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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. LSU

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The Razorbacks have real expectations as they face LSU

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Y’all hear that?

If not, listen closer.

Those are expectations creeping in. They didn’t take long to get here.

A year after opening as a 42-point underdog to LSU, the Hogs opened as 1-point favorites. Per Brett McMurphy and Phil Steele, that might be the largest year-over-year swing in a betting line for two teams.

Losing won’t necessarily lead to disappointment, but more and more fans are expecting to win. LSU is struggling, having lost 48-11 to the only team they’ve played with a winning record. The Tigers have had two open weeks to prepare for this game, so the Hogs should expect LSU’s best shot.

Meet the Tigers

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

All rankings are out of 14 SEC teams.

LSU is 2-3, but it’s a misleading 2-3. LSU’s five opponents are a combined 10-21 on the season, while Arkansas’ seven opponents are 27-18. LSU has played one team with a winning record (4-2* Auburn, a 48-11 loss) and their other games are against 2-4 Mississippi State (loss), 2-4 Missouri (loss), 2-5 South Carolina (win), and 0-6 Vanderbilt (win). Opponent adjustments are reflected in the chart above, but not any of the ones below. The EV+ model likes the Hogs: Arkansas 36, LSU 28.

As you’ll see, this is the most favorable matchup we’ve seen for the Hogs all season. After weeks of facing good offensive lines, veteran quarterbacks, and capable run defenses, LSU has none of those things. On both sides of the ball, the Tigers look to be bad at preventing Arkansas from doing what it wants to do. I don’t think it will happen because of LSU’s raw talent, but on paper at least, this game has the potential to get lopsided in favor of the Hogs.

Scouting Report

  • LSU is trying to run the Joe Burrow offense without Joe Burrow. They are quarterback-centric and reliant on the short passing game
  • The Tigers are great at staying on schedule, but very bad when falling behind, ranking dead-last in the conference at converting third downs
  • Strategically, LSU’s defense is Florida’s on steroids. The Tigers blitz and blitz and blitz and get a lot of sacks
  • The payoff of that pressure hasn’t been worth it, as LSU is giving up explosive plays at a historic pace, especially through the air

When LSU has the ball

Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger is a good playcaller who didn’t get enough credit for last year’s magical run (passing game coordinator Joe Brady designed a lot of the concepts, but Ensminger called the plays and helped with gameplanning).

Original starting quarterback Myles Brennan looked like he was going to be a solid passer, but his injury a few weeks ago sent LSU’s offense into a tailspin.

The Tigers key strength is their ability to stay on schedule, as evidenced by their standard downs success rate and leverage rate figures. They do this with a pass-first attack that doesn’t generate much explosiveness.

The problem for LSU is when they fall behind the chains. Success rate drops to 9th on passing downs and they are the worst marginal third down team in the SEC.

Here we see the first major spot that makes this a better matchup for Arkansas than the last few weeks: LSU’s offensive line is not great at all. Texas A&M, Tennessee, and Florida all have above-average lines, but LSU’s is mediocre-to-bad. The Razorback defensive front has a chance to play a big role in this game.

Brennan, the original starting quarterback, threw for 1,100 yards with 11 touchdowns and three picks in three games to open the year, throwing for 330+ yards and 3+ touchdowns in all three games. But he suffered an abdominal injury late in the Mizzou game and hasn’t played since. He likely won’t play again this year.

Freshman T.J. Finley started the the next two games. He’s 30 of 45 for 408 with two touchdowns and three picks. He played well against South Carolina but was pulled after throwing two picks against Auburn. One of LSU’s biggest issues right now is that their offense is so quarterback-reliant that they need amazing performances to move the ball at all. Freshman Max Johnson entered in relief of Finley and played okay, though most of his yards and his touchdown came in junk time when LSU was down 48-3 to Auburn.

Finley is the expected starter. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, he’s hard to tackle. He’s not really a runner though, recording 24 yards and a touchdown against South Carolina and recording only a couple of non-sack attempts against Auburn.

Back in 2018, 247 Sports gave Finley an interesting college quarterback comparison:

If you’re keeping track, Finley is the second starting quarterback the Hogs have faced this year that 247 Sports compared to Feleipe Franks as a recruit. The other was then-Georgia starter D’Wan Mathis.

Finley is a good matchup for this Razorback secondary that’s had to deal with Kellen Mond and Kyle Trask in recent weeks. Finley is fairly accurate and has a strong arm, but he’s a bit of a gunslinger, and he serves up a lot of interceptible passes. Per SEC Stat Cat, fully 13% of Finley’s attempts are “interceptible” (could be intercepted by a defender). Among SEC quarterbacks to play significant snaps this season, only Mathis and Tennessee backup Harrison Bailey (who threw two picks against Arkansas) serve up potential picks at a higher rate than Finley.

Regardless of who’s taking snaps, LSU always has great receivers. Terrance Marshall is a future NFL starter, and he’s caught nine touchdown passes already this year. Tight end Arik Gilbert is also quite good. The Hogs have had trouble with good tight ends against the zone, so Gilbert is one to watch.

Half of LSU’s total rushing yards this season came against South Carolina. The Tigers have an all-sophomore three-back committee: John Emery, Chris Curry, and Tyrion Davis-Price. It took the Tigers a few games to figure out that Emery is their best back:

  • EVA per Rush: Emery +0.17, Davis-Price -0.04, Curry -0.12
  • Success Rate: Emery 60%, Davis-Price 49%, Curry 40%
  • Bonus Yards per Opportunity: Emery 4.9, Davis-Price 5.9, Curry 1.7

Both Emery and Davis-Price have had good games and bad games. Emery was great against Vanderbilt, decent against South Carolina, and bad otherwise. Davis-Price was great against South Carolina but has been bad otherwise. All three were awful against Auburn, as LSU rushed 27 times for 32 yards.

When Arkansas has the ball

LSU’s hiring of Bo Pelini to replace Dave Aranda was... interesting. Pelini isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of defense, but in theory, his aggressive scheme would work with LSU’s offense much how Todd Grantham’s defense works with Florida’s: lots of blitzes mean short possessions for the opposing offense. Either you’re going to get a quick stop or give up a big play. Either way, you’re getting the ball back. Arkansas had the ball for just 21 minutes against Florida, and the Gators had the firepower to outscore the Hogs.

The problem with this is twofold: first, LSU’s offense this year isn’t good enough for the strategy to work properly, and second, the havoc-explosive plays tradeoff isn’t working in LSU’s favor. Sure, they’re 2nd in passing downs sack rate, but they are giving up big plays at a historic rate.

As long as Arkansas avoids negative plays on first down, the Hogs should have no problems moving the ball against this defense. The Tigers are only disruptive through sacks, and those are primarily on passing downs anyway. LSU allows a high leverage rate and too much standard downs success for a “third down blitz” strategy to carry them to victory.

In its three losses, LSU allowed K.J. Costello, Connor Bazelak, and Bo Nix to go 83 of 118 (70%) for 1,329 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s 11.3 yards per attempt and 443 yards per game. And Costello, Bazelak, and Nix aren’t exactly elite. Neither of them are nearly as good as Franks in any major metric, particularly deep pass accuracy.

For the first time in a few weeks, the numbers favor Arkansas in their attempt to run the ball. Texas A&M and Tennessee both had solid run defenses, but the Hogs were able to move the ball on the ground anyway.

LSU’s defensive front is a little different than in past years. This one just isn’t disruptive at all. LSU allows entirely too many yards before contact and too many opportunity runs.

As discussed in the Florida Box Score Breakdown, I’m interested to see if carries start to shift from Rakeem Boyd to Trelon Smith. Per SEC Stat Cat, Smith is now second in the SEC in yards before contact (3.6 per carry) while Boyd is next-to-last (1.9) among rushers with 50+ carries. Since the open date, Smith has had a higher success rate and more explosive runs, including an 83-yarder against Florida. If the Hogs can get a few big runs against LSU, that really opens things up.

Keys to the Game

  1. Go big. LSU’s going to get some pressures and going to get some sacks, but the Hogs need to make the Tigers pay for bringing pressure with big plays. If the run game joins in on the big play fun, LSU may not be able to keep up.
  2. Make LSU’s run a nonfactor. This has been a key a few times in recent weeks, as Barry Odom’s defense really needs to create a lot of forced throws. LSU’s run game isn’t explosive, but if the Tigers can keep moving the chains, they’ll be able to stay on schedule and there were will fewer interception opportunities.
  3. Snag a couple picks. Finley will serve up some interceptible passes, so the Hogs need to cash in some turnovers. The Razorbacks are +9 in turnover margin in their three wins and -1 in their four losses.