Once again, there are modest stakes in the Battle Line Rivalry, but there are stakes. The winner of Saturday’s game probably gets to claim that its first-year coach had the better season.
Mizzou (4-3) seemingly got the bad end of the SEC scheduling plan when Alabama and LSU were added to the Tigers’ schedule, but things have worked out well, as LSU turned out to be bad and a game against Georgia was postponed. As a result, Mizzou has played just two teams with winning records this season, going 0-2. The Tigers are 3-1 against teams with losing records, with a 45-42 win over LSU standing as the highlight of the season and a 35-12 drubbing by Tennessee as the low point.
The Hogs (3-5) have played a much tougher schedule, going 2-1 against teams under .500, a win over 4-4 Ole Miss, and 0-4 against teams with winning records.
In addition to the coaching bragging rights, the Hogs still need to prove that they’ve actually improved over the course of the season. An ugly 27-24 loss to LSU two weeks ago casts doubt as to whether this team is any better now than it was in a 21-14 win over Mississippi State back in Week 2. While improvement over last year has already been noticeable, finishing strong will create more momentum heading into 2021.
Meet the Tigers
(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the advanced stats glossary.)
- Mizzou’s balanced offense is unexplosive and struggles on early downs, but it has the ability to make up ground if it falls behind the chains
- The Tiger run game is inefficient and not a major threat. Offensive line is average at best at opening up holes, while the running backs don’t get much after contact
- Connor Bazelak is a solid quarterback and a serious threat to pick apart the Arkansas zone
- Mizzou boasts the SEC’s best third down defense and a stifling defensive front that will likely limit running room
- The Tigers may be vulnerable to big plays, particularly on early downs, and particularly through the air
All rankings are out of 14 SEC teams.
The EV+ model says homefield advantage makes the difference: Mizzou 20, Arkansas 19.
When Mizzou has the ball
Eli Drinkwitz’s offense takes influences from Gus Malzahn and Boise State in terms of its design. Drinkwitz started his career coaching high school football at Alma and Springdale before joining Malzahn as quality control assistant at Auburn. He was Arkansas State’s OC during Malzahn’s lone year there, and stayed in Jonesboro when Malzahn returned to Auburn as head coach. He worked under Bryan Harsin first at A-State and then for a couple seasons in Boise. From there he was OC at NC State and head coach at App State.
Working from the Auburn/Boise framework, Drink’s offense will try to be balanced on early downs, establishing the run with read plays and constraint passes off those. Mizzou will not run very many RPOs: when they want to run, they’ll run, and when they want to pass, they’ll pass. They’ll take some shot plays, though Bazelak is fairly erratic on deeper passes.
I’ve circled the key matchup of the whole game. Passing downs success rate defense doomed the Hogs against Texas A&M and LSU, and for Mizzou, it’s one of the few matchups the Tigers can win on offense.
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.
The Hogs can stop the run all they want (and they probably will) and they can get Mizzou behind the chains at a decent clip (they probably will), but if they allow a 56% passing downs success rate for the second straight game, this will be a loss. You don’t even need to see any other stats. It’s the big weakness of this zone.
Jalen Catalon will miss the first half after the “targeting” penalty against LSU, so I’m interested to see if Mizzou tries to attack there early, knowing that advantage will go away in the second half.
Mizzou ran the ball well on hapless Vanderbilt in a 41-0 win but came into that game ranked dead last in the SEC in EVA per Rush and Rush Success Rate. Their rushing attack seems likely to be a nonfactor due to a lack of explosive runs by the Tigers. They’ll use two backs: Larry Rountree will get most of the carries, while Tyler Badie is more of a threat as a pass catcher.
The Tigers’ only real strength on offense is an ability to stay efficient in the passing game. Freshman Connor Bazelak has played well, and while big plays haven’t been there, the short ones have. Bazelak is quite accurate on short passes, which is a problem for the Hogs:
Kellen Mond and T.J. Finley, both very accurate on short passes, diced up the Hog zone in previous weeks. Of course, Jarett Guarantano is also accurate on short passes, and he looked mediocre against the Hogs. Bazelak is actually pretty similar to Guarantano as a passer, except he’s playing in an offense that’s better suited to his skillset.
When Arkansas has the ball
Mizzou’s defense, built with Barry Odom’s players, has carried the Tigers to their four wins this year, holding Kentucky, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt to 10 points or fewer. Linebacker Nick Bolton is one of the most productive linebackers in the SEC not named Bumper Pool or Grant Morgan.
The Tigers are very strong up front, and their only apparent weakness is going to come on early downs, where the Hogs have made their living this season. The Razorbacks have to be efficient and hit big plays on early downs.
The Hogs have been running the ball better for several weeks now, but that was with Rakeem Boyd in the lineup. Boyd himself wasn’t having a great year, but he and Trelon Smith together were nice duo. Without Boyd against LSU’s mediocre run defense, the Hogs did nothing and Smith had his worst game.
Now Smith is the lead back and, because it’s 2020, of course the Hogs are dependent on T.J. Hammonds to play a big role. The sixth-year senior has never really panned out, with eight or nine spectacular plays and a lot of time on the bench in between to his name. He had just two touches against LSU — a 29-yard rush and a 51-yard reception, his first two positive touches of the season — but he’ll likely get several against Mizzou, as the coaches have confirmed that he’s moved full-time to running back.
How much success will the Hogs have on the ground? It’s hard to be optimistic given the Smith-only returns this season (Mississippi State, Auburn, and LSU games), but the staff has had two weeks to prepare for this, and Smith is already set up to be the lead back next year, so this will be good experience.
Mizzou’s pass defense is more vulnerable than the run defense, but it’s still not bad. The three games in which Mizzou’s defense played well — Kentucky, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt — the secondary was facing the fearsome sixsome of Terry Wilson, Joey Gatewood, Colin Hill, Luke Doty, Ken Seals, and Mike Wright (yes, all three teams replaced their quarterback in-game). Those six combined to complete 40 of 71 passes for 322 yards with one touchdown and one pick. In the other four games, against Mac Jones, Bryce Young, Kyle Trask, Jarett Guarantano, and Myles Brennan? Not so great: 87 of 139 for 1,268 yards with 11 touchdowns and only one interception.
Opponents that have the plan and the players to attack the Tigers down the field on early downs have had the most success. Arkansas probably has the players (do the Hogs have the protection is the biggest question), but how aggressive is Kendal Briles willing to be? He had Feleipe Franks attempt just five passes that went 20+ yards downfield against LSU. Franks was 5 of 5 for 245 yards on those attempts. The Hogs will need more than five deep ball attempts if they want to win on Saturday.
Keys to the Game
- Stretch the field. The Hogs have to attack downfield to create some room for the short game. Despite being a great standard downs offense, the Hogs weren’t able to translate that into third downs success, converting zero against LSU.
- Break up Mizzou’s passing rhythm. The Hogs couldn’t make LSU quarterback T.J. Finley uncomfortable, and as a result Finley was able to pick apart the Hogs’ zone defense. Bazelak will do the same thing if the Hogs can’t create some disruption. Having the entire defensive line back should help, but will it be enough?
- Play to win. Questionable game management, offensive struggles when trying to hold a lead... the Hogs have had issues in close games this year. Saturday’s game will likely be close, and I’d rather the Hogs err on the side of being aggressive.