Arkansas vs. Southern Miss Review

By: Adam Ford
Published: Wednesday, September 18, 2013
In this photo taken Sept. 14, 2013, Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen walks from the end zone after scoring during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Southern Mississippi in Fayetteville, Ark. Allen was injured on the play and sat out the rest of the game. (AP Photo/April L. Brown)
In this photo taken Sept. 14, 2013, Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen walks from the end zone after scoring during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Southern Mississippi in Fayetteville, Ark. Allen was injured on the play and sat out the rest of the game. (AP Photo/April L. Brown)

— The term “pyrrhic victory” is named for classical Greek general Pyrrhus, who in 279 BC invaded Rome and defeated a Roman army at the Battle of Asculum. However, Pyrrhus lost so many men in the victory that he had to retreat. Legend holds that he remarked to a commander, “One more victory like this and I shall be ruined.” The term is now used to describe a victory at a great lost, so it is almost a defeat.

Some Razorbacks fans may be feeling that the Southern Miss game was a pyrrhic victory. After two games lacking major injuries, Hogs QB Brandon Allen left the game in the first quarter with an injured right shoulder, and was replaced by walk-on AJ Derby. He is officially listed as “questionable,” although some sources are claiming he may be out up to two games. The Razorbacks lost both offensive tackles as well, as Grady Ollison and David Hurd were replaced by true freshmen Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper. Coach Bielema has said that both should be back at practice on Tuesday, although one has to wonder if they will be 100 percent by next Saturday. Cornerback Jared Collins suffered a frightening injury when he apparently fainted on the sidelines, but he should be fine.

Despite the injuries, the Razorbacks showed some excellent progress, especially on defense. Outside linebackers Jarrett Lake and Braylon Mitchell posted the best games of their careers, the defensive line was menacing even against a quick-pass Southern Miss offense, and both Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines did a great job in coverage with USM tested them deep.

KEYS TO THE GAME REVIEW

Arkansas must not turn the ball over - Brandon Allen tossed an early interception, but it only served to give the ball back to Southern Miss after Trey Flowers had intercepted a pass on the previous possession. Will Hines made a spectacular diving interception at the Arkansas 8 just before halftime, stopping an Eagles drive. The Hogs finished +1 in turnover margin, a trend they need to keep up.

Southern Miss must run the football - The curious thing here is that Southern Miss did just that and still managed just three points. Most figured that Todd Monken would want to work on his running game, and the Eagles, who came in with just 85 total rushing yards in two games, cranked out 119 yards. The rushing yards came at the expense of the passing game: Southern Miss threw for just 135 yards, less than half of its 299.5-yard average.

Arkansas must get a turnover from its back seven - It just feels right that Will Hines, who dropped two picks against Louisiana-Lafayette, would record the first turnover forced by the back seven this season. He judged an Allan Bridgford deep post route better than the receiver and laid out to make the catch in the second quarter. Defensive coordinator Chris Ash called a more aggressive game defensively, and although the Hogs remained in a base Cover 2 most of the game, the secondary had some chances to show off its improvement.

Southern Miss must rattle Brandon Allen - Irrelevant due to Allen’s injury, but the coaches decided to sit on the lead and not make life too difficult for AJ Derby. The Eagles put eight (and even nine) in the box to stop the run, but the Hogs rammed through for 258 yards while throwing just six passes over the final three quarters. It’s worth noting that the two plays before Jonathan Williams’ 45-yard touchdown run were play-action passes in order to set that play up, which suggests that the Hogs probably could have scored a lot more than 24 had they wanted to open up the play-action passing game; but, as Jim Chaney said after the game, the Hogs had “nothing else to prove.”

ON AJ DERBY

With the strong possibility that Brandon Allen could miss the very-important Rutgers game, Hog fans may need to rally around junior walk-on AJ Derby to lead the offense.

There’s no denying that Derby got off to a shaky start on Saturday, fumbling a low snap, and later bobbling two good ones. He misfired badly on a medium-range pass to Javontee Herndon, and later found Herndon on a third down, but the pass was so far behind Herndon that he couldn’t run for the first down. These issues can probably be chalked up to nervousness about being thrown into the fire. In the first half, Derby was 1 of 2 for four yards, with a 10-yard rush and three bobbled snaps to his name.

At the half, Derby was able to talk face-to-face with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, eat a PB&J, and settle down. When the coaches were able to adjust the gameplan to fit what he was comfortable with, he settled down tremendously. In the second half he completed 3 of 4 passes for 32 yards.

The most telling stat about Derby’s “settling down” is certainly the drive chart. Derby commanded five drives in the first half and four in the second. His first half totaled 21 plays for 48 yards, with three points scored. That averages out to 4.2 plays per drive (with three three-and-outs), 9.6 yards per drive (2.3 yards per play), and 0.6 points per possession.

In the second half, Derby’s four drives totaled 29 plays for 175 yards, with 14 points scored. The game ended with the Razorbacks driving at midfield. Those averages are 7.3 plays per drive (with one three-and-out), 43.8 yards per drive (6.0 yards per play), and 3.5 points per possession. Derby was not asked to do much but he guided the offense down the field, and under his leadership the offense did not turn the ball over and did not commit a single second-half penalty until the next-to-last play of the game.

No one’s nominating him for Heisman, but it would be foolish to automatically call the Rutgers game a loss if Brandon Allen can’t go.

FILM REVIEW

The Hogs completed six passes, so naturally we’ll start with the passing game. AJ Derby had a shaky second quarter, but made a nice pass on third-and-three on the first drive of the second half.

Hunter Henry and Julian Horton on the right side are running a smash concept. A “smash” is one of the basic plays of modern passing football. The inside receiver or tight end (Henry) is going on a corner route to pull up the safety. The outside receiver (Horton) is running a short curl. Horton runs it inside so the USM corner is taken out of the play, so the play is designed to “stretch” the outside linebacker that drops into coverage. If he follows Henry deep, the throw goes to Horton. If he follows Horton short, the throw goes to Henry. In this case he takes Henry, so the throw goes to Horton for the first down.

This play is a beautiful example of how Jim Chaney’s passing philosophy mixes with Bret Bielema’s running philosophy. The smash route is a Chaney classic from his Purdue days, but notice that the concept is drawn up from a play-action that fakes the outside power, a Bielema favorite. Kiero Small goes out to the right like he’s blocking for the play and Derby fakes to Williams.

Okay, it’s defense time. The Razorback defense stepped up on Saturday, holding Southern Miss to 254 yards of total offense and just three points. Chris Ash has run a rather vanilla Cover 2 defense on almost every single defensive snap this season. I would imagine that more complex defenses are in the playbook, but the Hogs have yet to show them.

Here’s the Cover 2, with a couple of important points marked. First, note the safeties (Turner and Bennett). Each is responsible for half of the field about 12+ yards deep. That’s what “Cover 2” means (two men deep). As we’ll see, it’s not that simple, but that’s the basic idea. Next, note that the field has two sides: the “field” and the “boundary.” When the ball is on one side (hashmark), as it usually is, the “field” is the wider side, and the “boundary” is the shorter side. The area between the numbers on the field side and the edge of the line is called the “alley, ” and it has been known to present problems for a Cover 2 defense.

Tevin Mitchel is Arkansas’ primary boundary corner, while Will Hines is usually the field corner. Hines is out for this play, and that’s Carroll Washington at FC. Notice that they align differently with respect to the wide receivers. The boundary corner leaves a large cushion, while the field corner plays tight coverage. Why? Well the main reason is the alley.

Here’s the boundary. When a corner gives a receiver a large cushion, it obviously makes the shorter routes available. In reality, there are only about three different types of short routes: slant, curl, or screen. The problem with all three of these is that since the ball is on the boundary, there is less field, so the linebacker (Jarrett Lake here) can step in front of the short pass. Because of this, Mitchel can give a larger cushion and allow Lake to step in front of short passes while he handles deeper routes. Because of this, safety Alan Turner doesn’t have to worry about the boundary sideline and can move more to the middle of the field to help against the run and passes over the middle. So this chain reaction ends like this: Jarrett Lake takes the flat, Tevin Mitchel takes the vertical (deeper sideline), and Alan Turner is “reading” the slot receiver. It’s called pattern matching, and it’s something that Chris Ash is very good at teaching.

Here’s an updated look at the boundary. Turner’s primary look is the twin receiver. If he stays shallow, then there are no receivers going deep on his side, so Turner moves down to the underneath middle and watches the quarterback’s eyes. He can’t be fooled by play action (a play-action pass with the twin receiver making a double move and going deep is a dangerous play for a safety) but if Bridgford hands the ball off, Turner has to come help against the run.

Now we move over the “field” side. The Hogs can’t do the same thing on the field side, because of the alley. On the boundary, Lake was in close proximity to take away short passes to the flat, but on the field, the alley separates linebacker Braylon Mitchell from the receivers. Because of this, field corner Carroll Washington is playing the receiver tight.

The Hogs run a lot of field side man to man, and on this particular play that’s what they are doing. Eric Bennett is taking the soft coverage on the twin, while Washington is taking tighter coverage on the split end. Like Nick Saban, Ash likes to blitz from the field, so Braylon Mitchell blitzes the quarterback here. In the very middle, Austin Jones is the “spy,” playing a soft middle zone against crossing routes and watching for the run.  The best way to defeat this is to throw a quick pass to the twin receiver, who would run a short slant into the zone that Mitchell has vacated. That's why it's important to disguise blitzes. The Hogs did a good job during this sequence of showing blitz on every play, but actually coming only most of the time. If Mitchell faked a blitz and Bridgford thought he was blitzing, so he called a quick slant, then Mitchell has an easy interception.

During the time shown in the screenshot, Southern Miss was in hurry-up. They ran four plays from that same formation, and Arkansas aligned the exact same defense and blitzed Mitchell three of the four times. The result of the four plays was a 13-yard completion for a first down, an incompletion, a seven-yard completion, and an incompletion. Southern Miss punted. Let’s look at each play to see what Southern Miss was trying to do, and how Arkansas stopped it.

On the first play, Southern Miss calls a smash concept on the boundary. Tevin Mitchel, who is essentially in man coverage with the split end, breaks down on his hitch. Lake’s job is to read the twin and then break to the flat as he leaves his zone. As the twin on the corner route runs past him, Lake can assume that Turner has picked him up, and he too races to the flat, meaning that the split end is now double-covered in the flat. QB Allan Bridgford sees this and decides to throw the corner route. Rather than throwing a specific route, Bridgford’s job is to throw “away from the coverage,” as Andre Ware said in the broadcast. Bridgford hits his receiver who is fading away from Turner for a 13-yard gain on the sideline.

On paper, it’s easy to be upset with Tevin Mitchel for jumping on the hitch when he “should have” stayed back in the vertical zone. However, one must understand the speed in real time, and that on TV fans have the luxury of total vision. Because Mitchel can’t see the whole play unfold (only the safeties can see that), he has to “read” the split end and can only see the twin in his peripheral vision. There are only a couple of ways to stop the smash route: first, don’t run Cover 2, as it forces the safety to have to run a long way to that sideline; and second, have an all-American safety such as Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who is decisive and fast enough to take the corner route by himself. Alan Turner was making his second career start, so its hard to blame him for not being able to break on a very difficult route to cover.

After picking up the first, Southern Miss moved the boundary twin receiver into the backfield and then at the snap sent him out to the flat. The split receiver faked a curl (“curl-flat” concepts are very popular, so USM faked it in order to bait Mitchel) and made a double move, trying to go deep. Bridgford attempted a back-shoulder throw into the vertical boundary that was incomplete, as Mitchel was not fooled and stayed right with the receiver.

On second-and-10, the Eagles attempted to attack the boundary once again, this time with a bubble screen. Because of the boundary corner’s large cushion, part of Jarrett Lake’s read on the twin receiver is to recognize the bubble screen quickly. He does to and attacks the flat, meeting the receiver after only a two-yard pickup; however, he doesn’t get a clean hit in, and receiver drags him and Mitchel for a seven-yard pickup.

After three consecutive throws to the boundary, Southern Miss decides to pick on Carroll Washington on the field side on third-and-three. The Eagles correctly guess that Braylon Mitchell will blitzing again, so they have two-on-two in man coverage. They call for the twin to run a short hitch in order to drag Bennett down in coverage, and then try a go route over Washington’s head. Although they run out of frame just before the ball is thrown, it appears that Washington was step for step with the receiver; regardless, by the time the ball arrives, Washington is all over the receiver and bats the pass away, forcing the punt.

IN CONCLUSION

There’s not much takeaway from the Hogs’ offense. The Rutgers preview will handle anything offensive because it is more likely that QB situation will have been decided by then. The biggest thing to take away from this game for the rest of the season is how the defense will look: running Cover 2 against Rutgers may be a bad idea, for reasons to be explained in the Preview. Until then, the Hogs are 3-0, quickly transitioning to Bielema ball, but not without issues. A nationally televised road game in Piscataway will show the nation what this team is really made of.

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