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Box Score Breakdown: Arkansas 21, Mississippi State 14

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A closer look at a defensive masterpiece

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

If I were to tell you last Friday that Arkansas would have 275 yards of offense and Mississippi State would complete 43 passes, you’d probably think the Bulldogs won by 40. But looks can be deceiving.

Arkansas’ 21-14 win over State snapped a 20-game SEC losing streak that dated to October 2017 brought high praise for head coach Sam Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom. Odom deserves the praise, and he made a lot of Week 1 overreactions look really bad.

First off, Mississippi State producing a “bandwagon” video and launching an entire campaign to build the fanbase after a Week 1 win had a very “Kenny Trill” feel to it.

If nothing else, Saturday exposed how bad of a decision LSU made in rehiring Bo Pelini as defensive coordinator. I touched on this in the stats study:

One thing to not do is what new LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini tried, and that’s a heavy blitz. I get why Pelini did it (he wanted to test a new QB in a new system), but the Air Raid simply has too many good hot route options, especially against the man blitzes that LSU kept bringing.

I’m now kicking myself for not going in harder on Pelini, whose gameplan was just plain stupid (easy to say in hindsight).

I’ll let former LSU Tiger Booger McFarland take it from here:

It’s not like the Air Raid’s weaknesses weren’t known. As Mizzou beat writer Dave Matter noted last night, Odom was 3-0 against Leach’s Texas Tech teams during his stint as Mizzou’s secondary coach. The Tigers allowed just 21 points per game to Tech over those three games.

And I mentioned in the stats study that Washington won the last seven Apple Cups over Wazzu — three as underdogs — and allowed fewer than 20 points in all of them. Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake (now the head coach there) made waves in 2018 when he mocked Leach’s offense as inflexible and easy to prepare for. That teams would not do what Arkansas did Saturday against the Air Raid is simple stubbornness by defensive coordinators. Until proven otherwise, the original Air Raid can be outschemed by a simple “rush three, drop eight” strategy.

But having a superior game plan alone isn’t enough to win. For the second straight game, the players on defense played well. Many teams have tried the correct strategy against the Air Raid and failed. The Hogs succeeded because the players executed the plan.

Grading the Hogs

  • Offense: C+. New week, same grade. Mississippi State’s defense is probably decent, and the Hogs lost both Rakeem Boyd and Treylon Burks in the first half to injuries, so I’m grading leniently. Feleipe Franks played really well, and De’Vion Warren turned in a career-best performance. The offensive line getting limited push in the run game was concerning, and the disastrous goal-line sequence with K.J. Jefferson at quarterback was not a good look for offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, who otherwise called a good game.
  • Defense: A+. I mean, what else can be said? We’ll deep dive into the stats below.
  • Special Teams: C-. Not disastrous like last week, but still not great. Vito Calvaruso’s kickoffs were good, and the two that weren’t touchbacks were covered well. Reid Bauer (the third punter of the year) laid down a great punt at the 5-yard line, but it was wiped out by an illegal procedure penalty. The Bulldogs did have a 20-yard punt return, and main punter George Caratan still isn’t booming punts. The special teams play of the night was the muff by Mississippi State with 2:35 to play, but other than Deon Edwards being in the right place at the right time to pounce on it, that was all about MSU making an error.
  • Overall: B. Still too many issues on offense and special teams to go higher, but it is fair to say that this game was better than any of Chad Morris’ 22 games as head coach.

Advanced Stats

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

This was a pure defensive struggle, just like we all expected. Neither offense could produce much, and the difference in the game was the Greg Brooks Jr. pick-six on the opening drive. The Hogs’ run game went nowhere but the pass game was solid, while Mississippi State’s +16 EVA pass game last week turned into -10 EVA this week.

For the second straight game, the Hog defense was filthy on standard downs. After forcing 20 third downs against Georgia, the Hogs forced 17 more against the Bulldogs. Mississippi State was neither efficient (35% success rate) nor explosive (0.198 Gini coefficient) on early downs. On passing downs, the Bulldogs were a little better — as is to be expected from any pass-heavy offense that isn’t intimidated by being behind the chains — but still weren’t great, and even then the Hogs held MSU to minus-3% marginal third down conversions (meaning State’s third down conversion percentage was 3% worse than you would expect given the distance of their third down attempts).

Offensively, the Hogs were better on standard downs, which is a positive step after a nightmare in this stat last week. A 42% success rate isn’t great for standard downs (45+% is the target), but the Hogs did generate some big plays on early downs, which is what Briles wants to do.

Through the Air

The story of the game was MSU’s inability to generate anything with the downfield passing game. The Bulldogs didn’t even bother to try a deep shot, instead giving a staggering 20 targets to running backs through the air in an attempt to test Arkansas’ linebackers. The linebackers won that battle, with Bumper Pool recording 20 tackles and both Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry also playing well.

The Hogs had a strong performance through the air, with no turnovers in the pass game, two touchdowns, decent success rate, and more big plays. Note to the previous staff: this is what you want when you go get a grad transfer quarterback. Mississippi State’s performance was shocking to anyone who watched the Bulldogs torch LSU last week.

The final drive has been removed from these stats as it was meaningless, but K.J. Costello dropped back to pass 60 times and generated only 310 yards. Franks added a fifth of a point every time he dropped back and added +34% win probability through the air.

An interesting note here: ProFootballFocus handed out grades (their methodology is undisclosed so I’m not always sure about them) and ranked nose tackle Jonathan Marshall as the best player on the field. Given the three-man rush, the line did a really good job of controlling things up front. Marshall also made the monster 4th down stop late in the game:

Mississippi State opened the game with a 76% win probability according to ESPN, but the pass game alone generated a 136% swing in Arkansas’ favor.

All hail De’Vion Warren. He caught four of six passes for 100 yards and a touchdown, creating a total value of six points and +19% win probability. Briles loves fast slot receivers, and we got to see glimpses of the “veer-and-shoot” he’s working on for the Hogs. Mike Woods, Trey Knox, and Hudson Henry all had good moments as well, adding 3.7 points and +24% WP between them. Not to be outdone by MSU finding running backs in the pass game, Trelon Smith recorded five catches on eight targets out of the backfield, as Franks wisely checked down when the shot plays weren’t there.

On the Ground

We expected a battle of feature backs, but it didn’t materialize, as State star Kylin Hill was knocked out on the opening series and Boyd exited a couple drives later. The pair combined for just nine carries.

The longest run of the game (for either team) was nine yards. Mississippi State didn’t run the ball well at all, but they ended with positive EVA because they did convert three fourth downs on the ground (in four tries) so those are worth a lot of EVA. The Hogs’ three-man front actually did well to limit the run game, but the Hogs didn’t really threaten the line of scrimmage and instead focused on containing runs to four yards or less, which worked well enough for Leach to not keep trying it.

Arkansas did not run it well at all, and it appears that while pass protection is solid, the line isn’t ready to support a solid run game just yet. When Boyd is healthy, we expect more, but the Hogs aren’t going to win many more games this year with a run game like this.

For Arkansas, Franks added another +11% win probability with his legs, picking up a couple of first downs on the ground. Jefferson’s disastrous two-play sequence cost the Hogs about four and a half points and 27% win probability. While Boyd was on track for a solid game (50% success rate, 3.1 line-yards per carry), Trelon Smith wasn’t quite as good (36% success rate, 2.3 line-yards per carry), although he did fine given that it was the first extended action of his career and the fact that the line wasn’t opening many holes.

State’s run game was typical Leach. Solid line-yards given the defense’s focus on the pass, but not really used much. Dillon Johnson’s six-yard touchdown run on a 4th-down play was the only thing that kept MSU from having negative Rush EVA. If Leach wants to actually be consistently successful against SEC defenses, as opposed to just picking off bad defensive coordinators, he’s going to have to develop an actual run game.

Win Probability Added

This is a feature this year, and it records the change to the ESPN win probability added by each individual play. We can add up the WPA for each individual player in the game.

Here were Arkansas’ major movers:

  • Feleipe Franks +45%
  • Mike Woods +15%
  • Treylon Burks +13% (just one catch but it was a big one)
  • Hudson Henry +2%
  • Trelon Smith -5%
  • De’Vion Warren -8% (that fumble hurt him)
  • K.J. Jefferson -27% (ugh)

And for MSU:

  • Osirus Mitchell +25%
  • Dillon Johnson +19%
  • JaVonta Payton +9%
  • Jo’quavious Marks -16% (quite bad considering he led MSU in both targets and rushes)
  • K.J. Costello -107% (CBS’ Dennis Dodd ranked him #1 on his Heisman Watch last week...)

Conclusion

As of Saturday, 74 teams have now completed at least one FBS game, and most have completed two or more. The Hogs now have the following rankings in raw stats:

  • #16 in Defense EVA per Play
  • #1 in Defense Gini (coefficient of explosive plays allowed)
  • #5 in Rush Defense Gini (coefficient of explosive run plays allowed)
  • #2 in Pass Defense Gini (coefficient of explosive pass plays allowed)
  • #5 in Defense Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt
  • #1 in Defense Standard Downs Gini (coefficient of explosive plays allowed on standard downs)

It helps that Arkansas played Georgia much better than Auburn did and Mississippi State much better than LSU did. When adjusted for quality of opponent, the Hogs have the following ranks:

  • #3 in Defense PAN (overall quality of defense)
  • #10 in Defense Marginal Efficiency
  • #1 in Defense Marginal Explosiveness
  • #1 in Pass Defense PAN (overall quality of pass defense)
  • #1 in Pass Defense Marginal Explosiveness

Up next, Gus Malzahn and the struggling Auburn offense come to town. The Tigers boast a great defense, but the Morris-led offense is in shambles right now after a 27-6 loss to Georgia last week.

Razorback football is fun again, folks!