How Arkansas' run game can power an upset of No. 1 Alabama
The No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide visit the No. 16-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks in one of the top matchups of the Week 6 college football schedule.
Both Alabama and Arkansas hang their hats on execution to win games, and this is an intriguing matchup because Arkansas ranks among the top five in Pro Football Focus’ run-blocking grades, led by our highest-graded center Frank Ragnow, while Alabama is our top-graded run defense.
You can read what it is about their scheme and defensive stars that makes Bama so great against the run here, but there’s no question Arkansas will have its work cut out for it.
Bret Bielema has brought to Fayetteville the running game he won Rose Bowl titles with at Wisconsin and used it as the foundation of the Razorbacks’ identity. At Wednesday’s press conference, Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban commented on this, saying, “this is the kind of team (Arkansas) that tries to beat you with execution and fundamental football.” Saban also noted that Alabama hasn’t played against a team that utilizes a lot of the “regular” personnel (tight end and fullback) that Arkansas uses in a variety of ways.
Arkansas uses a bevy of creativity and personnel in its offensive formations and schemes to achieve the success they have had moving the ball. Let’s take a look at those, and whether Arkansas can upset the Tide by effectively moving the ball on the ground:
Attacking the perimeter
Arkansas’ run game is more than meets the eye, and the Razorbacks don’t necessarily have to out-muscle their opponent to run the ball. One facet of the run game the Razorbacks like to exploit is attacking the outside of the defense.
They do this by sealing the edge of the line of scrimmage and pulling linemen around to the outside to block defenders, creating an alley for the ball-carrier. These plays were made famous by the Godfather of Football, Vince Lombardi, and his “run to daylight” power sweep of the 1960s. Arkansas runs them in a variety of formation and situations.
Watch the example below, as this blocking scheme can neutralize a team’s inside-out pursuit and essentially cause one-on-one matchups between the ball-carrier and defender assigned to the make the tackle.
Arkansas can eliminate some of the talent and strength advantages held by Alabama’s defensive line by running on the perimeter. The Razorbacks’ primary ball-carrier, Rawleigh Williams III, ranks in the top 25 of PFF’s running back grades so far this season, having been very productive on the ground. He’ll need to be a playmaker in one-on-one situations against the Bama defense.
Now, we are still talking about good old smashmouth football, right? Well, yes and no. Arkansas attacks the middle of a defense in multiple ways. It is safe to call Arkansas “Tight End U,” because you’d be hard-pressed to find a major college football team that uses its tight ends in a more varied and impactful way than the Razorbacks.
In the play below, Arkansas guts the middle of the defense by trapping the interior defensive lineman with their tight end positioned in the H-back alignment. Alabama hasn’t seen a team this season use tight ends and full backs like Arkansas does, and in a week’s time, this can be difficult to prepare for. In fact, you rarely see this play in college football, and Bill Belichick might be smiling, because this play is straight out of the Patriots playbook.
The next example of interior running for the Razorbacks is a power scheme. However, Arkansas uses a tight end and two fullbacks to lead through the hole, thus gaining an advantage and outnumbering the defense to pave a running lane for the touchdown.
Designed cutback runs
Arkansas’ coaches like to pick and choose where the Razorbacks run the ball. One efficient way to create space for the back, especially against more athletic and talented defenses, is by using cutback plays. Watch below as Arkansas uses backfield action, causing Texas A&M’s speedy defense to over-pursue.
The two tight ends aligned closely on the backside of the play block for the cutback, as the running back plants his foot and cuts back across the grain for a big gain.
Play-action passing is the best friend of the Arkansas offense
The running game sets up everything in Arkansas’ run-first offense, and has helped first-year starting quarterback Austin Allen earn Pro Football Focus’ fifth-highest quarterback grade so far this season. Allen is good throwing under pressure and making play-action throws on the move like the one below. This will be a key to gaining the edge against an aggressive Alabama run defense. Overall, Allen’s passer rating on play-action dropbacks is 144.7, the sixth-best in the nation. His proven ability this season to make difficult throws both downfield and against pressure is a very positive sign heading into Saturday’s matchup with Bama.
The bottom line
There is little question the advantages to win the game are in Alabama’s favor, but we do think there is a path to victory for the Razorbacks. If they can find the success in their running game as outlined above, they will have a shot to take down the Crimson Tide on Saturday night.