Mississippi State Football Film Preview: Examining Arkansas’ Offense

Sep 30, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) passes against the Texas A&M Aggies during the first half at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 30, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) passes against the Texas A&M Aggies during the first half at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /
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KJ Jefferson #1 of the Arkansas Razorbacks runs the ball against the Alabama Crimson Tide
TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA – OCTOBER 14: KJ Jefferson #1 of the Arkansas Razorbacks runs the ball against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 14, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Alex Slitz/Getty Images) /

Why is Arkansas struggling offensively?

Arkansas has a dangerous QB and a dynamic WR. But right now, that’s about it. Going into the year, the skill player everyone was highlighting was RB Raheim “Rocket” Sanders. Sanders was dominant in 2022, but injuries have derailed his junior campaign. He’s played in just three games so far and will be out against MSU, too.

He’s a player the Hogs dearly miss, but they do have a pair of capable RBs filling in between AJ Green and Rashod Dubinion. They’ve shown flashes, but neither has been able to really get going because of lackluster run blocking from the Arkansas OL. That’s a place where having a player as dynamic as Sanders would help.

The inability to get push up front has shown up the most in designed QB runs for KJ Jefferson. Arkansas has just not been able to get that aspect of their offense going so far. Jefferson can still kill defenses on scrambles, and he’s been effective enough on option keepers. But in spots where they want to use Jefferson as a battering ram to move the chains, the blocking hasn’t been there.

Arkansas has used this QB G-Lead concept on a few occasions and haven’t gotten the results they’d have liked. G-Lead features the playside guard pulling and kicking out the end man on the line of scrimmage while the playside tackle and TE downblock. Here the Hogs try it against BYU. BYU has just six defenders in the box, and with Jefferson acting as the ball-carrier, Arkansas has seven run blockers.

The advantage should easily be for the offense here. But either the center or RB (or both) misses their blocking assignment which allows a LB to meet Jefferson in the hole after just a short gain. It doesn’t help that neither the playside guard nor tackle do a particularly good job of executing their respective blocks. This is where the likes of Jett Johnson and Bookie Watson have opportunities to make plays on Saturday.

The biggest talking point for Arkansas’ offensive struggles has been pass protection, or the lack thereof. The Razorbacks have allowed 27 sacks this season. They’re 125th nationally in sacks allowed per game. Some of these sacks fall back on KJ Jefferson not working through reads quickly enough in the passing game. But in most cases they’ve just been getting beat up front.

Look at the final play of the game against BYU. They’re down a touchdown but are at the BYU 26-yard line. That’s a “Hail Mary” you can feasibly pull-off (it’s obviously still incredibly unlikely, but it’s better than throwing up a prayer from mid-field or attempting the lateral play). But they don’t even get the pass off because the LT gets absolutely smoked by the edge rusher. MSU hasn’t produced much of a pass rush at all this season. This is the time to show up.

I mentioned how some of the sacks allowed are ultimately on KJ Jefferson for holding on to the ball too long. That’s where his poor fit within Dan Enos’ offense really shows up. Jefferson isn’t a pocket passer. He’s not all that good at reading defenses and working through progressions. When his primary read is open, he can make the throw. But when that read is taken away, he doesn’t always know where to go with the ball.

A big reason why Kendal Briles’ offense is called a cheat code is because so much of the passing game within that system is designed with the intention of scheming one receiver wide open. The QB knows that’s who’ll be open, and that’s who he throws to. There isn’t much thinking put into it.

Jefferson has been in a system built to make things as easy as possible on him for the last three years. Now, he’s being asked to do a lot more in the passing game, and as discussed, it’s not like he’s got superstars around him to make that transition go smoothly. Sometimes those issues lead to him taking sacks when he’s got time to throw. Other times it leads to forcing throws that aren’t there.

Here’s a look at Jefferson’s limitations in the dropback game. Arkansas is facing a 3rd & 10, and Enos calls for a variation of the Dagger concept known as “Sucker”. Sucker takes the two-man, seam-dig combination of Dagger and adds a third receiver on an underneath curl route meant to “suck-in” zone defenders to create space for the dig route behind it, hence “Sucker”.

BYU sends a zone blitz, but the Razorback OL picks it up decently well and gives Jefferson space to step up into the pocket and make a throw downfield. The seam route clears out space by pulling away deep defenders, and #26 sits on the curl route. The result is the exact intention of the play: an open window to hit the dig route coming across the middle.

But for some reason, Jefferson locks in on throwing the curl route despite that receiver being blanketed. Perhaps his internal clock is telling him “get rid of it” with the pass rush, and he hadn’t yet seen the dig route come into view. But that’s where you need your QB to be able to see the whole picture to recognize the soft spot in the defense and throw with anticipation. Jefferson actually manages to complete the pass to the curl, but it’s short of the sticks, forcing a punt. If he sees the space to throw the dig, it’s a first down.

It’ll be important for Mississippi State to have success on early down against the Arkansas offense. If they can get the Razorbacks into obvious passing situations, that’s when they can get KJ Jefferson off his game.

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