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Arkansas vs. Southern Miss Preview
Brandon Allen calls out plays Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 during the fourth quarter of the game against Louisiana at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Southern Miss enters Saturday’s game armed with the nation’s longest losing streak at 14 consecutive games. ESPN college football columnist Mark Schlabach has named them as the nation's worst team. They will come to Fayetteville after a 56-13 beatdown by Nebraska.
But the Golden Eagles aren’t far removed from being a solid mid-major. In 2011, under offensive-minded coach Larry Fedora, the Eagle offense led the way to a 12-2 season and a Conference-USA title after upsetting Case Keenum and Houston in the conference title game. After Fedora took the North Carolina job, Southern Miss made a curious decision in hiring South Carolina’s defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. In 2012, USM’s offense fell off the map while the defensive improvement was marginal. After a few close losses to decent teams, morale fell and injuries piled up, and Southern Miss went lifeless over its final six games.
In 2013, the Eagles blew a late lead against Texas State to lose 22-15 despite 400 passing yards. Last week was a disaster as expected, a 56-13 loss to a top-25 Nebraska team.
As you can see, the Eagles have shown tremendous improvement already under new coach Todd Monken, but when you’re 0-12 there’s nowhere to go but up, and after two games against suspect defenses, they still aren’t moving the ball all that well.
To clean up the mess of the Ellis Johnson era, USM hired Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken. This was not a simple hire of a guy whose offense had been successful, it was a very intentional attempt to break into the cutting edge of offensive football. At Oklahoma State, Gundy and Monken had been leaders of the idea of “packaged plays” for the spread offense. On Arkansas’ current schedule, Southern Miss, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Auburn will all use extensive packaging, and Mississippi State may do some as well.
Packaging is catching on in the NFL as well, as new Buffalo coach Doug Marrone is bringing packaged football to the NFL. New Chicago coach Mark Trestman used packaged concepts in the CFL. And of course, Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly was football’s best play packager at Oregon. Teams such as the Packers have already experimented with some packaging in the last couple of years.
Monken learned the Air Raid under Gundy at Oklahoma State and so his version of packaged football applies to the Air Raid, but coaches like Marrone use it for a more pro-style attack.
CONCEPTS FROM OKLAHOMA STATE
Here’s one of the most notable packaged concepts that Southern Miss will use: the stick-draw.
The middle linebacker (highlighted) is the “read” man. The QB is watching him, and he has two “options.” If the linebacker cheats toward his run responsibility in the B-gap, the QB throws the “stick” route to the W receiver. If the linebacker cheats over toward the receiver, the QB hands it off on the “draw” to the back. We’ve seen option football before, with the triple option, but all of those options were running plays. Louisiana-Lafayette ran a “read option” but both options were runs and a highly mobile quarterback was required to make it work.
Most of these run-pass options require neither of those. Southern Miss QB Allen Bridgford is not mobile. The downside of these packaged concepts is that quarterback has to make some quick decisions. Without an elite line (like Texas A&M last year), the quarterback is also dealing with a pass-rush, and that can lead to hurried decisions. Case in point: in two games, Bridgford has thrown five interceptions (2.5 per game).
Here’s a very similar one. To run a halfback screen, the QB takes the snap and then must wait for the halfback and his blockers to get into position before throwing it. Offensive innovators don’t like empty time in a play and decided to stick a decision in there. So now, instead of normal halfback screen, it’s a halfback screen BUT if the defense abandons the backside, the quarterback can throw a quick hitch. On a play like this one, as long as Arkansas’ young linebackers stay home, they can out-athlete Southern Miss and run down the screen. But if those linebackers jump and leave the hitch open, it could spell trouble for a Hog defense ranked 15th in the nation in total defense.
Here’s another one we could see: a packaged zone read with a bubble screen. The playside defensive end is left unblocked; if he stays back, the QB hands off on the zone read, if he charges, he’ll crash into the back while the QB throws the bubble. Teams with mobile QBs like Ole Miss will give their QB the option to also keep the ball and run if the bubble isn’t open.
When watching the Southern Miss game, keep an eye on how often during runs and screens receivers are running routes. That play may have been some kind of option or a packaged concept.
This is a classic Air Raid pass concept called “mesh.” The Air Raid was more or less invented by LaVell Edwards, who led BYU to the 1984 national championship. After that it largely disappeared from the college ranks, until Hal Mumme reinvigorated it at Kentucky in 1997. The mesh play was one of Mumme’s bread-and-butter routes, and Southern Miss will use it.
In a mesh, the two twin receivers run crossing routes to the middle of the field. Against man defense, they continue across and hope that their defenders run into each other. The smaller arrows on their routes are their stops against a zone defense, where they “settle” in between the zones. It’s a pretty dangerous play that will stretch the linebackers. The double post routes run by outside receivers keep the safeties from coming down to help in underneath coverage.
Southern Miss Offense
On paper, Southern Miss looks like they have some good Xs and Os. The stats are not kind to their offense. They can move the ball through the air, but 10 turnovers (five fumbles, five interceptions) have plagued the Eagles. To add to this, just three offensive starters return: two receivers and right guard Ed Preston. Three USM offensive linemen had zero career starts before this season. QB Allan Bridgford and both running backs are new as well.
Bridgford has thrown for 599 yards (299.5 per game, 28th nationally), but he’s only completing 56 percent of his passes, and has two touchdowns to five interceptions. He has been sacked four times. The running game has had the most trouble; the Golden Eagles are 123rd (out of 126) in rushing at just 42 yards per game.
Starting running back Tyre Bracken has 15 rushes for 31 yards (2.1 yards per carry), with a long of just five yards. Kendrick Hardy is the leading rusher with 62 yards in 18 carries (3.4 per carry). Jalen Richard had the longest run of the season at 21 yards, but his other six carries have netted zero yards. In short, Alex Collins had more rushing yards in the fourth quarter against Samford than Southern Miss has had all season.
Sixty percent of receptions and 69 percent of receiving yards have been accrued by two guys: Rickey Bradley (10 for 250 yards, 1 TD) and Tyre’oune Holmes (20 for 161 yards), both wide receivers. Running back Tyre Bracken (6 for 71 yards) is third. The good news for Razorback linebackers that have been tortured by opposing tight ends is that no Southern Miss tight end has a reception this year; in fact, Southern Miss doesn’t appear to use tight ends at all.
The offensive line is this team’s clear weakness. They have had serious issues through two games. Losing four starters from an unproductive 2012 unit was bad enough, but this line is struggling. In part, it lacks talent, but this unit also hasn’t figured out the blocking schemes of this offense. Samford had FCS talent but had a well-coached line. This line hasn’t figured out what it’s supposed to do. That’s slowed their hurry-up offense by forcing them to take more time off the playclock to figure out the blocking scheme for each play. Arkansas bringing some psycho fronts like we’ve seen in the first two games could really throw them for a loop.
Southern Miss Defense
From a strategic standpoint, the defense is interesting due to the return of coordinator David Duggan. Duggan was the coordinator for Southern Miss in 2011 under Larry Fedora, when the Eagles won the C-USA and had a decent defense. He went to North Carolina with Fedora last year, but returned under Monken. The USM defense returns 9 starters from a unit that was awful last year, but all of those starters played for Duggan before. As a whole, 2013 Southern Miss defense is a return to the 2011 defense. The Eagles will toss multiple fronts at the Hogs, switching between 3-man and 4-man fronts to confuse Allen and the offensive line. They’ll be aggressive and exciting. This will be the best defense Arkansas has faced so far, though that’s not saying much.
Nebraska walked all over the Eagles, totaling 479 yards, including 285 rushing, but they held Texas State to a meager 215 yards of offense. Opponents are throwing the ball against them, hitting 67 percent of passes with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Both of USM’s opponents were run-first in approach, so they’ve only attempted 49 passes (24.5 per game), and are averaging 164 passing yards per game.
In total offense, the numbers are surprisingly close. USM has been outgained by two yards (686-684, or 343-342 per game), and is averaging 4.9 yards per play, compared to 5.0 yards per play for their opponent. And that’s with a road game against a ranked team under their belt. The Eagles are 49th nationally in total defense.
KEYS TO THE GAME
ARKANSAS MUST not turn the ball over. Two turnovers against Samford created a dicey situation late in the game. Bret Bielema clearly would have liked to work on the passing game more, but was forced to flip the switch back into smashmouth mode to put the game away. If Arkansas wants some game time to work on the passing game, it needs to put the game away early, and not turning the ball over is essential to that. Southern Miss has not intercepted a pass this season, but forced one fumble in each of its two games.
SOUTHERN MISS MUST run the football. Samford had a surprisingly high yards per carry average, and it helped the Bulldogs sustain drives. After an anemic 23 rushing yards against Texas State, USM collected 62 rushing yards against Nebraska, but just about all of it came in junk time. They’ll need to keep Arkansas’ front in check to have a chance to sustain drives. That may be a problem, as this Southern Miss offensive line is pretty awful. They don’t have a lot of talent, and they haven’t grasped their blocking schemes.
ARKANSAS MUST get a turnover from its back seven. It seems like it’s a yearly saga; no matter the coach, no matter the players, no matter the defensive coordinator, Arkansas struggles to force turnovers early in the year. Both forced turnovers were courtesy of the defensive line, and the secondary and linebackers have yet to record a takeaway. Part of stopping this offense is killing drives with interceptions when Bridgford makes a bad read. If Arkansas can’t get an interception in the 35-45 attempts Bridgford will have, then the game will probably be uncomfortably close for a while. Furthermore, without those 11 turnovers, the Eagles offense is actually pretty potent, not surprising for an offensive guru like Todd Monken. If the Hogs don’t force turnovers, they’ll get more dangerous side of the Eagles offense. Even after a road game against Nebraska, USM is equal to its opponents in terms of yards per game (343-342), and turnovers are the only difference between 0-2 Southern Miss, and 1-1 Southern Miss that hung with Nebraska in Lincoln.
SOUTHERN MISS MUST rattle Brandon Allen. Like Samford, they probably lack the talent to directly stop the Hog running game, but knowing that Bret Bielema and Jim Chaney would love to work on the passing game, the Eagles can keep the passing game from hurting them, thereby keeping the game from turning into a rout; that is, at least until Arkansas returns to smashmouth mode like it did in the fourth quarter against Samford.
MATCHUP OF THE GAME is USM running backs Kendrick Hardy, Tyre Bracken, and Jalen Richard in the passing game against Arkansas’ linebackers in coverage. Southern Miss can’t run the ball, and Chris Ash’s vanilla defense has completely taken away the deep ball (Arkansas has only given up seven completions of 10-plus yards). Samford and ULL sustained drives when the pass-rush came by dumping off to tight ends and running backs, but since USM doesn’t use tight ends, then the backs it is. Eagles backs have nine receptions for 92 yards this season. If the backs can get open in the flat, then Bridgford can make safer throws under duress, leading to fewer sacks and fewer interceptions.
Prediction: Arkansas 34, Southern Miss 13
Arkansas could easily win by more, and they very well may, but two things keep my score prediction closer. First, Bielema and Chaney will probably try to work on offensive concepts that the team is struggling with, rather that playing to the team’s strengths all day. Second, forcing turnovers is essential to blowing this team out, and while the turnover opportunities will be there, it’s hard to be confident in a Hogs back seven that has yet to force one this year.