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Open Date Advanced Stats: What’s Going on With the Hog Offense?

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How can the Hogs get the offense on track?

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody thought the Hogs would be 2-2 heading into the open date, but here we are. Arkansas has two wins over fellow first-year head coaches, putting Sam Pittman in the driver’s seat for SEC Coach of the Year in his first season.

But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Only one first-year coach remains (Eli Drinkwitz and Mizzou), and the Hogs’ dependence on shooting down pass-first offenses may not help against the upcoming stretch of the schedule. The Razorback offense needs to step up and help.

Evaluating the offense vs. Ole Miss

(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the advanced stats glossary.)

Hog fans were hoping for a breakout offensive performance against Ole Miss’s putrid defense, but it didn’t happen. The Hogs failed to gain 400 yards of total offense, which meant Ole Miss had the ball down 26-21 late in the fourth quarter despite, to that point, five turnovers and less than five and a half yards per play. All this came despite the fact that the Hogs got star receiver Treylon Burks and star running back Rakeem Boyd back from injury.

So what went wrong? Let’s take a closer look. First, it’s important to note that there’s an obvious explanation for why both offenses underperformed on Saturday: these coaches are very familiar with each other. Kendal Briles worked for Lane Kiffin at FAU in 2017, and learned about running an offense that he still uses. On the flip side, Briles has a lot of the goods on Kiffin. Ole Miss OC Jeff Lebby also worked under Josh Heupel at UCF, who was, of course, Barry Odom’s offensive coordinator at Mizzou. At the end of the day, both the Briles offense and the Kiffin offense have the same end goal and are not significantly different conceptually. That might explain why both defenses looked so prepared.

Thanks to work from SEC Stat Cat, we can identify the play calls for every snap during the game. Here’s how they break down:

The Hogs called a lot of RPOs (run-pass options). The season average for RPOs is around 28-30% (highest in the SEC), but against Ole Miss, the Hogs called RPOs on 38% on snaps. These plays were easily the best for the Hogs, averaging 6.3 yards per play, 43% success, and +.06 EVA per play. The Hogs run RPOs almost exclusively on standard downs, and as we saw in the Box Score Breakdown, the Hogs had a decent performance on standard downs despite issues running the ball.

The objective of the Briles offense is to use a heavy dose of RPOs on standard downs plus some deep shots out of max protection (seven blockers, three receivers in the pattern). The deep shots keep the safeties back and allow the RPOs to work better, whether they are runs or passes. Some credit has to go to Ole Miss’s defense for taking away a lot of the deep shots, forcing the Hogs to rely more on RPOs.

As you can see, the real punch from the Razorback offense came on the “pass” parts of the RPO. Half of the 30 RPOs ended up in Feleipe Franks pass attempts. He completed 12 of 15 for 159 yards with a 73% success rate.. This includes two swing passes for 23 yards to Burks that are officially recorded as rushes because the throw went backwards. However, for our purposes, we’re calling them passes.

The best RPO pass concept was the swing to Burks. On the Hogs’ first touchdown drive, an outside zone run with Trelon Smith was paired with a swing pass to Burks:

For the game, Franks was 4 of 4 for 88 yards on RPO swing passes to Burks.

My favorite call in terms of play design with this nifty RPO that included a slam concept with Boyd, orbit return motion from De’Vion Warren to stretch the flat defender, and a quick slant from Mike Woods:

There’s a lot of misdirection on this play, and that’s why it works. The Hogs had been throwing that swing to Burks, so the defender has to watch for it while Woods runs the slant.

Another successful RPO pass concept was slide, usually a pass concept for the H-back (both Blake Kern and Hudson Henry had a catch off of it in this game), but it can also be run with a motioning slot receiver, in this case Burks:

So why did the offense not keep working after putting up 243 yards in the first half? Well, here’s part of it: in the first half, Franks of 9 of 10 for 130 yards (80% success) on RPO passes. In the second half, he was 3 of 5 for 29 yards (60% success). That’s a big dropoff. Part of the problem with RPOs is that they allow the defense to dictate the offense’s decision-making. Franks makes the decision to run or pass immediately prior to the snap in most cases, usually based on the defense’s alignment. The defense can change its alignment to influence the offense’s choice.

As mentioned above, both teams have coaches with intimate knowledge of the other’s offense. Ole Miss in particular knows everything about Briles’ offense. After getting torched on RPO passes in the first half, the Rebels needed to fight the Hogs’ quick passing game in the second half. We got a glimpse of their second half strategy on Arkansas’ third play of the third quarter.

The Hogs have a 1st-and-10 from their own 11, shortly after the second goal-line stand. The call is an RPO: a counter run concept with Boyd and a backside slant from Burks. The read man is Ole Miss safety Jalen Jordan (circled in red), who is showing a rush:

A free backside rusher means Franks can’t hand the ball off; instead, he needs to pull the ball and throw the slant to Burks. But Ole Miss has a trick up its sleeve: the Rebels pretty obviously know the play. The defender opposite Burks is prepared to jump the slant, so Franks can’t throw it. All that’s left is for Franks to keep on the counter read, and linebacker MoMo Sanogo (pink) is prepared for that, running a scrape exchange, a common defense against the a read option where the backside linebacker comes down to replace the read man.

Watch it all play out:

The announcers at this point complain that Arkansas is calling too many runs for Franks which is, obviously, not the whole story. Franks keeping on a read is the last resort of an RPO.

Now, I’m not sure whether the Hogs tipped the play call, Ole Miss just gambled, or the Rebels guessed based on Kiffin’s knowledge of Briles’ tendencies. What jumps out to me is that the Hogs were in the same formation as the previous play and called the same run concept (counter), a play that is susceptible to an edge rush. This call was made at tempo, so Ole Miss defenders may have known the Hogs were going to come back with the same formation and same run concept and guessed that it would be an RPO. The downside of trying to go fast is that you can be limited in what calls are available. The end result here was simply a wasted play. Two plays later, the Hogs were punting, setting up an Ole Miss touchdown drive.

Part of the problem is that Ole Miss is able to call for a scrape exchange with its backside linebacker. The risk of the scrape exchange is that it removes the linebacker from the middle of the field. If the Hogs had called a regular counter on this play and blocked the edge rusher, then Sanogo would be running himself out of the play. But Ole Miss can take this risk with its backside linebacker because Arkansas has struggled to run the ball. The 15 RPOs that became runs gained just 29 yards, and only two of them were successful (13%). Because the run part of the RPO presented no threat, Ole Miss could repeatedly gamble to stop the pass part.

Here are the total RPO numbers by half:

  • First half: 10 passes, 6 runs, 1 scramble; 9/10 passing for 130 yards, 6 runs for 17 yards, 1 scramble for 1 yard
  • Second half: 5 passes, 6 runs, 2 scrambles: 3/5 passing for 29 yards, 6 runs for 11 yards, 2 scrambles for zero yards

On the fourth-quarter touchdown drive to make it 26-14, Briles dialed up four RPOs. Franks was 2 of 2 for 19 yards on passes and there were 2 runs for 6 yards, so those four RPOs were responsible for the majority of the second-half RPO yardage. One of the RPOs was a swing pass to Burks (Ole Miss never stopped that play), and the other pass was a smash concept to Warren that the Hogs ran only that one time.

A closer look at the run game

In order for the Hogs to get more from RPOs, they have to run the ball better. On RPOs, the Hogs had 15 carries for 29 yards and 13% success. Yuck.

On called runs, the Hogs had 20 carries for 65 yards and 45% success. Better, but still absolutely no explosiveness. The Hogs have the lowest opportunity rate in the country (percent of runs to gain 6+ yards). Not counting the final drive that ended with a knee at the Ole Miss 1, the Hogs had exactly TWO runs all game gain 6+ yards.

With the swing passes to Burks (and the attempted double pass to Burks) removed from the final numbers, the Hogs’ overall rushing stats are not pretty:

Only 2.0 line yards per rush and 31% success isn’t anywhere near good enough against the worst run defense in the conference.

If you’re unfamiliar with these run concepts, here’s a primer. The bluff read is an inside zone with misdirection from a motioning receiver:

Without the motion, the standard inside zone run is the slam (note the bubble screen option to the bottom):

Contrary to his mentor Kiffin, Briles also runs counter, a power run that pulls a guard and uses the H-back:

This play works well as a called run (6 rushes, 25 yards, 50% success) but not as a run off an RPO (3 rushes, 0 yards, 0% success).

One of the failed RPO counters is particularly interesting. Briles dials up a TAG counter (TAG = tackle and guard), where the backside tackle and guard will pull and lead the counter play, while the H-back (Warren, on this play), will sneak into the flat:

The read man is the defensive end, who will probably play the run. If he does, Franks can pull the ball and hit Warren for the walk-in touchdown. However, he appears to make the wrong decision:

I’m not sure why Franks handed it off here.

Briles called a lot of TAG counters at Baylor, and the fact that the Hogs run it so rarely (this was the only time in this game) suggests a lack of trust in the tackles to pull. I also haven’t seen the “dart” run concept (tackle pulls and leads on an iso run) that Baylor (and Houston under Briles) ran all the time. Recruiting and developing tackles who can pull might be part of offensive line rebuild being undertaken by Pittman and Briles.

The Hogs want to run a zone-heavy scheme, but the zone runs are part of the problem. Here’s the breakdown against Ole Miss:

  • Zone runs: 18 runs for 52 yards, 2.9 yards/rush, 22% success
  • Non-zone runs: 15 runs for 46 yards, 3.1 yards/rush, 47% success
  • Speed option: 2 runs for -4 yards, -2.0 yards/rush, 0% success

The speed option didn’t work at all, so I don’t imagine we’ll be seeing that again. But the zone runs were also dreadfully inefficient. Only one run out of 18 was an opportunity run (6+ yards). The Hogs have to find a way to run the ball better.

What’s the best way? Well, keep an eye on the recruiting rankings, because that’s the long-term fix. The Hogs have a new head coach, new offensive coordinator, and new offensive scheme, so there’s going to have to be some new blood, especially on the offensive line. Much of what the Hogs are doing with RPOs is pretty similar to what Chad Morris and staff were doing, but I don’t think Morris used pulled tackles, and that may be why we’re not seeing that. And while Briles is presumably smart enough to not give a Morris-like “we only have 40% of the offense installed” answer, the fact that Arkansas didn’t get a spring practice makes me think that Briles hasn’t had enough time to add much to the run scheme these players already knew when he arrived.

For this reason, the open week comes at a good time for the Hogs to make progress. Keep on eye on the run concepts to see if the Hogs show anything new.

Here are a couple of other observations about the run game:

  • Run left, throw right. The Hogs clearly want Franks throwing to his right on quick passes. He can throw swings to the left, but most slants, tunnel screens, slides, and hitches have gone right. Because the pass concept of an RPO has to be on the backside of a run, then RPO runs have to go left. That’s a problem, as the Hogs average a meagre 2.9 yards per rush running left this year, compared to 3.5 yards per rush running right. Of course, there’s a chicken-or-egg problem here: are the left-running numbers bad because RPO runs aren’t working, or are the RPO run numbers bad because left-running isn’t working?
  • What about the H-back? Briles is in a bit of a bind. In the traditional Baylor offense, the tight end (or H-back) is almost exclusively a blocker. Basically he’s just a sixth offensive lineman, except he’s a little smaller and much more mobile. Outside of an occasional target on the slide concept, he’s not used in the pass game. That’s an issue for this roster, as Briles has the former #1 TE recruit Hudson Henry, who has the potential to be a weapon as a receiver. Briles has split Henry wide several times, which is great because it allows him to be a possession target and also an open-field blocker for swings and screens. But watching film, the Hogs’ H-backs are very poor at run blocking right now. Arkansas needs to get an old-school fullback to block up those slams and counters. There’s not one on the roster right now.

But what about the passing game?

While the RPO pass game worked well, called passes were weak for the first time since the Georgia game. On called passes, Franks was 11 of 21 for 108 yards with a touchdown and an interception, plus 7 scrambles for -6 yards and a lost fumble. Not great.

Briles likes max protection (keeping back and tight end in to block) on shot plays on standard downs and occasionally on third-and-longs. On max protect plays, Franks was 5 of 6 for 51 yards and a touchdown, plus two sacks (including a lost fumble) and a scramble. Taking a sack or scrambling on one-third of max protection plays is a horrible ratio.

The fumble came on a Kiffin staple — Y-cross — drawn up for Burks and protected with max protection. However, Boyd whiffed on his block:

Burks appears to be open, so Franks wants to get the pass off. However, he probably should have eaten the football here.

The interception, on the other hand, is not Franks’ fault. It looks like Beaux Limmer misses a block, and Franks makes the pass with a defender in his face:

Because of the pressure, the throw is high and behind Warren, but it still hits him in the hands, so it should not be picked.

Franks has had a tendency this season to be very good when he’s throwing in rhythm or when he has lots of time to throw. The Hogs get rhythm throws on RPOs and give lots of time on max protect throws. See what I mean:

  • RPOs + max protect passes: 17 of 21 for 206 yards and a touchdown, 3 scrambles for -3 yards and a lost fumble, 63% success
  • Other called passes: 6 of 15 for 57 yards and an interception, 4 scrambles for -3 yards, 21% success

Ole Miss was taking away the deep throws, forcing Franks to be patient. He was more patient than Matt Corral, and if not for two turnovers, we probably wouldn’t have any complaints about the passing game. Moving forward, I’m interested to see if the Hogs use more max protection when they want to throw.

Up next we’ll take a closer look at the Razorback defense.