It’s easy to be caught up in the anticipation of the season. No team has lost a game. Plays that fans will never forget and things that writers could not dream of will happen. It’s college football, and thank God it’s back!!
Just as easy as it is for fan to get caught up in the anticipation, it’s just as easy for writers and analysts not look any further than the fact that Auburn was in the national championship game last year while the Arkansas Razorbacks were winless in the SEC and logged only three victories all year. Pretty good reasons for the most part. Las Vegas bookmakers get a huge number of games correct every year, and they make Arkansas anywhere from a 19 point to a 21 point underdog to Auburn.
In many ways this game is like the infamous 2009 Arkansas-Florida game. You can’t forget it. The Razorbacks were coming off a losing season facing the defending national champions. The Hogs were 25 point dogs but if you took a close look at the matchups, the contest was going to be close. But for an officiating crew that was suspended in its entirety following that game, it might have been Bobby Petrino’s first signature win.
Like the Razorback-Gator matchup in 2009, the 2013 Arkansas v. Auburn football game is difficult to reconcile with the way things appear to be on the surface, a team which lost horribly last year vs. a team which played in the BCS National Championship game.
On November 2, 2013, Arkansas consistently shot itself in the foot against Auburn in Fayetteville. Coaches Bielema and Chaney opened up the Arkansas playbook almost to the point of desperation when they didn’t have to do so, and ended up making it easy for Auburn to stay comfortably ahead. On the field there were certainly mistakes, but for the most part, players seem to play about as well as they had all season long.
In the first series Brandon Allen connected on a beautiful would-be touchdown throw to Javonte Herndon, but the catch was called incomplete on one of the more ludicrous rules instituted last year.* Shortly afterward, Allen went out with an injury in the same series, and A.J. Derby took over at quarterback. Derby’s first pass attempt was a swing pass to Alex Collins which the defensive end deflected, and Auburn’s McKinzy intercepted the ball ending a thirteen-play drive.
On Arkansas’ second drive Derby lost a snap giving the Tigers only 29 yards to the end zone. Tre Mason ran through the Hog defense both outside and between the tackles with close to 8 men in the box.
Hogs’ third drive stalled in the red zone in the 2nd quarter which lead to a Zach Hocker field goal. For the most part, the Razorbacks drove the ball well against Auburn through the first quarter.
Arkansas’ onside kick failed giving Auburn the ball on the Arkansas 38 which ultimately resulted in an Auburn touchdown and a 14-3 Tiger lead.
Not much into the 2nd quarter, the Hogs tried an on-side kick, halfback pass, 2 end-arounds, and a Wildcat run with Collins getting the snap.
The Razorbacks started a drive with 10:53 left in the 2nd quarter at the Razorback 25 yard line and 17 plays later the drive ended on a goal line stand by the Auburn defense with 2:40 remaining in the half. The ball turned over on downs. After 30 minutes of play, the stat sheet looked like:
Auburn (11) Category Arkansas
22 Tot. Plays 46
2/4 3rd. Dn Conv. 7/10
124 Tot. Yards 199
0 Turnovers 2
7 Pts. off T/O 0
8:16 ToP 21:44
Hocker kicked the opening kick of the second half out of bounds.
Jeremy Johnson came in for Nick Marshall during the first drive of the third quarter. Johnson completed a nice pass in Razorback territory. On the final play for a touchdown the Hogs’ linebackers played off and didn’t attack a hole opened up for Tre Mason. Mason went up the middle for a score.
The Hogs’ offense looked promising to start the third quarter. The Arkansas drive appeared to converted a third and six attempt, but Mitch Loewen earned a personal foul for laying waste to an Auburn defender instead of “picking” the defensive back covering Hunter Henry.
After the punt, the Hogs kept Auburn under wraps for two plays. On third and seven Nick Marshall hit Sammie Coates running a fly pattern for an 88 yard TD strike. Coates drew man-to-man coverage against Tevin Mitchell. Mitchell was with Coates step for step, but the pass was a tad underthrown. As Coates slowed up to get the ball at about the Arkansas 48 yard line, Mitchell turned so far to the inside that he turned around backward and fell down, and Coates went untouched to the end zone.
On the ensuing kickoff, Korliss Marshall electrified the crowd with an 87-yard return out of the end zone.
The Hogs weren’t done with the trick plays. Again, the play caller tapped Jonathan Williams for an incomplete halfback pass to Hunter Henry in the end zone which just missed. Making up for it, Brandon Allen hit Keon Hatcher with a pass in the end zone.
The Hogs forced Auburn into a three and out with two stops and a Chris Smith sack, his first of the night.
Alex Collins took a direct snap for 10 yards, and a first down into Auburn territory.
An attempted throwback pass from Allen to Henry was underthrown but fortunately drew a pass interference penalty on Auburn. On the next play, Allen threw a ball poorly to the inside in the end zone away from Herndon drawing another pass interference call.
Arkansas then pulled out a swinging gate pass play from Allen to Austin Tate which was good enough to convert a fourth and three to the Auburn two yard line. As the Hogs were in the huddle ready to break for the play from the two yard line, Auburn’s Swain did his Diggstown dive in the end zone and grabbed his knee. It didn’t matter much because on the next play, Kiero Small took the ball into the end zone. Hocker added the extra point to close the score to 28 to 17 to open the fourth quarter.
Auburn drove 75 yards on the next possession to increase the lead to 35 to 17, and the final margin.
As the Hogs drove, with 7:30 left, Hunter Henry picked up an offensive pass interference call which negated a 4th down conversion to Javonte Herndon, and the Hogs were done.
For the game:
Auburn (11) Category Arkansas
55 Tot. Plays 74
6/11 3rd. Dn Conv. 9/16
366 Tot. Yards 346
0 Turnovers 3
25:46 ToP 34:14
Summarizing, one Arkansas touchdown was lost on a call in the endzone. Another was a goal line stand away from a touchdown. The Hogs gave up the ball three times and didn’t get a turnover from Auburn. On two of Auburn’s possessions, the Tigers had to cover only 29 yards and 43 yards respectively because of a miscue and a failed onside kick. Another score was the result of blown coverage.
Had the Hogs done really basic things on their part, at the very least the score would have been close.
Statistically, Auburn had its lowest total yardage output of the season against the Hogs. It was their second worst number of first downs. The Tigers ran the fewest number of plays all season in a game (55). For all the rushing Auburn did last year, they had only three worse performances running the ball last season with 233 yards on the ground against the Razorbacks.
Eleven points are one miscue away from the score being anyone’s ball game. Gus made a fist pump gesture on the Marshall to Coates 88 yard touchdown pass. Any coach would be happy, but for the game, the Tigers had a ridiculous 249 passing efficiency rating, connecting on 8 of 9 passes. It’s true that Auburn’s bread and butter all season was its running game as the Tigers lead the nation in rushing for the season. But is the explanation “because they didn’t have to” good enough to explain why Auburn didn’t go to the air more, especially given their success, with an eleven-point difference in the fourth quarter?
On the other hand, did the Hogs’ scheme give Auburn problems resulting in Auburn’s below average statistical performance? If the Razorbacks can eliminate the miscues and replicate what they did last year, is this week’s game winnable?
This is usually where someone pipes in that the best defense is a good offense, and that’s exactly what Arkansas did in 2013 by running 74 plays from the line of scrimmage and holding the ball for 34+ minutes. Time of possession matters much less playing an Auburn team. The idea can’t be totally ignored, and it’s a good start.
Excitement for the Hogs has to be sustained drives, and Arkansas’ 2014 offense isn’t exciting because of a healthy Brandon Allen or Hunter Henry or because of the explosiveness of Williams, Collins and Marshall. Nope, this is an old school team build that will lead to great things. Over the last 20 months Bielema put together a big, two-deep offensive line that promises to cure many ills. For the Auburn game, the Hogs’ O-Line looks like:
74 Brey Cook 6-7, 322, Sr.
60 Brian Wallace 6-6, 315, Fr.
55 Denver Kirkland 6-5, 348, So.
68 Austin Beck 6-7, 312, Jr.
65 Mitch Smothers 6-4, 315, Jr.
72 Frank Ragnow 6-6, 292, Fr.
75 Luke Charpentier 6-4, 320, Sr.
73 Sebastian Tretola 6-5, 355, Jr.
76 Dan Skipper 6-10, 315, So.
79 Cameron Jefferson 6-5, 305, Sr.
As a group they average 320 lbs. while the starters alone average 324 lbs. Either way, the group averages 6’6″ tall. Last year the the offensive line set single-season school record allowing only 8.0 sacks which led the SEC and was 2nd in the country in sacks allowed per game.
The starters fit with Bielema’s preferences for size and experience. Brey Cook has seen action in 35 Arkansas games with 17 career starts. Last season as a true freshman, Denver Kirkland played in 12 games and received freshman team honors from Athlon, 247Sports, and was on the SEC All-Freshman Team. Mitch Smothers is a redshirt junior with experience in 12 games, having 8 starts. Luke Charpentier is a redshirt senior having played in 24 games since 2011. Dan Skipper’s bio is almost identical to Denver Kirland’s. Skipper played in 12 games and finished the season with a number of freshman All-American honors with the highest accolade being 1st team True Freshman All-American from 247Sports.
Auburn’s starting defensive line averages 294 lbs. and a little over 6’3″.
97 Elijah Daniel , So., 6-2, 263
86 DaVonte Lambert, Jr., 6-2, 293
98 Angelo Blackson, Sr., 6-4, 306
1 Montravius Adams, So., 6-4, 306
54 Jeffrey Whitaker, Sr., 6-4, 322
50 Ben Bradley, Sr., 6-1, 303
90 Gabe Wright , Sr., 6-3, 284
10 LaDarius Owens, Sr., 6-2, 259
On average, the Razorback offensive line is 30 lbs. heavier and 3 inches taller.
Auburn senior Elijah Daniel played in 14 games as a freshman with nine tackles and 2.5 sacks. Angelo Blackson has seen action in 39 games, 10 as a starter with 48 career tackles. Jeffery Whitaker returns to the field after having knee surgery early last season and took a redshirt season. In 2011 Whitaker started in 13 games with his starts decreasing to 5 in 2012 before being injured in 2013. Gabe Wright has pre-season honors from various sources including 1st team All-SEC from the SEC media.
The Razorbacks have a realistic chance to control their offensive line of scrimmage, and if that’s the case, they’ll be in this ball game. Moreover, look at how that one battle disrupts much of Malzahn’s philosophy. From “The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy” Malzahn lists the advantages of his scheme:
— “Speed up the game”
— “Lengthen the game”
— “Mentally and physically wear down your opponent”
— “Set the tempo of the game”
— “Gives the coach the ability to change the play at the line of scrimmage after he sees the defensive alignment”
— “Score more points quickly”
— “Gives you more offensive snaps”
— “Defenses cannot simulate it in practice”
— “Defenses have to spend more time than usual preparing for us”
— “Stops defenses from regrouping after big plays”
— “Makes it harder to pick up tendencies”
— “Creates problems for defensive coaches”
— Creates problems for defensive coaches to communicate with their players.
The Arkansas offensive line and Auburn defensive line battle aside, this season Arkansas enters with new defensive coordinator Robb Smith. Malzahn & company will have no film with which to plan for the Arkansas defensive schemes. The Hogs have had all off-season to prepare defensively and have cupcake Nicholls State the following Saturday, the Razorbacks could have sold out in preparation for Auburn.
If Robb Smith and the Arkansas coaching staff are attentive, they will pick up on decision rules for the Auburn quarterback and disguise defenses or change techniques to confuse the quarterback. Realizing these aren’t probably the same decisions from 10 years ago when Malzahn’s book was published, any quarterback and receiver will be looking for Cover 2 or 4, Cover 3, and man coverage as Malzahn suggests. One example of a quarterback read Malzahn mentions is watching the number of steps and direction a free safety takes. That read tells the quarterback which receiver to go to in the progression. Anything which makes Auburn do more helps to change the tempo, creates confusion, and hopefully places defenders in better positions.
After watching Auburn’s running game in detail over a few games, the Tigers look to have the angle on opposing defensive linemen. It’s consistent with Malzahn’s book as well. Some of that may be unavoidable if the Razorbacks don’t want to line up head-to-head with Auburn’s offensive line, but the better scheme might be to play head-to-head to cause problems with blocking angles and narrow running back holes. Tre Mason was excellent at squeezing through small openings between the tackles. We’ll see whether his successors have the same talent. Auburn’s scheme almost always has the running back following pulling lineman as most do. Last year, Arkansas linebackers seemed to react slowly to the back actually following the pulling linemen, and it cost yardage and probably let Auburn have an easy play into the end zone last season. Spaight, Mitchell and Ellis should improve the Hogs in that regard this game.
The Razorbacks were headed in the right direction against Auburn last year in the midst of a losing streak, and in the off season, Bielema has improved the Razorbacks even further in the areas which most frustrate the Tigers. The odds of a Razorback victory are much greater than Vegas estimates.
*If a runner has control of a ball, and the ball crosses the plane of the end zone, what happens afterward doesn’t matter. If a runner has control of the ball and his knee or elbow touches the ground, what happens afterward doesn’t matter. The ball is spotted where it was at the time the runner is down. When Herndon caught the ball, he was in bounds and had control of the ball. If he had run across the end zone, it would have been six points for the Hogs, but being a throw, the Auburn player raked the ball, and Herndon bobbled it as he was close to the ground, regardless of whether he had possession and control of the ball in the end zone. Really, a player in an end zone catch has to keep control of the ball after the play should be dead.