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Arkansas vs. Rutgers Review
Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers puts the pressure on Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova during the Razorbacks game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, N.J.
FAYETTEVILLE The Hogs suffered the first setback of the Bret Bielema era on Saturday, a 28-24 loss to Rutgers that undoubtedly left a sour taste in the mouths of most fans. The Hogs built a not-as-impressive-as-it-appeared 24-7 lead midway through the third but did not score again, finishing with just a couple more first downs, no points, and breakdowns on special teams and defense. The Hogs could not run the ball all game, so despite some trickeration and another monster game from the defensive line, the Razorbacks fell on the road.
The Defensive Line: Easy choice here. Darius Philon replaced Byran Jones and promptly recorded two sacks. Every starter on the line has now recorded two sacks, assuming that Philon remains in the role. Jones had a quiet first three games, but whether he’s been permanently replaced is unknown. Chris Smith recorded another sack and pounced on a fumble, Trey Flowers had a sack and forced fumble, Brandon Lewis tipped a pass, and Philon and Robert Thomas shut down the Rutgers inside running game. That stats are jaw-dropping: through four games, the defensive line has 14 sacks (5th nationally), four forced turnovers (two interceptions, two fumbles), and despite facing two mobile quarterbacks, opposing QBs have rushed 27 times for -72 yards. No quarterback has finished the game with positive rushing yards against the Hogs, and every quarterback has been sacked at least three times.
Trickeration: Bret Bielema and Jim Chaney reached into the bag of tricks on Saturday, calling a fake punt and a halfback pass. Punter Sam Irwin-Hill hit snapper Allen D’Appollonio with a 24-yard pass in the first quarter, and Jonathan Williams found Hunter Henry with a 21-yard touchdown pass in the third. The Hogs already unveiled a flea flicker, and one has to assume that there are plenty more trick plays to go around.
Keon Hatcher: The search for a second wide receiver to complement Javontee Herndon has been long and painful, but it may have ended Saturday with Keon Hatcher possibly leapfrogging Julian Horton on the depth chart. Hatcher returned from an injury suffered in the opener to rush twice for 19 yards on end-arounds and catch a team-leading four passes from AJ Derby. Look for him to figure more prominently into the offense in the future.
Alex Collins: The running game was not up to par on Saturday, but Alex Collins may have emerged as the top back. He rushed 16 times for 63 yards, but his ability to create where Williams (12 rushes, 25 yards) could not helped him look more impressive.
Zach Hocker: One of his punts was returned 47 yards, but Hocker continued his hot streak. A 41-yard field goal in the first quarter kept him a perfect 5/5 on the year, a 77-yard punt helped him average a solid 57 yards on three punts, and a touchback on a kickoff from the 20-yard line was just unfair.
The Offensive Line: Whoops. The experts didn’t think Arkansas would be able to impose its will on the Hogs’ first three opponents, but after showing some impressive progress, the offensive line showed that there’s still along way to go. The Razorbacks finished with 30 rushes for 107 yards on called runs (taking out sneaks, sacks, and kneel-downs), an average of 3.56 yards per rush. Rutgers entered the game fifth in the NCAA in run defense after finishing sixth last season, so if those numbers are legitimate despite a weaker schedule both years, then this might have been one of the line’s biggest challenges of the season.
The Safeties: The corners largely held their own until late in the game, but the safeties had issues throughout the game for the second straight year against Gary Nova. Rohan Gaines played only a few snaps, so if he is truly better than Turner then the secondary should improve, but right now it remains the mess it has been for ten years. The hook zones, middle run-through, and seams appear open on nearly every play. If the defensive line didn’t generate an elite pass-rush, the numbers could actually be worse.
Punt Coverage: Another disaster area. Irwin-Hill mishit the punt that was returned for a score, but that doesn’t excuse the coverage for all flocking to the left and leaving a cutback lane. A 47-yard return on Hocker’s next punt cannot be blamed on a mishit either. If Charlie Partridge’s punt unit cannot improve its coverage, then more fake punts may be in order.
Penalties: Most of the complaints about the coaching and playcalling are way off base, but this criticism sticks. To a degree, it’s on the players to not make dumb penalties. I have always been a critic of the strict enforcement of the late hit out of bounds rule (if I was a coach the first thing I would teach a QB is to pump fake when running out of bounds…he could draw a penalty nearly every time), however, the rule is the rule and there’s no question Lake broke it. The penalty gave Rutgers a first down and the Knights scored a couple plays later. The Hogs finished with 6 penalties for 65 yards, and are tenth in the SEC through four weeks. Not good.
The Ugly (mix of good and bad)
AJ Derby: Derby finished 14 of 26 for 137 yards and a touchdown. At times he looked like a competent quarterback, at others, not so much. Regardless of his overall performance, one point must be stressed: he cannot be blamed for the loss of the game. He performed exactly as expected, and that should have been enough to win the game. If the Hogs don’t fall apart on punt coverage, they win; if they don’t give up a 6-play, 98-yard drive in the fourth quarter and allow a 4th-and-12 to be converted, they win by even more. Those issues are much more easily fixed than giving a quarterback some physical skills he clearly doesn’t have. The promising part of Derby’s time as field general is that the Hogs have yet to turn the football over, a streak that must continue by necessity if the Hogs hope to upset Texas A&M.
Tevin Mitchel: Mitchel is quite an enigma. The former four-star recruit earned a starting job as a true freshman in 2011. In 2012, he was injured in a scary collision against Louisiana-Monroe. In his absence, the defense gave up its four worst defensive performances of the season: second half ULM, Alabama, Rutgers, and Texas A&M. After his return, the unit showed marked improvement. Mitchel’s upside was once again on display, holding 6-foot-6, projected 2nd-round draft pick Brandon Coleman to zero catches through three quarters. Mitchel also intercepted an errant Nova pass and returned it for a touchdown. His only mistake through three quarters was a facemask call, his third of the season. Early in the fourth, however, Leonte Carroo out-muscled Mitchel to pick up a first down on a 3rd-and-long. Perhaps this shook his confidence, because Mitchel was beaten repeatedly for the rest of the game. The critical 4th-and-12 touchdown was not his fault (see “Safeties,” above) but he lost his mojo in the fourth quarter. He had better get it back in time for Mike Evans and the Aggies on Saturday.
Jonathan Williams: The Hogs’ running back had a couple of good moments: a touchdown pass to Hunter Henry and a couple of receptions on screen passes. However, he struggled to run the football, looking significantly behind Alex Collins. Williams doesn’t appear able to create yards like Collins can, so Williams’ best games are going to come when the line is winning its battles, something that is not a guarantee over these next four games.
It wasn’t an easy day for the offense at all, so most Hog fans would probably prefer waiting until the offense has something to cheer about to diagram it. On defense, Chris Ash started calling some Cover 3, the first we’ve seen of it this year. As was diagrammed and analyzed in the Rutgers Preview, a Cover 3 gives Arkansas’ defense the ability to get eight in the box against the run AND get another safety deep in case of a long pass. Unfortunately, the coverage broke down a couple times, including critically on a 4th-and-12 play that went for a touchdown.
Here, true freshman DJ Dean (bottom right) is tasked with guarding a deep 1/3 behind him. Eric Bennett (on the yellow line) has the middle 1/3 zone, while Alan Turner (top right) has the final 1/3 zone. The dashed line shows Dean’s eyes. Apparently, Dean was confused on the playcall, and believed he was supposed to be in man coverage. Mitchel, who has the curl/flat zone, attempts to prevent the outside release of the receiver Leonte Carroo, but lets go by, thinking he is passing Carroo off to Dean in the deep third. However, Dean is covering the slot receiver and is not deep. Mitchel realizes this too late and tries to catch Carroo, making it appear that he was burned for a touchdown, when in fact he was not at fault.
This photo, with the deep safeties highlighted, clearly shows the Cover 3 with Dean out of position. The other two safeties have done a great job, no Rutgers receiver other than Carroo is open on the play.
Dean was in the game as the “nickelback,” which in addition to being a washed-up pop rock band is in football a term used for an extra defensive back that replaces a linebacker for obvious passing situations. Dean will need to figure his coverages out soon, because Arkansas will need to use a lot of nickel against Texas A&M.
“Why didn’t Ash blitz in the fourth quarter?”
This has been a much-asked question over the last couple of days. First, Ash did call a couple of blitzes: Martrell Spaight sacked Nova on the play before the touchdown diagrammed above. But when his coverage was getting torched, Ash decided not to blitz because it likely would have been ineffective. Here’s why.
Rod Gilmore, as frustrating as his inability to hide who is clearly rooting for is, is actually a very intelligent analyst who notices a lot of subtle qualities about the game. He noted this a couple of times, and if you had the volume on you probably heard it.
Early in the game, Rutgers believed that their offensive line was good enough to compete with our defensive line. Who knows why they thought that, but they did and showed it by sending their running back out on every pass play. This leaves just the five offensive linemen blocking. Despite changing their five-man protections throughout the first three quarters, it was to no avail, as the Hogs were thoroughly whooping the Knights’ line in all places: each defensive end recorded a sack off the edge, and Philon had two sacks coming straight up the middle.
Rutgers, like any good team, adjusted midway through the third quarter. After Nova fumbled and Arkansas recovered and scored to take a 24-7 lead, the Knights started keeping their running back in as an extra blocker. They also cut out all seven-step and most five-step drops, instead using quick dropbacks. By resorting to six-man blocking schemes and quick dropbacks, the Knights were using what is called “max protect,” meaning that they were doing the maximum their offense allows to protect the quarterback. By doing this, they were almost guaranteeing that Arkansas’ defensive line was done getting sacks; however, the Hogs front had done its job by changing the game. Now, the secondary only had to deal with four receivers on quick dropbacks, and could drop seven into coverage to achieve it. The bad news is, of course, that even with this advantage they failed to stop the Rutgers passing game. Blitzing against a six-man front with mostly quick drops probably would not have changed that.
The Hogs have a lot of work to do to get ready for Texas A&M, but a bowl game is still not out of the question. Putting this loss behind them and learning from it is essential to Bielema’s “1-0” mentality.