other non-players in a sporting event. Despite a concentrated effort starting a couple years ago to hold the whistle on questionable plays, officials still frequently stop live plays. Nix clearly fumbled — that’s not in dispute, as the below SEC statement admits — and officials blew a live play dead. The key here is if officials didn’t blow the whistle, even if Auburn recovers the fumble, they are likely in trouble, as they would have been at least five yards further back and would have had 28 seconds to run their kicker out on the field and attempt the field goal, with the clock moving the whole time. The chances of Carlson making the field goal under those (correct) circumstances is much lower, and that’s just assuming Auburn immediately recovered.
- Officials declined to fix their on-field mistake in replay. Once the whistle was blown, it could not be undone. But replay could have fixed the result. On the broadcast, you could see the official realizing that it was a fumble while watching the replay. Ultimately, the crew determined that because so many players near the ball stopped when they heard the whistle, Arkansas’ recovery of the fumble was not relevant. This determination left in place the significant unfair advantage to Auburn.
The SEC has commented on the mess:
Statement on play at :30 to go in fourth quarter of Arkansas-Auburn game. pic.twitter.com/L1UQRlFx2M— SEC Officiating (@SECOfficiating) October 11, 2020
The key here is not the underlined word “immediate” — Foucha recovered the ball within two seconds of Nix fumbling it — but the the word “clearly”. Foucha had it, but he didn’t clearly have it because Auburn’s offensive players didn’t make much effort to recover it, having heard the whistle blow. The official position of the SEC then is clear: the fact that Auburn gave up on the play literally won the game for Auburn.
So that’s that. It was a terrible call, and there needs to be an official apology to the Razorback football team and punishment for the officials involved. It directly cost Arkansas the game. It’s especially concerning that this decision was made by a crew employed a conference that very clearly protected its favorites in scheduling, adding Georgia and Florida to Arkansas’ schedule. It’s not really a big jump from intentionally-unfavorable scheduling to intentionally-unfavorable officiating.
It’s a shame that play had to end it and now dominate the headlines, given the fantastic performances by several Razorbacks, particularly on offense. Let’s dive into the numbers.
Grading the Hogs
- Offense: A-. The passing game gets an A+, but the Hogs desperately missed Rakeem Boyd. We’ll take a closer look at Feleipe Franks’ fantastic game. Spoiler alert: it was the best passing performance by a Razorback quarterback in five years.
- Defense: B-. Not great, but not terrible. After falling behind 17-0 the defense mostly stiffened, but couldn’t get stops late. Auburn had two game-winning drives in the final five minutes. The absences of Montaric Brown and Dorian Gerald were felt.
- Special Teams: F. After three games, it’s clear that Scott Fountain’s unit is the weak point. The Hogs had another punt blocked (second time this year), this one for a touchdown. There were also four penalties on punts (mostly for illegal formation) and a kick out of bounds. The final punt to set up Auburn’s last drive netted 25 yards. Oh yeah, and the missed PAT starting the Hogs down a path of chasing points that ended up costing them three points in a game they lost* by two. This is all unacceptable.
- Overall: B. The bottom line is that Arkansas played a ranked team on the road without its top rusher, top receiver, top pass rusher, and top cornerback and still did enough to win. As Sam Pittman said, the days of the team going on the road and embarrassing the program are over.
(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the advanced stats glossary.)
Arkansas has played three games this year. In all three, the team with more Offense EVA has lost. That’s... nuts. Arkansas’ offense was almost 16 points better than Auburn’s, but couldn’t overcome (effectively) missing three extra points, having a punt blocked for a touchdown, and having slightly worse field position all game. Oh yeah, and the terrible call at the end that decided the whole thing.
Another way to say that is the team with a non-offensive touchdown is 3-0 in games involving the Hogs this year.
As expected, given their struggles through two weeks plus the rainy weather, Auburn recommitted itself to the run, which led to high success on standard downs but struggles on passing downs. The Hogs’ “no explosive plays” defense finally broke, but not too badly. The Hogs allowed too many big plays on standard downs but were otherwise fine overall.
The Razorback offense, despite very little production from the run game again, had a positive Standard Downs EVA thanks to several explosive plays. That’s the first time this year the Hogs have even come close to positive EVA on standard downs. Passing downs remain a strength, as Feleipe Franks is quite good when he has time to throw (welcome to the bandwagon everyone, I’ve been here since Week 1).
Arkansas just has to get Rakeem Boyd healthy. Another dismal run game performance is leaving the Hogs one-dimensional and behind the chains when they try to run. It’s obvious that the line is better suited for pass protection, which is fine, but in the long run the Hogs will have to run it better than this. Arkansas remains in the bottom 10 of the nation in all three of the key rushing stats in bold.
Trelon Smith is an amazing receiver out of the backfield, so you have to give him some carries to keep the defense honest. However, he’s not getting it done as a runner. Despite a low stuff rate, his 1.8 line yards per rush is bad, as is his 24% opportunity rate and 29% success rate. He loses a lot of ground when he tries to run sideways, which is something he has to work on.
Both of Auburn’s running backs managed more than three line yards per carry, which shows that Auburn’s run blocking was working just fine. Tank Bigsby had a nice night. This wasn’t just a beatdown, but the Hogs probably wanted a better run defense performance.
The caveat here is that I don’t know the exact question he was responding to, but this post-game answer from Bo Nix ticked me off quite a bit:
Bo Nix on Chad Morris late in the game: "His coaching experience was on full display those last two drives. We got into FG position pretty quickly.... I'm super fired up that he's on my team."— Tom Green (@Tomas_Verde) October 11, 2020
"It was personal for us.... He had this one circled for a while."
First of all, if Morris had this one “circled”, then he’s an even bigger piece of garbage than he’s often accused of being. (Maybe he should have circled the Georgia game instead.) USA Today columnist Dan Wolken said it best: “It takes a special talent for someone who got paid $20 million to go 4-18 to convince other human beings that he was the wronged party in this situation.”
While we’re at it, here’s the thing: Bo Nix sucks. He sucked against Georgia, and he played poorly against Arkansas. He’s regressed since last year, and he wasn’t great last year. This win* won’t make Auburn fans feel any better about the direction of their football team, and it shouldn’t. They aren’t in the same universe as their in-state archrival or their second-biggest rival one state over, and this week proved that once again.
In the long run, Arkansas fans want Chad Morris at Auburn, because in the long run, you’ll win more often than not when this is the quarterback comparison:
Sam Pittman has now coached three SEC games, and in two of them, his quarterback has performed better than in any of Chad Morris’ 14 conference games as head coach. Overall, Franks’ performance (in terms of EVA) was the best by a Hog quarterback since Brandon Allen’s 408-yard, 7-touchdown performance against Mississippi State in 2015.
Anthony Schwartz killed the Hogs with his speed, while once again, Auburn had just two actual wide receivers receive a target.
For Arkansas, De’Vion Warren continues to be awesome, and Trelon Smith is a monster out of the backfield. He’ll continue to be part of the running back rotation and get some carries (even after Boyd returns) because you have to run it with him to set up performances like this through the air.
Mike Woods was also solid, but we saw more disappointing performances from Hudson Henry (no targets) and Trey Knox (one target, incomplete). We all wondered who the odd man out in the receiver rotation would be, and it appears Knox may be it. Once Treylon Burks gets healthy, then it’ll be Burks, Woods, and Warren as the main targets for Franks. Knox still has seven games to make an impact, so don’t count him out just yet.
Win Probability Added (WPA)
This stat tracks the changes made by individual players to ESPN’s Win Probability over the course of the game. Auburn started at about 76%, so Arkansas making a game out of it allowed the Hogs to add more to the total.
Here are the major individual Arkansas performers:
- Feleipe Franks +66% (his two-week total is up to +111%)
- De’Vion Warren +45%
- Mike Woods +33%
- Blake Kern +23%
- Trelon Smith +13%
- Malik Hornsby -23% (STOP TAKING FRANKS OUT NEAR THE GOAL LINE)
And here were Auburn’s major performers:
- Anthony Schwartz +23%
- Tank Bigsby +16%
- Seth Williams +9%
- D.J. Williams +3%
- Bo Nix -9%
The fact that Arkansas is 1-2 doesn’t really sell how much the Hogs have improved in all areas of the game. Pittman and his staff (outside of Scott Fountain...) are doing an incredible job.
The Hogs now face the difficult task of containing Ole Miss’ explosive offense. The Rebels lost to Alabama 63-48 on Saturday. Expect a shootout.