Arkansas was predicted in this space to dispatch Eastern Illinois by a routine 38-point margin a few weeks ago, and the Hogs dutifully and nearly exacted that spread with a 55-20 win to open the 2018 campaign. The Panthers weren’t hapless, boasting a fine receiver named Alexander Hollins, who was responsible for all three touchdowns, and they accordingly had a good overall day throwing the ball against a fairly vanilla coverage deployed by defensive coordinator John Chavis. As predicted, the Chief didn’t get too exotic in his Razorback debut, knowing a base 4-3 defense would be a source of adaptation enough for a squad that disastrously flirted with a 3-4 scheme a year ago under Paul Rhoads.
What Arkansas lacked in pizzazz, it made up for with clean play generally. The Hogs had only four penalties and no turnovers, compared to five lost fumbles for EIU, and they converted a healthy seven of 15 tries on third down. Quarterback Ty Storey was pretty brilliant off the bench early to give a somewhat listless offense some spark, but Cole Kelley came back on the field late to close out a reasonably accurate and productive — if short — outing in his own right. The postgame consensus among Hog fans was that Storey wildly outperformed expectations and that Kelley’s days as a starter were numbered, but I didn’t see things that way.
Kelley made a few nice tosses, but primarily in the early going he was clearly not being asked to do much downfield work. One of his incompletions, for instance, was a curl route before the Hogs’ opening field goal that looked like it was a surefire interception for the Panthers, but the reality is that Kelley threw the ball well and his receiver did him no favors by failing to come back to the ball with assertiveness. Storey benefited from a few higher-risk throws paying off, but realistically, the running game was the albatross for the Hog offense. With only 80 aggregate yards on the ground and barely over 2 yards per carry, it wasn’t an effective means of game management for the offense all day, and that meant Storey and Kelley needed to fling it some.
The encouraging thing? The Hogs amassed 55 points without looking all that imposing offensively. The defense played a huge role in that with the fumble recoveries and returns, with Briston Guidry falling on a loose ball in the end zone for the Hogs’ first TD, and Bumper Pool later returning a fumble 60 yards inside the 5 to set up another score. Opponent caliber notwithstanding, ringing up a plus-5 turnover ratio was big, and it was a function of the Hogs’ defense swarming to the ball and ruthlessly snatching it away from ball carriers.
That’s the kind of effort and discipline that weren’t evident the last couple of years. Arkansas struggled to force turnovers and capitalize on the ones they did extract, so this was a good sign going into the road trip to Colorado Springs, where a beleaguered and already 0-2 Colorado State team awaits. Mike Bobo, the former Georgia quarterback turned playcaller, hasn’t distinguished himself in three seasons (21-20, three bowl losses) after taking over for Jim McElwain, who flamed out at Florida. And the Rams got absolutely pasted by in-state rival Colorado last week, though they do get the benefit of playing in high-altitude conditions to which they, and not the Hogs, are accustomed.
Then again, Arkansas just won its opener against a possible FCS playoff team with ease despite playing in temps that hovered beyond the 130-degree mark at kickoff, at least as far as “turf conditions” are concerned. Conditioning will be an issue as the Hogs go to an unfamiliar state to take on a team they have not seen since 1990, and against which they are unbeaten (3-0) all-time. The Rams got torched by the Buffs a week after losing a close one to Hawaii, but CSU has surrendered 88 points in two games and has turnover issues and a porous secondary. This should be a good recipe for the Hogs to thrive, but the pressure is squarely on Chad Morris to make his first road trip as Head Hog a winning one. Leaving the state has bedeviled the last three Hog coaches in their first true road games.