The Arkansas game, in my opinion, was the most emotionally charged game of the season. It was a roller coaster of a game in the first half, and downright depressing in the second. The two halves were so different that I'm splitting them up into two separate articles. This game hurt me to watch. We knew exactly what they were going to do, and we couldn't stop it. On the other side, we saw some potential out of our offense, and several players performed admirably on defense. Let's break down the film and see what happened.
I'm personally not a huge fan of how we chose to attack the Arkansas defense in the first couple of drives. We ran a lot of sweeps to the outside using both running backs and wide receivers, and we really focused on slant routes in the passing game. Now, we run a lot of slants normally, but today we were running far more slants than normal. Our first drive, which was a three and out, featured two back to back slant routes to Jakeem Grant, both of which were defended well by Arkansas.
Reginald Davis and Bradley Marquez fake crossing routes to the right to hopefully draw the linebacker closer to their side. It works, and Jakeem should be open across the middle for the first. The only problem is that by now we've given up enough film to where Arkansas knows our offensive gameplan. They know we're going to pick on their linebackers and nickel DBs with slants and crossing routes, getting our receivers in space. This play is easily defended by the nickel corner who has safety help over the top and to his outside, allowing him to play harder inside. Alright, cool, we've seen what we're going to get out of their safeties. The only problem with this that I have is that we run it again 20 seconds later.
It's almost the exact same scenario except the nickel corner makes an even better play, as he reads Grant like a book. He doesn't have the same kind of safety help over the top, the safety is playing center field instead of a side. We fake a screen to the right, and try to come back and hit Grant, but #23 is there. I don't fully understand the reasoning behind it, but if it hadn't been for a great play by the corner it would've worked.
The next play would prove to be one of those game-changing moments that we never could seem to get a hold of.
Dude. Go score. It might have been that Eguavoen was shocked that he had the ball, or wanted to secure the turnover, or even slipped a little bit, but man you gotta take this to the house. You have a convoy of blockers in front of you and only 30 yards to go until pay dirt. We eventually score on this possession, so it wasn't all a loss, but we can see where playing too conservatively will get us. We should've had six right here and we gave Arkansas's stout defense a chance to stop us. Fortunately, they didn't.
This play is one of my favorites in our arsenal.
As always, it starts with the offensive line. They all take a powerful step to the right, engaging the defensive line and the backside linebacker. If they get the strong side linebacker as well, that's good, but it's not necessary. #51 for Arkansas is a good, smart player, and sees what's going on. He takes a step to the outside, but is blocked by Jordan Davis. The other two receivers in the trips left formation take on the corner and the nickel corner, Deandre Washington takes out the safety, and at that point it's all about how fast Reginald Davis can run.
It's a simple enough play to where it can be run multiple times a game, but tricky enough to where it can really fool the defense into flowing one way while the ball goes the other. I would much rather us use this misdirection sweep than the strong side sweeps that are high risk/high reward. At least this high risk/high reward play involves trickery and not simply saying "we think we're faster than you". Let's check out the defensive side of the ball next.
We have got to keep Keenon Ward healthy. It's easy to forget how well he played in a bad season. He's lined up over the tight end from his strong safety spot, and simply reads the play and makes a play on the ball. The bigger mystery here is why Arkansas is throwing on 3rd and short, or why Allen throws this ball at all. By the time his progression makes it to the tight end, Ward has him blanketed in the flat. If we can keep this guy healthy, we should improve at the safety position.
Here we have the sweep/screen play that we were talking about earlier, and here's what happens when is goes wrong. The linebacker blitzing off the edge immediately sees whats going on, and is able to force Grant to change directions immediately after catching the ball. Arkansas's defensive line gives great pursuit, and would have gotten there even if Grant hadn't fumbled. Unfortunately, Grant does fumble, and Arkansas gets the ball on our 12. My beef with this play isn't that it was run, it's a great play that we've gotten some big scores off of. It's just that this is the 3rd time we've run it, and we're 6 game minutes into the first quarter. We're really pushing the "we're faster than you" game, but when the defense knows what's coming speed doesn't mean much.
Arkansas uses this incredible field position to their advantage more or less immediately.
The big narrative after this game was that Arkansas outphysicaled us, and to an extent that's true. They certainly did work on the line of scrimmage, but the entire game wasn't won off of how physical their offensive line, tight ends, and running backs were. There was definitely calculated strategy in it too, as evidenced in this 2nd and 3 deep in our territory.
The weak side of the Razorback's line simply shields our defensive line from getting to the ball. The line in essence acts like a see-saw, with one side pushing forward and one side dropping back a tad bit. Arkansas knows that our linebackers are a little slow on their reads, and it shows here. They want to run the ball outside and downhill simultaneously. The pitch handoff ensures that the play will hit outside at the appropriate spot, and as soon as the running back gets the ball he goes directly downhill. The tight end "chips" the defensive end and gets to VJ Fehoko almost immediately. That isn't Fehoko's fault, he makes his read well and engages the blocker. This play's faults lie with Kenny Williams and Sam Eguavoen.
Kenny gets "zone blocked" almost immediately, and never plants a foot and attempts to fight back into the block, closing down the hole. Fehoko is losing his blocking battle a tad bit, forcing Eguavoen to take the long way around. When Eguavoen gets to the hole, he gives a poor attempt at a tackle. I don't like throwing people under the bus, but it was pretty bad. It seems as if he came in a little hot, has to stop, and ends up flat footed in the hole. He attempts to take out the running back's legs, but that doesn't work too well as he just throws his shoulder pads at them.
It's a bad tackle attempt, but he's also a yard deeper than he needed to be to make this play because of the scheme that pushed Fehoko and Williams out of the play. While a poor tackle attempt is never truly excusable, the play more or less set him up to get smashed in this hole from the beginning. Therefore it's not just Arkansas outphysicaling us, we're being beat by their scheme as well. If VJ doesn't get engaged 2 yards off of the line of scrimmage, we might make this play in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage.
We prove this by controlling the interior of the line for most of the game and forcing the Arkansas running backs outside of the tackle box.
Right off the bat, we see that Rika Levi and Keland McElrath have held their ground. Heck, Branden Jackson's even in the backfield. VJ Fehoko takes a bad first step, but still manages to engage the fullback only one yard from the line of scrimmage. If it hadn't been for the blatant hold on Pete Robertson (which was called, pushing Arkansas to 1st and 20), we make this play at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield. Keenon Ward is held as well. It isn't Arkansas just running the ball down our throats, it's Arkansas using our alignments against us. If Kenny Williams is on the line of scrimmage in this play, Branden Jackson moves further inside. That gives the tackle more or less freedom to come block the middle linebacker to that side. If the tight end zones Williams for just 2 seconds, and is Jackson is zoned as well, the only hope we have at making the play is a safety playing very close to the line of scrimmage. Rolling a safety in that close to help in run support is dangerous, as it would leave us vulnerable over the top on the edges of the field. We're in a lose-lose situation with a team that is difficult to beat physically, and it shows. We have the potential to beat them physically, it just doesn't happen as often as we needed it to.
Here's a play that highlights the difference between holding your ground and losing the battle on the defensive line.
Let's focus on the two defensive tackles, Keland McElrath and Rika Levi. Leland is moved off the ball, turned around, and lets a guard through to the second level. Levi holds his ground along the line of scrimmage, and allows VJ Fehoko a chance at making the play in the backfield. It may be a bad spot, he might have gotten it, but the bottom line is that when we see what being blown off the line actually looks like, then look at our defensive line play this game, we can see that at this point in the game we aren't getting rag dolled around like everyone said we were. Bret Bielema isn't an idiot, he knows there's more to running the football well than handing it off to a running back and saying, "go get 'em". This Arkansas rushing attack is cold and calculated.
We see more evidence of this later on in the same drive.
This entire play has one goal and one goal only: get a one on one with Arkansas's big running backs and our smaller cornerbacks. The tight end in motion moves Fehoko and Eguavoen slightly over to the right, and for some reason, Pete Robertson doesn't shift with them. I'm not exactly sure how Wallerstedt's system operates, but I am sure that against a team like Arkansas is pays to be on the outside of the tight end. Robertson is zone blocked immediately, and is never really in the play. VJ Fehoko reads the play a little slowly, and gets zone blocked and eventually pancaked by an Arkansas defensive lineman.
The clean release of the tackle into the second level of the defense is troubling. Surely someone is assigned with making sure that he doesn't just bulldoze a linebacker and that the linebackers don't have to make perfect, immediate reads in order to play the game. Eguavoen fills the hole in the middle, forcing the running back to the outside, where VJ Fehoko isn't. Now Arkansas has the matchup they want, a big running back on a smaller corner. Madison goes for the ankles instead of a straight up tackle, and a smooth sidestep by the running back makes this play history.
Let's go back to the offense and watch Davis Webb make one of the best plays he'll make all season.
Arkansas drops 9 men into coverage, including both of their defensive tackles (!). The linebackers are around 15 yards deep in the defensive backfield. This will become important later on. For now, Davis Webb immediately steps up in the pocket, pump fakes to the middle to draw the attention of the defensive tackles "spy" covering him as well as the nickel corner. Webb uses this time and space he bought to hit Bradley Marquez, who does the rest. This is a nearly flawlessly executed 3rd down. Arkansas thinks that by giving Davis Webb time to throw they can force him into a bad throw, and they nearly do. However, Webb takes that bad throw, makes it better, and then makes it work for a first down in a crucial 3rd and long. This is what Webb is capable of doing when he's playing at 100%.
We score quickly after, and find ourselves once again in the Red Zone against Arkansas's rushing attack.
Arkansas tries a draw play, attempting to get something in the middle going. Fortunately for us, Micah Awe and Sam Eguavoen play it nearly perfectly. Pete Robertson loses outside control for a little bit though, and it's off to the races for the running backs. Branden Jackson goes a little far up the field as well, widening the hole. Keenon Ward attempts to do something, but there's just too wide of a line to get to the running back in time. If Jackson doesn't go so far upfield and Robertson holds outside contain and doesn't try to rip to the inside of the tight end, we stop this play for no gain. Arkansas simply has an offense built to attack our defense. Run the ball, but don't run it ignorantly. Take what they'll give you, which is more than often a good chunk of yardage due to positioning.
Even though we don't play every play perfectly, we do make some plays.
Arkansas tries this tricky little pitch thing straight out of Madden '05, once again trying to hit the edge of our defense. The play is meant to suck in Branden Jackson and leave us without an edge player. The difference between not having an edge player and having an edge player is very evident in this play. Branden stays at home, pursues the running back, and eventually makes the play. It's getting late in the second quarter, and we still aren't getting blown off the line of scrimmage like everyone says we were. The only things that Arkansas is really hurting us with are off tackle runs and runs bounced to the outside.
We have one last play to go over before halftime.
Y'all remember when Davis Webb stepped up in the pocket, faked out the defense, and delivered a clutch third down? Yeah that doesn't happen. Arkansas does that same cheeky drop-9-into-coverage look, moving the linebackers deep into the middle of the field. Webb tries to force a pass into the middle that is promptly picked off. This is after we were given a gift of an Arkansas fumble in our red zone. This is exactly what Arkansas wants. We aren't playing our game, we're playing theirs, and it shows. There is no reason for this ball to be thrown. If anything Webb should've taken off himself seeing as how the defensive tackles followed his safety route across the field. Once again, we aren't throwing anyone under the bus, but this one stings.
The first half against Arkansas was a game of inches indeed. It seemed to sum up the whole season, we would come so close to being a very good team only to hurt ourselves in the end. If we can keep key players healthy, and stick to our reads, we have the potential to be a very good team.