In the first half against Arkansas, our defense allowed 10 points. In the second half, our defense allowed 31 points.
At first glance, I figured the main reason was Darren McFadden and good field position via offensive turnovers.
But then I ran the numbers on McFadden, and he wasn't it. His first half production and his second half production was almost identical. In the first half, he had 15 carries for 88 yards (5.8 yards per carry), and a Running Back Success Rate of 66.66%. In the second half, he had 18 carries for 107 yards (5.94 yards per carry), and a Running Back Success Rate of 61.11%. Again, almost identical production numbers. So, man-child that he may be, nevertheless it wasn't McFadden that was the difference.
So what about Casey Dick? Generally speaking Dick plays like another four letter word, but he actually wasn't half terrible against us on Saturday night. In fact, Arkansas' first touchdown came largely on the right arm of Casey Dick, as the Hogs went 84 yards, with 70 of those coming through the air courtesy of Dick. But he didn't do it in the second half. If you look at his second half numbers he went 6-10 for 65 yards, which is not half bad. But 25 yards came on the time-expiring play, which is really an outlier play, so if you factor that out he was 5-9 for 40 yards in the second half. Obviously he wasn't the reason. If anything, he played worse in the second half.
In terms of impact from an individual player, the biggest difference was Felix Jones. In the first half, he was a complete non-factor with five carries for six yards. And he didn't really do that well as a whole (low success rate) in the second half, but he did have three very big runs (17, 32, and 36). Those three runs accounted for the difference between Arkansas's first and second half yardage. Factor out the two biggest runs, and the yardage is effectively equal between halves.
But does that really explain it all?
It does to a degree I think, but not entirely.
I think the main explanation is the late third quarter / early fourth quarter collapse by the offense.
It starts out innocently enough with a poor kick on the kick-off and then poor kick coverage. McFadden picks up a first down, okay no big deal. Then it's a huge run by Jones (see earlier), and first and goal Arkansas. Touchdown. 31-17. Four plays later, Wilson / Caldwell fumbles a snap, and Arkansas has the ball in Alabama territory. Another touchdown. 31-24. The next offensive play, Wilson throws an interception deep in Alabama territory. Another touchdown. 31-31. The following possession, we go three and out, and the defense has to go back onto the field.
All told, in a span of about eight game minutes, the defense was on the field for a grand total of 25 plays. Again a rushing attack that is as tough and physical as the Arkansas attack is, that's brutal. Especially with Mustin and Saunders either hurt or off the field. Basically, Arkansas had one good drive powered by poor kick coverage then a big Jones run, and then it was two quick touchdowns after they were forced to defend short fields. At that point, after a three and out and back on the field again, they seemed gassed, as expected. Another quick touchdown.
After that, the Alabama offense stayed on the field a good time (giving the defense a breather of about ten minutes in real time), and that seemingly rejuvenated them to where they could get the final stop that we needed. Sure, you can say that the final stop was due to Darren McFadden was not in the game, but a McFadden-less Arkansas marched right down the field for 64 yards and a touchdown off of just six plays in the prior series, so that argument is essentially baseless.
Field position, too, played a big role. On the first eleven Arkansas drives, the Hogs' average starting field position was their own twenty-two yard line, and on those eleven drives they netted ten points. On the subsequent four touchdown drives, their average starting field position was the Alabama forty-eight. Those four drives, of course, netted twenty-eight points.
Bottom line, our defense did great when the offense gave them some rest and some good field position to work with. But when the offense kept them on the field and gave them terrible field position to work with, they surrendered a lot of points.
None of that should be too surprising, I suppose. Truth be told, had the offense continued to move the chains (not necessarily score points but pick up first downs, give the defense rest, and keep decent field position) while protecting the football (no turnovers), the defense probably wouldn't have given up very many points, and certainly wouldn't have given up twenty-eight points in a mere eight minutes.
It's easy to want to view a defense and an offense by itself and view their performance in a vacuum, but in reality that's not how things work. It's a team game, and what the offense does directly affects what the defense does, and vice-versa, no matter what we'd like to think the contrary.