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Box Score Breakdown: LSU 27, Arkansas 24

Bad luck, bad calls, and bad execution on third downs cost the Hogs in a game they should have won

LSU v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

This is mostly going to be negative, so let’s start with the good news to put it all in perspective.

Arkansas played like crap, had the full weight of the SEC’s garbage officiating bearing down on them, lost five of their top six defensive linemen to COVID and contact tracing, had a freak rainstorm blow through long enough to cause their quarterback to slip on third and goal... and still lost by 3 in a game they lost by 36 a year ago. So I guess it could be worse.

The Hogs played hard — playing hard in every game is their trademark this year — but I don’t think they really played smart. LSU is really not good, but they played one of their better games of the year and still should have lost. ESPN’s Bill Connelly tracks win probabilities in his SP+ model and noted Saturday night that LSU’s 10% postgame win probability was the lowest of any team to win this week. Basically, play that game 10 times, and Arkansas wins nine of them. They just lost the one that counted.

Grading the Hogs

  • Offense: D+. Lots went wrong here. The “should Trelon Smith be the lead back instead of Rakeem Boyd?” debate is over, as it’s now clear that Smith is great as a change-of-pace back and bad as a lead back. I also didn’t like Kendal Briles’ gameplan. LSU was able to take away the RPOs and the short game but never proved it could stop the deep pass. It didn’t matter, because the Hogs kept trying the short game instead of torching the Tigers deep.
  • Defense: B-. Grading on a curve here due to the lack of defensive linemen. Arkansas’ top four defensive ends — Dorian Gerald, Julius Coats, Eric Gregory, Zach Williams — were out, as were reserve defensive tackles Isaiah Nichols and Xavier Kelly, who rank second and third in snaps taken at defensive tackle this year. The Hogs had third-string defensive tackles playing end all game, and the lone starter to actually play — Jonathan Marshall — never came off the field. The secondary played poorly but some credit has to go to LSU quarterback T.J. Finley, who showed good short game accuracy and strong decision making.
  • Special Teams: F. Sam Pittman is about to have his first major offseason decision as a head coach, as Scott Fountain is very clearly an awful special teams coordinator. I tweeted that Fountain should be fired during the Auburn game, and it’s only gotten worse. As we’ll see below, Arkansas was once again outscored in Special Teams EVA, making eight for eight in losing the special teams battle. You’ll notice that the Hogs don’t even have a punt return team anymore, it’s just the starting defense plus one or two special teams guys.
  • Coaching: D-. Pittman deserves a lot of accolades for making the right hires and helping the Hogs become more respectable. But he has a lot to learn about game management. We get it, it’s a weird year and he’s never been a head coach before. But he chased points against Auburn, had a punt return unit on the field for Ole Miss’s very-obvious fake punt, and then decided to kick a 44-yard field goal with a kicker proven to be unreliable beyond 40. In one thousand parallel universes in which A.J. Reed tries that field goal, he misses it in all of them. And even if he had made it, the Hogs would have needed a stop with 1:30 left and two LSU timeouts — and the Tigers needing only a field goal — and that would only force overtime. All the analytics will tell you that you had to go for it there. It was not encouraging to hear Pittman in postgame saying that the field goal was the “obvious” decision. No, sir, it wasn’t.
  • Marc Curles: F. At some point, Arkansas is going to have to tell the SEC office that it won’t take the field in a game refereed by Curles. Curles’ crew was suspended after bad calls cost Arkansas the 2009 Florida game. It also handled the Auburn game this year and that botched ending. And now the utterly ridiculous fumble call in this game, plus the targeting and tripping calls that were both nonsense. Arkansas holds a lot of leverage here, because the Hogs’ official social media accounts can blast a video compilation of Curles’ best hits all over the internet and create a bad PR look for the conference, whereas the SEC can simply move Curles off all Arkansas games moving forward and avoid the showdown.
  • Hunter Yurachek: A+. Better late than never, as Yurachek finally decided he’d had enough of getting steamrolled by the conference. After a year filled with Yurachek saying “thank you sir, may I have another” as the SEC loaded up the schedule against the Hogs and then directly cost them the Auburn game, Yurachek tweeted this after the game:
  • Overall: C-. That was ugly.

Advanced Stats Recap

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

Quick Recap

  • Arkansas thoroughly outplayed LSU and would win a similar game nine times out of ten. But failing to convert a single third down was the biggest factor in the offense’s demise.
  • The Hogs were both efficient and explosive on standard downs for the fourth straight game. That continues to be a good sign. The Razorbacks weren’t amazing at staying on schedule, but they were decent.
  • The Hogs were inefficient on passing downs once again, and this time it bit them, as they went 0 for 10 on third down. And they weren’t long third downs, either. Most were less than seven yards.
  • LSU was moderately efficient and not explosive at all. The Tigers benefitted from a major field position advantage and some well-timed penalties to hit 27 points.
  • If you thought LSU ran the ball well, your eyes deceived you. LSU had almost as many runs go backwards as go for 6 yards, had zero explosive runs, posted a rushing success rate under 50%, and had the same line yards per carry as Arkansas did (2.3).
  • Finley wasn’t super efficient, but his efficient plays came right when LSU needed them. He has excellent field vision. His downfield accuracy has to improve, but I thought he played well and LSU fans should feel good about his performance.

The Hogs lost field position by 9.1 points and special teams by 2.7 points... in a game they lost by three. The biggest field position flip was the interception returned to the one, but failing to bother picking up several punts that were downed inside the 10 also hurt. If those failed recoveries were worth more than 0.3 points (and they definitely were), then it’s fair to say that this is the second time this season that special teams has directly cost Arkansas a win.

Without the stat highlighted in yellow, this box score shows a comfortable Arkansas win. The Hogs matched LSU’s efficiency (did you expect that?) and were significantly more explosive. With the exception of third downs, this game played out almost exactly as expected, with Arkansas’ offense showing efficiency and explosiveness on standard downs.

Again, it’s just third down. We use “marginal third down conversion rate” instead of actual third down conversion rate for a good reason: how many yards to have to go on third down is an important factor. Marginal third down conversion rate is a logarithmic equation that takes the distance to go into account, and the output is based on how much better or worse you did than you should have. So you should convert most of your 3rd-and-1s, but only a small percent of your 3rd-and-13s. If you faced a bunch of 3rd-and-13s in a game, then the problem was your first and second downs, not your third downs.

Arkansas’ minus-49% marginal third down conversion rate means Arkansas did 49% worse than expected... so the Hogs should have converted 4.9 out of 10, and instead converted 0 of 10. If Arkansas had converted those 4.9 (call it five) third downs, and thereby gone 0% in marginal third down conversions, the Hogs would have won by two touchdowns, minimum. How frustrating is that?

Did you expect LSU to do worse than Arkansas in EVA per Rush? The Tigers were fairly efficient on the ground (48% is decent) but had zero explosiveness and negative EVA. The Hogs were able to make LSU’s run game almost a total nonfactor without five of their top six defensive linemen.

I wrote in the Stats Study that the Hogs needed to snag a couple picks. That didn’t happen, hence the loss. Arkansas is now +9 in turnover margin in its three wins and -1 in its five losses. This defense needs turnovers.

The secondary wasn’t terrible (43% pass success is fine against LSU’s offense), but when it allowed those successful plays was the problem. LSU wasn’t amazing on third down, but the Tigers had a 56% passing downs success rate, which is really good. That — not the run game and controlling the clock and all that — was the single biggest factor in LSU’s offensive success. LSU could have run the ball 70 times and had 50 minutes time of possession, but that 56% passing downs success rate is the difference between scoring 13 points and scoring 27 points.

Now, you may think that calling LSU’s run game and time of possession a nonfactor is a strong claim. “But the LSU run game set up the pass!” you say. No. If LSU’s run game “set up” the pass (most analytics says there’s no such thing, but that’s a different discussion), then LSU would have a high success rate when throwing on standard downs. But they didn’t throw well on standard downs, they threw well on passing downs, when Arkansas was expecting them to pass. So the run game had no impact on the expectations of Arkansas defenders. Did LSU’s 90+ plays wear the Hogs out? Probably a little bit, but LSU only had one scoring drive in the second half, and it was aided by a garbage targeting call that gave them a 15-yard penalty and an ejection of Arkansas’ best defender. I think that had more to do with it than fatigue.

Here’s how the opponent passing down success rates have looked in Arkansas eight games:

  • In wins: 26%, 24%, 40%, Average: 30%
  • In losses: 56%, 65%, 53%, 41%, 37%, Average: 50%

After three weird games to open the season were opponents were between 37-41% on passing downs each week, the last five games have told the story: Tennessee and Ole Miss had passing success rates of 26% and 24% and lost, while LSU, Florida, and Texas A&M have had passing success rates of 56%, 65%, and 53%.

The Hogs still need to find another cornerback, as Hudson Clark is clearly not the option. He was burned for a touchdown once, had a receiver who had beaten him drop a touchdown a second time, and was beat for what might have been a touchdown a third time, only for the pass to be inaccurate. It’s fine to be frustrated at Jerry Jacobs for quitting on the team midseason, since he’d probably have won his job back by now. The coaches need to make sure that Jarques McClellion, a two-year starter at field corner who is sitting out this year due to COVID concerns, doesn’t decide to transfer after the season. And the coaches might also consider elevating true freshmen Khari Johnson or Malik Chavis to a starting spot, since those two probably have better long-term odds of starting for the Razorbacks.

Win Probabilty Added (WPA)

This stat tracks the changes in ESPN’s Win Probability created by individual plays and players. Here were Arkansas’ biggest performers:

  • Mike Woods +28%
  • Treylon Burks +25%
  • T.J. Hammonds +18%
  • Feleipe Franks -5%
  • Trelon Smith -42% (oof)

The claim that Smith is better than Boyd — something I discussed in the Florida Box Score Breakdown — simply doesn’t hold up after this game. Smith had three runs go for a loss and only one gain 6+ yards, caught just two of six targets (including a bad drop), and was charged with minus-4.3 EVA in a game the Hogs lost by three.

Here’s LSU:

  • T.J. Finley +25%
  • Tyrion Davis-Price +19%
  • Kayshon Boutte +18%
  • Racey McMath +12%
  • John Emery -14%

LSU’s run game combined for a grand total of minus-2% WPA. Again, run game not a factor.

Up Next

Mizzou is coming off an ugly 17-10 win over a South Carolina team that has basically quit. The Tigers are iffy on offense but boast a strong defense in Eli Drinkwitz’s first year. The Hogs have a good shot at a win that would help close an overachieving first season of the Pittman era.