The opening drive of Arkansas’ game against Texas A&M stood out to me. It wasn’t so much the drive, rather than the final play.
It took me back twelve months when the Razorbacks were playing the unbeaten #1 ranked Florida Gators on the road. Arkansas should’ve ended Tim Tebow’s dream that day, instead Alabama did in the SEC title game.
Part of the problem was the eratic nature of their quarterback – a guy named Ryan Mallett in the middle of his first year starting having transferred from Michigan.
On the day, he completed just 44% of his passes. At the same time, he also put up a solid 224 yards and didn’t turn the ball over. He made one stunning downfield pass which ended in a 75-yard touchdown bomb to Greg Childs – perfectly placed hitting the receiver in stride and avoided two covering defenders. You can see the play in the video below at the 1:38 mark:
At the same time, there was something twitchy about Mallett’s display. He never looked entirely comfortable and it showed in completing just 12 passes. Arkansas were 2/13 on third down. He fired too many throws at full force and always seemed to be marginally off target.
The touchdown pass to Childs put Arkansas 20-13 ahead with 9:40 remaining. They failed to score another point and lost 23-20. It wasn’t all Mallett’s fault of course, the kicker Alex Tajeda missed a 38-yarder that would’ve put the Hogs up by the same scoreline late on.
But one play that has stuck in my mind from that day stayed with me throughout the off season and is the main reason I was so looking forward to seeing Mallett in 2010.
Trailing 13-10 in the third quarter, Mallett had his team in position to get the go-ahead touchdown. Full back Van Stumon had managed to sneak into the endzone and wasn’t picked up by the talented Gators’ secondary. Mallett scans the short field and sees Stumon wide open. The ball fires out of his hand like a cannon, it’s high and predictably asks too much of a guy not used to catching the ball.
It’s incomplete and Arkansas settle for a field goal.
The outcome was most extreme, but it’s something we saw too often from Mallett in 2009. The arm strength is there for all to see but he didn’t seem capable of managing it. Critics said he trusted his arm too much and didn’t put enough touch on his passes – that he had two gears: fast ball and faster ball.
So when the new season kicked off I wanted to see how Mallett had worked on his game. Could he make that 12-yard pass easy for his receiver? Could he improve his control during a pressure road game against a good opponent? Could he be accurate?
These are all things Mallett achieved in 2010 and the first drive of Arkansas’ 24-17 win over Texas A&M was a case in point. I’ll run through key drives from this game over the next week but the first Arkansas possession drew my attention.
Ryan Mallett vs Texas A&M: first scoring drive
Texas A&M kick off: touchback
15:00: 1st and ten at Arkansas 20
Mallett adjusts the play at the line from a single set formation. The running back is moved into protection. False start on the snap #73.
1st and 15 at Arkansas 15
The formation shows a single set back, two receivers split wide and one in the slot. Mallett stands in the shotgun and hands off to the back for a gain of three.
2nd 12 at Arkansas 18
Shotgun trips left formation. Mallett takes the snap in the gun and makes two further (unnecessary?) long strides backwards before throwing underneath to Jarius Wright for a gain of 13 and a first down. Easy throw in soft coverage allowing receiver to get yards after the catch. Ball placement and pace is good, decision is quick enough to allow Wright time to catch, turn and move upfield.
1st and 10 at Arkansas 31
Single set back formation this time with slot receiver on the right hand side. Mallett reads defense and audible’s. Directs traffic before taking the snap under center. Running back toss play for a short gain.
2nd and 7 at Arkansas 34
Empty backfield, 5WR set. Mallett takes snap in the gun and sensing pressure drops back with two further strides. This is too common and sometimes impacts his ability to really set and drive into his throws. His instinct is to drop further back even from the gun, even when there’s no pressure. He passes on his first read and is forced to avoid the blitzing pass rusher Michael Hodges. Mallett keeps his eyes on second target Joe Adams and completes a short pass to the right for a first down.
1st and 10 at Arkansas 43
I Formation with the fullback offset to the strongside. Two receivers split wide. The tight end motions from left to right. Mallett hands off from under center for Knile Davis who dodges three tackles for a big gain on the ground.
1st and 10 at TAMU 12
3WR single set back formation with Mallett under center. Mallett takes play call from the sideline. The playclock appears to restart quickly resulting in a delay of game. Mallett complains briefly to the officials but appears to have a legitimate case.
1st and 15 at TAMU 17
3TE’s in on the play bunched together with one receiver to the left. Single set back. All three TE’s go in motion from left to right. Half back toss for no gain. Mallett under center.
2nd and 15 at TAMU 17
3WR single set back formation. Mallett under center who takes a three step drop on the snap. He plants his front foot nicely and throws quickly to his hot read on a short out route for an eight yard gain. Decent pressure from the interior defensive line doesn’t faze the quarterback. Ball thrown quickly and with precision to allow the receiver to turn upfield and gain extra yards after catch – similar to his pass on second down from his own 18.
3rd and 10 at TAMU 9
Shotgun formation. Mallett takes two further strides again despite starting in the gun. Von Miller rushes off the right edge but is pushed out of the play by the running back. Mallett stands tall in the pocket and throws a medium-pace ball down the middle for a touchdown. Decent coverage on Joe Adams with a corner shadowing and safety support coming across, but the throw had enough juice on it and with good placement.
Adams started in the slot and faked to the outside right. He then runs an inside slant and finds a small window of space, which Mallett executes with perfect placement on the throw through a crowd of bodies.
The reason this touchdown drive and scoring pass stood out for me are two-fold:
1. Mallett doesn’t force any of his throws either downfield or into unnecessary tight coverage. He takes what the defense gives and puts good touch on both completions before the touchdown. The passes were accurate and catch-able balls, he didn’t panic in the pocket and on one occasion was quite comfortable moving away from his first read and taking the second option.
2. The touchdown brought back memories of that missed opportunity against Florida. On this occasion, Joe Adams is nowhere near as open as the full back. He’s run an intelligent route and done well to find some space in a crowded end zone. As soon as Mallett spots Adams has found a window – he decides to pass. Considering there isn’t much room for error and also Mallett’s considerable arm strength, this is the kind of throw where he could be forgiven for laying it out and trying to fit the ball in there.
Instead, he times the pass brilliantly (without the need for a cannon) and shows the right touch to get it into Adams perfectly and he reacts before the safety can come across and break it up.
That so easily could have been a wild incompletion a la Florida. What actually happened was a perfect opening drive which set Arkansas’ up for victory.
It’s a small example but I think it expresses at least in some way why I think Mallett made strides in only his second year as a pure starter.