Arkansas coach Mike Anderson recaps the Razorbacks' ...
Preview: Arkansas vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Arkansas will host Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday at 3 p.m. in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Football is almost here! Before we begin our first preview of the season, I’m going to go over the format for how games will be evaluated, and we’ll apply some of our sabermetrics to the 2012 Hogs as a frame of reference.
Sabermetrics, derived from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), is the qualitative statistical analysis of sports on a play-by-play level. Initially the term applied only to baseball, where it was invented, but in recent years math nerds have descended upon football boxscores, creating new ways to measure stats. My personal belief is that sabermetrics is best applied to baseball, which is a routine sport. The unpredictability of football makes sabermetrics less accurate, but they are still very useful nonetheless. We’ll be using them for a little bit here.
Let’s meet the actual statistics we’ll be using.
S&P: Football’s version of the famous baseball sabermetric on-base plus slugging (OPS), which is now used almost universally to identify efficient batters. OPS combines two things: on-base percentage (the ability to get on base) and slugging (ability to get extra bases, like home runs). If Player One hits a lot of home runs (high slugging) but strikes out every time he doesn’t hit a home run (low on-base) then his OPS will be average. If Player Two never hits home runs (low slugging) but gets a lot of walks (high on-base), then his OPS will also be average. The best batters can do both. In S&P+, two statistics are measured: Success Rate and Equivalent Points per Play (PPP).
Success Rate: Measures the offense’s ability to continue to move the chains. It is the percentage of plays in which the offense gains 50% of yards to go (first down), 70% of yards to go (second down), and 100% of yards to go (third and fourth down). Truly efficient offenses can pick these up no matter what style of play they run. On defense, Success Rate is the percentage of plays in which the defense keeps the offense from gaining those same amounts.
Equivalent Points per Play (PPP): Each yardline has been assigned a point value based on the amount of points scored on drives that pass through that yardline, so the closer to the endzone you get the more each yard is worth. A play that goes from your own 1-yard line (worth 0 points) to the opponent’s 19-yard line (worth 3.2 points) give you a PPP of 3.2 on that play. Explosive offenses have high PPP.
Let’s take two offenses that start at their own 1-yard line. Offense A goes on a 14-play, 99-yard drive in which they have a success rate of 60% (0.6). The maximum amount of points for a drive is 7, but the most you can get depends on where you start. A 99-yard drive would give you all 7 points, so 7 points divided by 14 plays is a PPP of 0.5. So S&P+ for that drive is 1.1. Next up is Offense B, who throws two incomplete passes then an 80-yard pass, then three more incomplete passes and a 19-yard touchdown. Their success rate is 28% (0.28, 2 of 7 plays were successful) but their PPP is 1.0 (7 points, 7 plays that went the length of the field), so their S&P+ for the drive is 1.3. In this example, the second offense is slightly better than the first, but they can be compared.
We will also use a number of stats that are “adjusted” for various factors. For example, rather than sacks we’ll use adjusted sacks, which is the number of sacks that offense would likely suffer if they attempted the average number of passes. It’s more accurate at depicting an offense’s ability to protect its quarterback, because raw sacks is usually going to be higher for teams that throw the ball a ton. Make sense?
Stat Analysis of 2012 Arkansas
It’s no fun reviewing the disastrous 2012 season, but a statistical review turns up some surprising results. Let’s go over them.
With an S&P+ final score of 215.0, Arkansas was the best team in the nation with a losing record in 2012. Arkansas’ final ranking was 47th nationally in total S&P+. The next team to finish under .500 was 5-7 Tennessee (50th). The Hogs finished above UL-Lafayette (54th) and the next team to have four or fewer wins was California at 66th. Overall, Arkansas’ overall efficiency was not bad, and that is not what caused the 4-8 season.
Arkansas’ drive efficiency was 33rd nationally. Drive efficiency measures where each drive started, and the “expected” (average) length of drives based on that start. Most of Arkansas’ other offensive stats are top-20, so 33rd is a bit of a disappointment, suggesting that finishing drives was a problem, even while moving the ball was not.
So why did the offense only score 23.5 points per game, good for 91st nationally? Arkansas’ problem was not its single-play potential; play for play the Hogs were excellent.The problem was that the Hogs could not finish drives. Arkansas’ starting field position was its own 27.4-yard line, which is 113th nationally (out of 124 teams). Arkansas’ defensive starting field position was the opponents’ 30.1-yard line, which is 68th nationally. The field position difference, then, was 91st nationally. So in addition to dropping to 33rd nationally at getting points on drives when field position is standardized, Arkansas’ starting field position was bad anyway. Not good news. Also bad was short-field possessions, which are the rate at which drives start in opponents’ territory. The Hogs were 119th. Not forcing turnovers or getting big plays in special teams is the cause of that. All of the stats I just named are grouped together as Field Position Advantage, and Arkansas was 107th in this aggregate category.
So what does it all mean? A combination of being 107th in field position, -19 in turnover margin, numerous injuries, and struggling to finish drives (33rd in drive efficiency but with terrible average field position) led to a 4-8 season. Much of this can be attributed to not having Bobby Petrino, under whose leadership that turnover margin would have been better and that drive efficiency much higher, and of course, the unmeasurable ‘stat’ of the players simply playing better.
But it also gives us hope: Arkansas was in no way “out-talented” last year. The so-called “facade of Petrino’s coaching covering for talent disparity” is simply untrue; Arkansas showed play for play that it was a talented offensive team. Defense, not as much, but the good news is 8 returning starters and the fact that the defense was often put in undesirable situations situations, as given by average defensive field position (68th nationally, team was 63rd in defensive S&P+, which is below average but not atrocious). Now, in 2013, having to replace the leading passer, rusher, and receiver may bring out some questions about talent, but let’s not try to suggest that Arkansas is replacing everyone from a team that was not talented.
Arkansas’ week one opponent is Louisiana-Lafayette. Let’s check out the quickfacts:
Head Coach: Mark Hudspeth (18-8, two seasons)
2012 Record: 9-4 (6-2 Sun Belt)
Starters Returning: 12 (7 offense, 5 defense)
Passing Returning: 83.6 %
Rushing Returning: 93.4 %
Receiving Returning: 57.4 %
Offense: Spread, run mostly from Pistol
Defense: Multiple 3-man and 4-man fronts
First we’ll start with the Quickfacts. All of the information will be covered eventually, but we want to give you quick look. Then we’ll have a strategic history of their head coach (and coordinators as necessary), so you can get an idea where his philosophy comes from. After that we’ll go through some sabermetrics and depth chart analysis, and then we’ll finish up with some film review, and I’ll diagram some plays from film.
Mark Hudspeth, ULL’s energetic young head coach, should be familiar to Hog fans who have read our last couple of strategic histories. “Hud” is in charge of ULL’s offense and has a familiar coaching network. Hudspeth bounced around as an offensive coordinator without a set offensive philosophy (he coached the Flexbone at Navy in 2001). From 2002-2008 he coached D-II North Alabama. He quickly transformed them into a power, less by his strategic prowess and more by his energy and motivational skills. In 2009 he made an interesting move, taking the Mississippi State wide receivers coach job under Dan Mullen. He stayed there 2009-2010, and has been at ULL 2011-present.
So, what’s up with Hudspeth at Mississippi State? Well, if you’ll recall our piece on Jim Chaney, you’ll remember the little note I put in there remarking that in 2000, Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen visited Joe Tiller and Jim Chaney at Purdue to ask for tips for building a spread offense. I also noted that Mississippi State’s offense is very similar to the Tiller/Chaney offense at Purdue, especially when it comes to passing philosophy. Hudspeth mixed his rudimentary spread option that he ran the D-II level (he learned a lot about option football at Navy) with Mullen’s passing concepts. So, basically, our offensive coordinator Chaney knows just about all of ULL’s passing philosophy. Of course, the reverse is also true, Hudspeth knows our offense’s passing philosophy. The advantage we have is that Hudspeth is not directly familiar with Bielema’s power-run concepts, and also cannot be sure as to how much of Wisconsin’s playbook will be in Arkansas’ playbook, while we can measure exactly what the Cajuns are going to do.
ULL’s offense is run almost entirely from Pistol. It typically used four wide receives shifted into numerous formations, but can go two-back and also can use a tight end, although neither a fullback nor tight end is featured in the offense. It is a Spread, meaning that its purpose is to spread out a defense and attack in space. It uses Tiller passing concepts mixed with a heavy dose of read option, making its quarterback, Terrance Broadway, extremely dangerous. The offense does not lack talent, either: Broadway was a four-star recruit who transferred from Houston to Louisiana.
On defense, Hudspeth has decided to go with quantity rather than quality. Knowing he lacks the talent to compete defensively, the Cajuns use a variety of defenses. The prefer a 4-3 hybrid defense with one outside linebacker designated as the Rover, or extra pass defender, so it really looks more like the 4-2-5 that Paul Haynes used most of last year due to injuries at linebacker. It is not the same as the 4-2-5 that South Carolina and TCU (and now Auburn) use, but more of a 4-3 with a guy who mostly is a pass defender. This 4-3 defense makes the Cajuns decent against the run, but absolutely atrocious against the pass. Because of this, ULL switched to a 3-4 at times, but that hurt the run defense without producing better results against the pass. Expect them be almost entirely 4-man front for this game, but they may use some 3-4.
The offense follows a very normal pattern from the NCAA average in terms of playcalling. On “standard downs” (1st down, 2nd and medium, 3rd and short), ULL runs the ball 62.5% of the time, compared to the national average of 60.0%.
Their S&P+ rankings for rushing were 28th, and for passing were 26th, so they were equally efficient at both. In terms of real yards, they finished 34th in passing yards per game and 41st in rushing yards, so this does qualify as a balanced offense.
One interesting stat is pace. It measures how fast an offense moves; how many plays it gets in over a set period of time, and how much it runs down the play clock before snapping the ball. In 2012, Arkansas’ pace was 81.6% of the national average, vs. 81.2% for ULL. They are not a hurry-up offense at all, they actually go quite a bit slower than the national average. This slower pace shortens games, which really helped their defense from even worse stats. Given that Arkansas won’t exactly run a hurry-up offense, expect the game to have fewer total plays, which could make it lower-scoring than most think.
At quarterback, the job is Broadway’s. He won the job during the fourth game, and finished the season with 2,800 passing yards, 830 rushing yards, and 26 total touchdowns (17 passing, 9 rushing). He did toss 9 interceptions in 9 starts, so that’s something to watch out for. We’ll get to a film analysis of Broadway in a minute, but there are the stats.
At running back, the top three guys are back. Alonzo Harris (881 yards, 10 TD, 5.2 ypc) is the clear-cut starter, and Effrem Reed and Torrey Pierce combined for 700 yards a year ago. None of the running backs are threats as pass-catchers out of the backfield, as the top three running backs totaled just 11 catches a year ago.
At wide receiver, the top two starters are gone. Harry Peoples’ 64 catches for 817 yards will be sorely missed, along with Javone Lawsons’ 40 for 611 yards. Sabermetrics uses a nifty stat called yards per target to identify which receivers got the most yards for every time the ball was thrown to them. The team leader was 6-foot-4 target Jamal Robinson who the stats indicate is their home-run hitter. The bad news for the Cajun receiving corps is that Peoples caught a staggering 78% of passes thrown to him, and all other returning receivers are under 63%, so completion percentage will be down unless someone steps up.
On the offensive line, both tackles are lost, which is something to keep an eye on (discussed below). The Cajuns were 35th nationally in adjusted sack rate, but with two new tackles that number should go down. Broadway’s sack rate of 3.5% of dropbacks was double that of the previous starter, so he may run himself into trouble occasionally.
On the Cajun defense, opponents like to throw the ball. On standard downs, when the national average is 60% runs, opponents only ran the ball 55.3% of the time, indicating a willingness to throw on them. ULL was 112th nationally in passing defense, with an S&P+ pass defense rank of 96th. Their adjusted third down defense rank was 100th, so they struggle to hold opponents on passing downs.
The Cajuns have serious issues all throughout the defense. The defensive line was just 94th in adjusted sack rate, and both defensive ends (11.5 total sacks) are gone. Their leading sack man was their defensive tackle Christian Ringo (7.0 sacks), and he’s the guy to watch on their defensive front. At nose, they aren’t small, with 330-pound Justin Hamilton returning. The middle of that line has some good potential, but they were still just 95th in S&P+ run defense rankings.
Linebackers are the strength of the defense. Rover Lemarcus Gibson, who assisted in pass defense, is gone, but the other two linebackers, Justin Anderson and Jake Molbert, are back and return over 120 tackles from last year. They managed just 2.0 sacks last year, so with both defensive ends gone, the Cajuns may struggle to generate a pass rush.
The secondary is a disaster zone. Helpless against the pass in 2012, now the Cajuns must replace both cornerbacks and the free safety. They recorded 12 interceptions last year, but 9 of them have graduated. Strong safety TJ Worthey is the only one back, and even he had just 37.5 tackles, and zero turnovers forced or passes broken up. Former four-star free safety Darius Barksdale, who began his career at Mississippi State, was the backup free safety last year and should admirably fill the role in 2013. The cornerback situation remains an issue, however, and two junior college transfers should see immediate playing time.
On special teams, do-it-all kicker/punter Brett Baer is gone, and so too is his excellent range (hit 50-yard field goals in each of ULL’s last two bowls), so unless ULL has some surprise up their sleeve, their ability to flip the field should be reduced.
Stats only get you so far, and those are last years’ stats at that, so it’s a whole new ballgame. Before we start breaking down film of the Cajun offense and defense, let’s look at some depth chart matchups.
Arkansas offensive line vs. ULL defensive line: Good matchup for the Hogs here. The Hogs’ weakness on the line is the tackles, and ULL is replacing both defensive ends, who totaled 11.5 sacks a year ago. David Hurd is an underrated left tackle, and whoever fills the other spot should be able to ease into the role against a new guy. In the middle, the Cajun sack leader will have to go against all-AmericanTravis Swanson, along with Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers. The only bad news here for the Hogs is that the Cajun defensive tackles are big and experienced, and opening up running lanes will be tough. The big takeaway is that Brandon Allen should plenty of time to throw.
Arkansas defensive line vs. ULL offensive line: Another generally favorable matchup for the Hogs. The team strength is its defensive ends, and ULL is replacing both tackles, so the Hog pass-rush that was top-50 in 2012 should get tons of pressure without blitzing. In the middle, it’s strength-on-strength. The ULL line was 28th in line-yards, a stat that measures how much of a push the offensive line generated by measuring how efficient running backs were before first contact and in short-yardage runs. The Hog defense was excellent at this, however, ranking 16th in defensive line-yards and 20th in stuff rate (hitting backs behind the line of scrimmage). ULL’s ability to run the ball downhill against the middle of the Hog line will be one of the single-most important factors in this game.
Arkansas passing game vs. ULL secondary: This is very difficult to measure, because Arkansas has lost almost all of its passing and receiving from last year, and ULL has three new starters in the secondary. I’m not going to review team stats from 2012 because they are worthless in this scenario, but I do want to give a shoutout to all of the Hogvillains who claimed that for reasons unknown they think Javontee Herndon is a better receiver than the stats indicate. Well, now there’s a stat that indicates it. Herndon led the team last year in yards per target with 10.2, meaning that of all of Arkansas’ receivers, throwing a pass to Herndon on average led to the most yards. So there you go. Departed Razorback Mekale McKay was the lowest at just 7.7…could that explain why he didn’t impress this new staff and make the two-deep? When it comes down to it, the Arkansas passing game is unproven, but the ULL secondary is both unproven and proven to be awful. ULL will likely clog running lanes in an effort to force Brandon Allen to win the game with his arm, a strategy that almost worked against Florida last year.
ULL passing game vs. Arkansas secondary: I noted that on standard downs, teams ran just 55.3% of the time vs. ULL last year, but against Arkansas, they ran even less, just 54.9% of standard downs were runs, compared to the national average of 60%. Arkansas was 116th in real passing defense, and 101st in S&P+ pass defense. However, Arkansas’ top seven snap-getters return, and two new junior college transfers should help. Meanwhile, ULL is replacing their top two receivers, so Arkansas’ more experienced cornerbacks should have an easier job. That said, ULL still has 57% of its receiving yards back, along with quarterback Terrance Broadway, so until Arkansas proves something, ULL has the clear advantage here. My guess is that Arkansas’ best bet to win this matchup is for Chris Smith and Trey Flowers to wreak havoc in the ULL backfield, something that is possible.
Arkansas running game vs. ULL run defense: The Hog running game got little help from the line, which ranked 70th in line-yards per carry, opening enough holes for an “average” running back to get 2.94 yards. If that figure seems low, note that it removes all yardage gained past 10 yards on the same play, because stat nerds figure that after 10 yards, the line is no longer responsible for the amount gained. ULL’s defense was 52nd in line-yards per carry, giving up just 2.85 yards per carry to an average back. The Arkansas line’s real problem was in short-yardage, where the Hogs were 113th in short-yardage plays when running the ball. Figuring in the coaching of Bielema and Sam Pittman, all of those numbers should rise significantly in 2013. The Razorback trio of Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins, and Kody Walker should have running lanes, but Arkansas won’t run all over the Cajuns, who return both middle d-linemen and both linebackers involved in run defense. Florida running backs were held to under 70 yards (Jeff Driskel rushed for 76) last year because of ULL’s efforts to clog the running lanes at the expense of pass defense, and there’s no reason to expect them to change their strategy.
ULL running game vs. Arkansas run defense: I’ve already said it, but I think that this is the biggest matchup of the game. If Arkansas can decisively win this matchup, they will run away with this football game. Lose it, and this will be a nailbiter. ULL was 31st in line-yards per carry (3.14 yards) last year and had a success rate ranked 45th when running the football (success rate is their ability to get 50% of yards-to-go on first down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third and fourth down). They were 36th in short-yards rushing situations, but their stuff rate (backs hit in the backfield) was a subpar 19.7%, which is 77th nationally. ULL center Andre Huval, a 2012 all-Sun Belt pick, and 324-pound guard Daniel Quave will attempt to dislodge Byran Jones on the inside read-option give and other handoffs. Jones’ ability to hold his ground until linebackers can fill the gaps will be huge, I cannot understate that.
Okay, let’s break down some film. We’ll start with ULL’s 43-34 win over East Carolina in the New Orleans Bowl. A link to the full game can be found here. I warn you, if you watch the video, you may want to turn the volume off. The commentary is poor, as ESPN sent their C-team to this game. When ULL’s offense takes the field for the first time, the commentator remarks that Broadway “provides the spark for this up-tempo attack.” As we’ve noted, ULL is most certainly NOT up-tempo; rather, they work significantly slower than the national average. That’s just one example…
Okay, here’s one from the Cajuns’ opening drive. First and ten around the 40, and they call this. Harry Peoples, the team leader in targets/receptions/yards, is actually lined up at tailback, so you know something is up. East Carolina plays this particularly horribly, as the cornerback who is probably tasked with the flat runs too far with the outside receiver, and realizes his mistake only when he’s 15 yards downfield. Peoples is wide open in the flat for a gain of 12 yards.
This is called a clearout concept, designed to use the threat of a deep pass in order to open up a shorter route. This is important because despite Broadway’s gaudy numbers, he does not have a very accurate deep ball. ULL’s first play from scrimmage was a deep pass that was pretty far off. The vast majority of Cajun passes are short ones, and ULL’s average per completion is boosted by yards after catch, such as this play, where Peoples caught the pass at 4 yards and ran for 8 more. The shorter the route, the more accurate Broadway is, and his primary strength is having great touch on his passes, something that won’t help him in deeper routes. I can’t help but think that Ash’s tendency to play his corners tight (usually in press coverage) should really help neutralize ULL’s biggest strength: their short passing game.
Here’s where Broadway can be dangerous. The Pistol formation is perfect for the read option, which is presumably why Hudspeth prefers it. The read is on the defensive end. If he crashes, the quarterback keeps it and runs outside, if he stays back, the quarterback hands it off. A same play from a different formation gave ULL their first touchdown, and it’s here:
LEFT: The red arrow identifies the defensive end who is to be “read” on the play.
BELOW: The defensive end didn’t crash hard, but he’s lost containment on the edge, so Broadway decides to keep the ball.
BELOW: The East Carolina defensive end bit on the fake, and that combined with a good block by the receiver on the cornerback means it’s all over for the ECU defense. That free safety (#1) isn’t fast enough to catch Broadway.
Let's take a look at another short pass. This one is from the Florida game last year, which the Gators won 27-20 by returning a blocked punt for a touchdown with 2 seconds remaining.
Lafayette had led the game 20-13 in the fourth quarter.
RIGHT: The Cajuns have twin receivers on the left (top of the screen). They notice that Florida’s weakside linebacker is lax in coverage and too far inside for the twin receiver he’s matched up against, so they call a quick screen to the receiver.
LEFT: The receiver is now wide open in the flat, and the flat defender is blocked. The play gains about 10 yards. This is the second instance so far of ULL wide receivers blocking defensive backs, so our defense’s ability to get free of blocks when they get the ball to the perimeter will be big. ULL has a mostly horizontal passing game and a strong read-option element to their running game, so they rely on getting to the edge.
Let’s stay with the Florida game. Part of the philosophy behind any spread offense is spreading the defenders wide and locating some matchups that are advantageous to the offense, whether because of speed, size, or area. ULL is willing to use some motion in order to locate these matchups.
LEFT: Here, that third receiver at the bottom of your screen who looks like he’s running is in motion. He started from the backfield and was motioned out there. Now notice the linebacker for Florida who is trotting out there to pick him up. It’s 3rd-and-3 and Florida is in man defense. The Cajuns decide they do not like this matchup, so the motioning man returns to the backfield:
RIGHT: Even while “recalling” the motion man back into the backfield, the ULL offense is patient, waiting for the right matchup. They call for the twin receiver at the top of your screen to motion towards the bunched receivers. The Florida strong safety goes with them. That’s the matchup the Cajuns wanted.
LEFT: Oh, look, it’s another clearout concept. See the point I’m making here? Two receivers run deeper routes, and the receiver who motioned over there runs a little curl right at the first down maker. Again, ULL makes it easy for a quarterback who doesn’t have a great deep ball to throw some shorter passes. They get them open by threatening with deeper routes that they rarely throw.
Now let’s examine how to stop the read option.
RIGHT: Here’s the playcall by ULL on third down. They’ll try a read option left. The H-back is tasked with blocking Florida’s excellent inside linebacker Jon Bostic, while the Gators’ “buck” linebacker, who is playing down like a defensive end (the 3-4 equivalent of what Chris Smith is) is the read defender for the option.
The Gators response to the read option is what Arkansas will use to stop ULL’s read option: the scrape exchange. In a scrape, the “read” defensive end lunges at the running back when he sees the option, forcing the quarterback to keep the ball and try to get outside. The linebacker, in this case Bostic, races to the edge to contain the QB as soon as he recognizes the option. The key is that the read DE doesn’t worry about the QB keeper, and the scrape linebacker doesn’t worry about the inside give. By each focusing on a specific role, these two guys can stop a read option. For Arkansas, it will be Chris Smith or Trey Flowers being read, and Braylon Mitchell or Jarrett Lake making the tackle on the scrape.
Offenses such as Gus Malzahn’s at Auburn and ULL attempt to thwart the scrape exchange by putting that H-back there, tasked with blocking the scrape linebacker. However, Sun Belt H-backs trying to block SEC linebackers rarely works well:
LEFT: The orange arrow is showing the read DE crashing into the running back. Broadway has kept the football and is looking to get outside. However, the purple arrow shows Bostic, the scrape linebacker, blowing past the block of the H-back. Broadway would be tackled for a loss on this play.
ULL realized at this point that they would be unable to execute their read option, and largely abandoned it. Lost in the fact that Florida nearly lost the game was the fact that Broadway–who rushed for 100 yards per game–finished with 6 rushes for 8 yards. Job well done, Gator run defense. If only your offense didn’t suck so much.
Okay, let’s look at some defense (or lack thereof).
LEFT: We’ve previously mentioned that ULL will throw a variety of defenses at you, and that they primarily used a 4-3 but switched to a 3-4 when they really needed to stop the pass. We’ve also noted that their 3-4 wasn’t really much better at stopping the pass, so ULL’s pass defense is more a “swarm” defense where they’ve given up trying to stop the completion and instead prefer to try to tackle the receiver before he gets loose. It worked against smaller Sun Belt teams and Florida’s catastrophic passing offense, but a disciplined passing offense will shred that defense. Here, ULL has gone a 3-man front for this 3rd-and-11.
RIGHT: The picture is fuzzy, but here’s the “swarm” idea. In this picture we have five defenders and two receivers, yet somehow one receiver is open. I don’t even know what that flat defender at the 39-yard line is doing, so don’t ask. There were no other receivers in the area. ECU picked up the first down on this play.
So what happened against Florida?
ULL’s greatest source of confidence against Arkansas is a loss, and that loss has scared some Hog fans as well. In the Swamp last November, Florida blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown to survive ULL, 27-20. The fact that the transitive property does not apply to football (ULL lost by 23 to Arkansas State and 41 to Oklahoma State) aside, there’s plenty we can learn about why this happened and why Hog fans should not worry about that game. That’s not to say ULL is not completely capable of springing an upset, but the Florida game didn’t play out on the field the way it should have played out on paper.
I’ve never enjoyed SEC teams playing “cupcakes” late in the year. History has shown that teams are not focused for those games. In 2011, national champion Alabama gave up over 300 rushing yards to FCS Georgia Southern. In 2001, Arkansas survived a 4-7 Central Florida team by a 27-20 score when UCF fumbled the snap on a 4th-and-4 while driving for the tie. The 2002 SEC West title team got into a 24-17 dogfight with ULL, who finished 3-9 that year.
The de facto SEC East championship game in Jacksonville had been two weeks before - a 17-9 Gators loss to Georgia - and Florida closed the season with rival Florida State. The three games in between were against Missouri, ULL, and Jacksonville State, all at home. Talk about bad scheduling. The Georgia loss was very physical and the Gators were hurt. The following week (week before ULL game), Florida survived a bad Missouri team, 14-7, on a late goal-line stand. Then came the ULL game. The week after that, Florida’s offense was lethargic in a 23-0 win over Jacksonville State, a team that John L. Smith-coached Arkansas had beaten 49-24. If the ULL game against Florida scares you about ULL, then you should be scared of Missouri and perhaps even Jacksonville State as well. The Gators were able to get up for rival FSU, winning 37-26, but promptly went to the Sugar Bowl and laid an egg, losing to Louisville 33-23. The fact that Florida, especially the offense, faded down the stretch is undeniable.
Florida outgained ULL 311-267, so ULL didn’t exactly move the ball all over the Gators. Florida led 10-3 at halftime and pushed their lead to 13-3 in the third quarter when quarterback Jeff Driskel (13 of 16 for 98 yards) was knocked from the game. That Florida only had 13 points at that time is not really a credit to ULL’s defense: Florida had been held to 9 and 14 against Georgia and Missouri in their previous two weeks, and in the following week an FCS school would hold them to 23. Florida was also self-destructing by not being focused. They had 10 penalties for 79 yards, including two in the second half that gave ULL third down conversions when Florida had stopped them. After Driskel left, new quarterback Jacoby Brissett started 2 of 4 with two sacks, causing Florida’s offense to stagnate as ULL, who had just 125 total yards in the first half, got one touchdown drive and returned a blocked punt for a touchdown to take a 17-13 lead into the fourth quarter. They got one more field goal before Florida finished the game with a touchdown and then of course, the blocked punt at the end, meaning both teams scored on blocked punt returns and the offense-on-offense battle was 20-13.
So ULL’s near-miss can be explained away for a number of reasons, mostly Florida not being focused, and the stats seem to back that up. I don’t think we’ll see Arkansas unfocused for the first game of the Bret Bielema era.
What will happen?
It’s prediction time. I could be completely wrong, and some of these matchups could certainly go the other way, but this is what I think will happen, or will be close. We’ll cover all of the predictions I make in the Review post after the game and see how close I was.
Arkansas will get a strong performance from Brandon Allen. The first-year starter may be shaky at times, especially early, and his play will not resemble the Wilson/Mallett midseason form Hog fans have grown used to, but Allen will be helped by ULL’s decreased threat of a pass-rush from the edge, and an awful secondary replacing both cornerbacks.
Louisiana-Lafayette will show us why Terrance Broadway is such a dangerous playmaker. He’ll show nice touch on short passes, and do just enough in the read option to keep the Hogs honest, especially if Shannon’s linebacking corps starts sluggish. Chris Ash’s defense, more aggressive in coverage than previous Razorback defensive coordinators, may be able to slow the short passing game if Broadway can’t show accuracy on deeper passes.
Arkansas will generate a sustained pass rush against a Cajun line replacing both tackles. The pass rush will hurt ULL’s ability to threaten deep, and Arkansas’ safeties can creep up to help in the running game and against the short pass.
Louisiana-Lafayette will win their share of battles in the inside running game, but eventually Arkansas’ run defense, 19th in the nation against the run last year, will take that away. As Arkansas’ coverage closes in, the Cajun explosiveness will be taken away, and by the fourth quarter the multi-dimensional ULL attack will be reduced to a one-man show, Broadway scrambling and creating in the passing game. He may still create some yards, but he won’t create a win.
Watch out for the matchup in the trenches, pitting the middle of ULL’s line (3 returning starters) against Arkansas defensive tackles Byran Jones and Robert Thomas, along with the linebackers.
All bets are off if Arkansas’ linebacking corps does not show up. I have confidence in Randy Shannon and some of these guys’ potential, but it’s assuming quite a bit to ask Arkansas’ linebackers to have a big game, when many casual fans could not name a single starting linebacker in the spring. If the linebackers can’t stop the run, ULL will put up much for a fight for time of possession and field postion, which will create a much closer (probably overall lower-scoring) game than I’m predicting.
Prediction: Arkansas 38, Louisiana-Lafayette 20