For the second straight game, the Razorbacks suffered a heartbreak.
The battle between the two first-year head coaches who are doing the best in Year 1 ended in a 50-48 loss on a Mizzou field goal as time expired after K.J. Jefferson engineered a go-ahead touchdown drive minutes before. While the ending felt similar to Mizzou’s 48-45 win in 2017, in that game, the Hogs fired Bret Bielema after he left in the field. This time, Hog fans still have to pretty happy with the direction of the program.
Let’s review the good and the bad.
Advanced Stats Recap
(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the advanced stats glossary.)
- The Razorbacks were ultra-efficient on early downs and got a dominant performance from the offensive line, which protected Jefferson and opened holes in the run game.
- The Hogs didn’t hit as many big pass plays as they normally hit when Feleipe Franks is at quarterback, but they still got decent explosiveness.
- The Razorback defense got skunked in Barry Odom’s return to Columbia. Mizzou’s run game didn’t do a ton of damage until it started ripping off big runs late, but Connor Bazelak lit up the Razorback zone all game.
- Despite a nifty fake field goal that set up a touchdown, two missed extra points were the latest special teams catastrophe.
For the second straight game, Arkansas’ offense outscored their opponent and lost because of special teams. In this case, the fake field goal (+3.5 EVA) outweighed the two missed extra points, but Mizzou hit all five field goals and ended up with more EVA. Arkansas has been outscored in Special Teams EVA in all nine games this season. As I’ve said before, Sam Pittman has a decision to make regarding special teams coordinator Scott Fountain after the season.
From the Stats Study:
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.
Mizzou: 57%. Ballgame.
Barry Odom has done the best he could with defense given the roster issues, but the novelty of the Hogs’ zone has worn off and opponents have totally figured it out. Mizzou actually took the extra step of using the Hogs’ desperation to generate pressure against them by calling misdirection concepts and ripping off huge runs that the Hogs have not allowed all year. Eli Drinkwitz is a weird dude but he’s a really good offensive coach and we saw that in Mizzou’s gameplan.
Kendal Briles is also a really good offensive coach. For the first time this season, we saw a true Briles offense. The Hogs ran it on 60% of standard downs and totaled a season-high 84 plays, all while maintaining the high passing explosiveness that defines this scheme. The prevailing view among fans has been that Jefferson is a better fit for the Briles offense than Franks, but I don’t think anybody expected the offense to look that good in Jefferson’s first start.
The real key to it all working can be seen at the bottom. Arkansas’ offensive line had its best game in years, probably since Pittman was Arkansas’ offensive line coach in 2015. The Hogs up front allowed just one sack (it was not even their fault), and just one run failed to gain yards. Arkansas’ first negative play of the game came when the score was 40-33 Mizzou in the fourth quarter. And the kicker is that Mizzou has a pretty good defensive front. Much of Arkansas’ success came after star linebacker Nick Bolton was ejected for targeting (I don’t like the call, but it was almost identical to Jalen Catalon’s, so the ejection was a necessary sacrifice to the SEC gods).
This game pitted two bad rushing attacks and two good rushing defenses... so of course both teams ran it really well. The Hogs were extremely efficient and Mizzou was extremely explosive.
On the Razorback side, five of the seven stats are season highs: EVA per rush, rush success rate, stuff rate, line yards per rush, and opportunity rate. Unfortunately for the Hogs, Mizzou’s rushing explosiveness and bonus yards per opportunity are the most allowed by Arkansas all year.
The Hogs weren’t super efficient through the air, but they had a steady stream of big pass plays and, most importantly, only had one sack. Franks was getting sacked at the highest rate of any SEC quarterback, but it looked like the Hogs called fewer RPOs that required Jefferson to eat the ball if the throw wasn’t there. I think that played a role, as the Hogs had their fewest number of broken plays all season despite a new quarterback.
Should Jefferson finish the season at QB?
K.J. Jefferson totaled +6.7 EVA and +87% WPA on 46 action plays. Some of his success was probably due to the fact that Mizzou’s defense was not expecting to see him, but Arkansas largely just ran the same offense they’ve run all year, so it’s not like Mizzou was completely unprepared.
Opponents now have film on Jefferson so it’s probably a bit early to start the Heisman campaign, but it might be better to let Briles and Jefferson see how opponents are going to play him this year instead of waiting for next year.
It’s hard, of course, to tell Feleipe Franks goodbye if he still wants to play, given that he’s been fantastic for the Hogs on and off the field and has provided the consistent quarterback play the Hogs have lacked for years. But it might be beneficial not only for Jefferson to prepare to lead the Razorbacks in 2021, but also for Franks to prep for his NFL shot without risking an injury.
Where do the Hogs go from here on defense?
The Razorback defense got torched in the fourth quarter, allowing 27 points and 292 yards... in one quarter. That’s just crazy. The dam broke after an inexplicable unsportsmanlike penalty on Joe Foucha, followed by Grant Morgan getting hurt just a couple plays later.
But a terrible call isn’t an excuse for getting lit up that badly. Mizzou took advantage of both scheme and roster issues the Hogs have: defensive ends aren’t good at edge contain, the overhang safety can be brought into run-pass conflict easily, Hudson Clark is not a D-I level cornerback, there is zero depth at linebacker, and the line doesn’t get much pressure.
Recruiting is going to be the biggest key. Arkansas needs better defensive linemen, more linebacker depth, and another cornerback or two. The Hogs should also make sure that cornerback Jarques McClellion, a two-year starter at field cornerback who opted out due to COVID concerns this year, decides to stay with the program next year, since he’ll be the frontrunner to win back his field cornerback job. Overall, the consistency of keeping the same staff and most of the same players will be vital.
Alabama brings its #1 ranking to Fayetteville. The game likely won’t be close, but the Hogs can get some reps for younger guys. After that, it’s all about hoping for a bowl invite despite a 3-7 record.