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Arkansas at Missouri: Hogs' defense is improved and aggressive up front

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Arkansas' defensive improvement, particularly against the run, has been rather remarkable. Darius Philon and Trey Flowers are still doing damage up front, but the emergence of Martrell Spaight has given the Hogs a huge boost.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

DE
JaMichael Winston (6'4, 250, So.) (16.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU)
Mitchell Loewen (6'5, 276, Jr.) (7.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 QB hurry)
Brandon Lewis (6'4, 252, So.) (4.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 QB hurry)

NG
Taiwan Johnson (6'2, 255, So.) (16.5 tackles, 6 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 FR, 1 QB hurry)
Bijhon Jackson (6'2, 324, Fr.) (5.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU)

DT
Darius Philon (6'2, 272, So.) (31.0 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 3 FR, 5 QB hurries)
DeMarcus Hodge (6'1, 335, Jr.) (3.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 FF)

DE
Trey Flowers (6'3, 270, Sr.) (41.0 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 4 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR, 8 QB hurries)
Deatrich Wise Jr. (6'5, 271, So.) (8.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 QB hurries)

Remember Havoc Rate, everybody's NEW HOT HIP FOOTBALL MEASURE? It combines tackles for loss, forced fumbles, interceptions, and pass breakups and divides it by a team's total plays. (I track it each week on the second table at this page.) Mizzou's defensive line ranks second among all lines in this category, and the Tigers rank 20th overall.

Arkansas ranks 10th. The front seven as a whole ranks sixth. The Hogs aren't incredibly active in the back, but they get after you up front. Darius Philon and Trey Flowers have combined for 23 TFLs, 7.5 sacks, five breakups, and 13 hurries (the rest of the team: 12 hurries). Taiwan Johnson adds some quickness as an undersized nose guard, and the other ends are a grab bag of general competence.

SLB
Braylon Mitchell (6'2, 234, Sr.) (16.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack)
Randy Ramsey (6'4, 220, Fr.) (6.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL)

MLB
Brooks Ellis (6'2, 237, So.) (43.5 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF, 1 QB hurry -- 9 games)
Josh Williams (6'1, 240, So.) (19.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack)

WLB
Martrell Spaight (6'2, 231, Sr.) (81.0 tackles, 8 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 2 FF, 1 FR, 4 QB hurries)
Dwayne Eugene (6'1, 230, Fr.) (3.5 tackles) (3.5 tackles)

Philon and Flowers were strong contributors last year, too, only they were mostly alone. Arkansas ranked 79th in Rushing S&P+ and 80th in Adj. Line Yards in 2013; this year: fifth and second, respectively. The front seven is infinitely more disruptive and competent than it was last year, and a big reason for that is Martrell Spaight. Spaight was a three-star JUCO transfer who didn't do much of anything in his first year in Fayetteville, but he has erupted this fall. He is both a tackling machine (he has 81.0 tackles, and all other listed linebackers have 88.5) and a play-maker, making eight stops behind the line and still defensing four passes. (Brooks Ellis is also strong, obviously.)

It has become nearly impossible to run on Arkansas. Georgia's Nick Chubb went crazy against the Hogs, rushing 30 times for 202 yards and two scores. Since then, UAB's primary backs carried 33 times for 125 yards (3.8 per carry), Mississippi State's dynamic duo of Josh Robinson and Dak Prescott carried 32 times for 125 yards (3.9), LSU backs carried 18 times for 49 yards (2.7), and Ole Miss backs carried 20 times for 70 yards (3.5). And hell, right before Chubb went crazy, Arkansas held Alabama's T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry to 70 yards on 23 carries (3.0). Yuck.

Missouri's offensive line has suffered from plenty of procedural mistakes of late, but they're blocking their butts off. Mizzou ran better against Texas A&M and Tennessee than it had in basically any two-game period this year. But Arkansas has a better run defense than even Tennessee does, and I'm curious how Mizzou gameplans against it.

CB
Jared Collins (5'11, 172, So.) (33.5 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 11 PBU)
Carroll Washington (5'11, 190, Sr.) (13.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU)

FS
Alan Turner (5'11, 210, Sr.) (42.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBU)
De'Andre Coley (6'1, 202, RSFr.) (7.5 tackles)

SS
Rohan Gaines (5'11, 195, Jr.) (38.0 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FF)
Davyon McKinney (6'1, 210, Jr.) (1.5 tackles)

CB
Henre' Toliver (6'1, 186, Fr.) (14.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
D.J. Dean (5'11, 200, So.) (13.5 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PBU)

NB
Tevin Mitchell (6'0, 190, Sr.) (10.5 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PBU)
Kevin Richardson (6'0, 160, RSFr.) (6.0 tackles, 1 QB hurry)

Arkansas' pass defense is perfectly solid but not quite as scary. The pass rush pales in comparison to Tennessee's, and if Missouri can somewhat control Philon and Flowers up front in this regard (and I expect the Tigers to do just that -- I'm far more scared of them as run defenders), Maty Mauk might have time to find an open man downfield. Jared Collins is an active and exciting corner, especially for a sophomore, but if Jimmie Hunt and Darius White both present viable targets again on Friday, as they did the last two weeks on the road, Mauk might have some success here.

It's funny, by the way, how much my definition of "some success" has changed from the start of the season to now. I would be pretty happy if Mizzou ended up averaging in the 5.6-5.9 yards per play range. The Tigers averaged 6.6 against A&M and 5.9 against Tennessee, but that's the only two times they've gone over 5.6 in conference play. Last year, they fell under 6.1 per play just once in conference play (at Georgia). So yeah, when I say "some success," I mean "enough to maybe get Mizzou to the 21-24 point range." A low bar, sure, but that might be all Mizzou needs to win.

Special Teams

K
Adam McFain (6'0, 180, So.) (14-14  PAT, 5-6 FG under 40, 1-2 FG over 40; 36 kickoffs, 8 touchbacks)
John Henson (5'11, 172, Sr.) (31-33 PAT, 2-2 FG under 40, 0-2 FG over 40)

P
Sam Irwin-Hill (6'2, 203, Sr.) (49 punts, 40.0 average, 20 fair caught, 18 inside 20)
Toby Baker (6'3, 199, So.) (1 punt, 36 yards)

KR
Korliss Marshall (6'0, 205, So.) (9 KR, 30.1 average, 1 TD)
Keon Hatcher (6'2, 210, Jr.) (6 KR, 23.2 average)

PR
Jared Cornelius (5'11, 195, Fr.) (6 PR, 4.0 average)
D.J. Dean (5'11, 200, So.) (11 PR, 11.0 average)

It's really strange talking about special teams right now. For the season, Mizzou has still had a top-40 special teams unit, with steady kicking on kicks under 40 yards, strong punting, and great returns. But the last two games have been a debacle in this regard. Andrew Baggett missed two PATs against Tennessee, Mizzou allowed long kick returns in both games, Christian Brinser has been only solid and not great, etc.

In the present tense, two feels like a trend, and Mizzou's special teams trend isn't a happy one. That's the bad news. The good news is that the season numbers are still good, and that Arkansas' special teams have been pretty bad most of the year. Using Brian Fremeau's stats, the Hogs are third in punt efficiency (great!), 24th in kick return efficiency (good!), 111th in field goal efficiency (awful!), 114th in kickoffs efficiency (awful!), and 126th in punt return efficiency (almost the worst in the country!). In a game that will probably feature more punts than kickoffs, fair catch machine Sam Irwin-Hill could be a great field position weapon. But despite what our eyes told us these last two weeks, this is still a battle Mizzou can win.