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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Alabama

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Is Arkansas’ offense turning the corner?

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Senior Day and the 3-6 Hogs close the season with top-ranked Alabama. The Tide get this game as a nice warmup ahead of the SEC Championship game. Alabama seems likely to score at will, but if the Hogs can build on the offensive improvement we saw at Mizzou, then this game could hit the Over easily.

Meet the Tide... or Not

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

We could do the full preview thing, but let’s not and say we did. The EV+ model says Alabama is 31 points better than Arkansas, which matches the opening line from Vegas. Not only is Alabama on 2019 LSU pace (as is Florida) offensively, but the Tide have sneakily risen in the defensive rankings. After ranking 6th in the SEC in Defense PAN several weeks ago, the Tide have steadily risen and passed Georgia last week to seize control of 1st in the conference. So Alabama is Florida’s offense and Georgia’s defense, basically, but slightly better than both.

The projected final score is 51-20 if you’re interested.

Evaluating Arkansas’ Offense vs. Mizzou

I thought instead we could take a closer look at the offense in Saturday’s 50-48 loss to Mizzou. We covered the advanced stats in the Box Score Breakdown, but thanks to data from SEC Stat Cat, we can track individual plays and playcalls.

With K.J. Jefferson, the Hogs had their best run game of the year, totaling 257 yards on designed runs with 5.7 per rush and an outstanding 64% success rate. The run game did very few things we haven’t already seen, but parts of Kendal Briles’ offense that don’t work as well with Feleipe Franks at quarterback saw more reps with Jefferson taking snaps.

The Hogs had a slightly lower rate of RPOs, with very few run in the first half. While Franks tends to throw more often on RPOs, Jefferson tended to hand off, with 13 of 20 of RPOs ending up as runs. The passes on the RPOs did not work well, as only one of seven were successful and they gained just 15 yards total. Jefferson will need to improve there moving forward, as early-down RPOs are important in the Briles offense.

The 31 called passes were surprisingly effective, totaling 8.8 yards per attempt. The efficiency was mediocre (48% success rate) but the Hogs hit plenty of explosive plays. Jefferson did well in standard dropback passes, quick passes (mostly slants), and max protection passes. Two trick plays, two screens, and an empty pass didn’t go as well.

Okay, let’s take a closer look at the run, combining all RPO runs and called runs into a single chart:

The Hogs ran nine inside zones (Slam and Bluff, diagrammed here), six of which were successful, including a touchdown run by Trelon Smith. The counter — Arkansas’ primary power run — got more reps than normal since the offensive line was playing well.

GT Counter Read

Part of the Hogs’ success on the counter was provided by Jefferson himself. We’ve diagrammed the counter before. Here it is from the Open Date Advanced Stats article:

This is a designed handoff, not a read, so there’s no unblocked edge man for Franks to read and potentially keep. You’ll notice that only backside guard Brady Latham pulls, and left tackle Myron Cunningham stays put.

Now watch Latham and Cunningham on Saturday:

This is called GT Counter Read, a play made famous by Oklahoma over the last few seasons. There’s a lot happening here.

First, let’s look at the backside. This is a counter read, so the backside end is left unblocked. If he comes crashing inside, Jefferson will pull the ball and run it himself. In this way, Jefferson’s ability to run actually serves as an extra blocker, because it takes a defender out of the play.

Meanwhile, both Latham and Cunningham are coming to the playside, where Blake Kern is already aligned as a traditional tight end. This is some beefy power football that Sam Pittman loves. Latham’s assignment is a trap block on the playside edge rusher, and he hits it perfectly. Cunningham’s job is to lead through the hole, where Kern is already at the second level blocking a linebacker. Cunningham kind of gets in the way and doesn’t block anyone, but that’s mostly because the play was already successful.

As I wrote in the Open Date Advanced Stats, Briles has used pulling tackles a lot at both Baylor and Houston. This type of power running is a place where Briles’ and Pittman’s offensive philosophies align. The Hogs haven’t done much tackle pulling this year, suggesting that it’s been an execution issue, so the fact that the Hogs ran GT Counter successfully at least twice in this game is encouraging.

Option

Jefferson’s run threat allows the Hogs to run some options. The Hogs ran six against Mizzou, three of which were successful. First, we have the classic triple option:

Treylon Burks is the up-man here who took the handoff both times. I assume this is a true triple option, and not just a handoff to Burks dressed up with a fake outside option.

Next up, more ways to get the ball to Burks:

The man fights hogs with his bear hands and can also run the option. He ran it twice, tossing here and then keeping on 4th-and-1 on the final drive. Both were critical late-down conversions. I don’t know exactly how you build off this play since it is under center and nothing else in Arkansas’ offense (that we’ve seen) is under center, but it’s a fun short yardage play if nothing else.

Finally, the nakie:

Nakies (“nakeds”, since there’s no lead blocker) have been a big part of Arkansas’ offense since the bye week. The Hogs ran two nakie options (this was one) and two nakie tosses that don’t appear to have been options. They weren’t super successful, but they are important because they set up this play:

The Hogs ran four of these Sprint Draws, gaining 63 yards (15.8 per carry), 100% success, and every run gaining at least five yards. This is a great play for Smith’s skill set and it works better with Jefferson because the run threat he provides forces the defense to respect the nakie to the wide side.

Up Next

We presumably won’t know who Arkansas’ starting quarterback is until they trot out on the field for the first possession. A case can be made for either Franks or Jefferson given that it’s Alabama and it’s Senior Day for Franks, but I think it’s clear that Jefferson needs to start the bowl game. Opponents now have film on him and will adjust to the threat he provides, but it’s better to get that out of the way this year and let him learn from this season over the offseason. He clearly is a better fit for the offense Briles wants to run, as long as he can continue to provide a solid downfield passing threat.