Considering how Ole Miss has fared against Arkansas the past two years, it’s hard not to get nervous by default heading into Saturday’s matchup. The Razorbacks’ success in last year’s 53-52 loss was driven largely by the Rebels’ inability to adapt to the constant play-action roll-outs being thrown their way. While Ole Miss has taken a noticeable step back on defense in 2016, Arkansas has dealt with its own degradation on offense thanks to roster turnover that’s left its run-first, yet balanced, attack less formidable. Regardless, it’s entirely possible on Saturday that the Razorbacks could mirror the 2015 squad that gave the Rebels so many problems.
First, some metric definitions:
Football Outsiders defines a successful play as one of the following: gaining 50 percent of the yards you need on first down, 70 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third/fourth down.
Line yards is a way of giving proper credit to the offensive line for a run (click here for a more detailed explanation).
Stuff rate is the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Power success rate measures how well you do in short yardage runs, and is the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.
Arky’s offense isn’t quite the same so far this year.
In his first year at Arkansas in 2015, offensive coordinator Dan Enos not only improved a solid offense left by Jim Chaney, but helped the group finish first overall in Offensive S&P+. It’s pretty difficult to excel in both consistently picking up needed yards and getting the most out of each successful play, as achieving one goal may shrink the other’s likelihood. Arkansas did exactly that, however, ranking first in opponent-adjusted success rate and third in explosiveness.
The Razorbacks currently rank 28th and 65th in those same categories, but have made up for it by scoring 5.5 points per scoring opportunity (trips inside the opponent’s 40 yard line), an improvement from 5.3 last year. This overall dip in offensive production might undersell how good of a year new quarterback Austin Allen is having, but the fact remains that the offense hasn’t transitioned smoothly while working in some new pieces.
It all starts with the running game.
As much as the Hogs are characterized as being a run-heavy, bruising offense, they’ve been pretty balanced under Enos, with adjusted run rates of 51.8 percent in 2015 (60th highest in the country) and 53.5 percent this year (53rd). Still, establishing the run is critical to the rest of their offense, as so much of what they do in the passing game revolves around play-action. When the opportunity has been there, Allen has been great—coming into the Alabama game last week, he ranked sixth in the country with a passer rating of 144.7 on play-action dropbacks.
Whether or not play-action will be a consistent option going forward remains to be seen, mainly because of a not-always-threatening rushing attack. The Razorbacks have dropped in rushing success rate from 52.4 percent in 2015 (second in the country) to 39.6 percent (92nd) this year. Going from an effective workhorse in Alex Collins to splitting carries between the younger pair of Rawleigh Williams and Devwah Whaley has something to do with it, but much can be said about the offensive line, too.
Arkansas’ offensive line is still finding its way.
This group had to replace three starters up front, and with none of the newcomers having gotten any significant rotation time before this year, some regression was to be expected. Arkansas has declined up front in just about every category, but here are the most dramatic changes between this and last season:
Setting up misdirection on later downs is difficult when you can’t get any push on the early ones, as Arkansas’ 2.55 line yards per carry on standard downs currently ranks 113th (it ranked seventh in 2015 at 3.36). Ole Miss’ best bet to slow down the Razorback offense is to get them off schedule on these early downs. This will cut down on the feasibility of play-action and limit the number of times Rebel linebackers have to drop back in coverage, a thing they are not good at.
Whether or not the Rebels’ defensive front can actually stop early-down runs is another question entirely. Thanks largely to the linebackers’ inability to stay in rushing lanes, the defense has allowed opponents to pick up needed yardage on 47 percent of standard down runs. Even if they can improve, forcing offenses into a pass-first situation hasn’t guaranteed a critical stop either: Ole Miss’ defense ranks 97th in passing downs success rate.
Ole Miss has time to improve at defending the run.
If you’re looking for encouragement, the Rebels’ defensive performance against Georgia is a good place to start. Bulldogs offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, as he did at Arkansas, was looking to establish the run early to set up play-action later, and didn’t get very far. Ole Miss allowed a running success rate on standard downs of 37.5 percent, a significant decline from its season average of 46.4 percent.
If the Rebels’ defensive front has all hands on deck (hi DeMarquis), there’s reason to believe this improvement should continue. Realistically, they may just need to prevent Arkansas from finishing enough drives to not erase all the wonderful things Chad Kelly and his stable of Herculean receivers do on the other side of the ball. There’s a decent chance Arkansas doesn’t have the resources to keep up with Ole Miss on a drive-by-drive basis, but the defense needs to take a proactive approach in preventing a heartbreaking shootout similar to last year.