If coaching clichés have any real-world merit, Arkansas fans, now stewing with a different kind of fervor than they had Saturday afternoon, are hoping this is indeed the “rock-bottom” the program had to hit before it could soar under new coach Chad Morris. As for the moment, it doesn’t feel quite so encouraging.
In an eerily ironic twist, this second game for Morris at the helm closely resembled the one John L. Smith had two weeks into his fateful, interim 2012, and the game Bret Bielema oversaw the following September as he curried favor with a zealous, if marginally disordered supporter base. Smith’s humble 1-0 team was at least preseason Top 10 because of returnees from Bobby Petrino’s Cotton Bowl-winning squad, and marched to a 28-7 and seemingly safe third-quarter lead against lowly Sun Belt foe Louisiana-Monroe, a 30.5-point underdog; by the time the remaining game action unfolded, though, Kolton Browning was scampering into the end zone from 16 yards out on a fourth-down play that cemented the game’s legacy as the program’s most jarring loss ever. It presaged a 52-0 rout by Alabama the following week, especially since quarterback Tyler Wilson had sustained a concussion in the Monroe loss, and what ended up being a horrifyingly bad 4-8, 2-6 season that led to Smith’s ouster and Bielema’s surprising hiring.
Fast forward a year, and Bielema’s charges had authored a quiet but unsatisfying 3-0 record against a soft early schedule. Now these guys had to take their show outside the state with an injured starting quarterback (Brandon Allen) shelved, and backup A.J. Derby could only serviceably perform in the cavernous field at Piscataway, N.J. Still, the Hogs had taken a 24-7 lead on Rutgers and had a clean nonconference slate in the crosshairs, which might well have given them the necessary mojo to finish out a conference game or two later. Instead, special teams and defensive breakdowns, and Jim Chaney’s conservative offense, permitted a big comeback by the Scarlet Knights that would be the first of nine straight losses to end Bielema’s miserable opening year in Fayetteville.
So that leads us to what happened just shy of five years later in Colorado Springs, where Morris was hoping to get a road win against allegedly hapless Colorado State, already 0-2 and yielding 44 points per game in losses to Hawaii and Colorado. It was all going to plan for three rough-and-tumble quarters: Arkansas’s beleaguered defense held the Rams to three field goals in the first half while the offense ran the ball masterfully, consuming chunks of yardage with Devwah Whaley, Rakeem Boyd and Chase Hayden doing the work. After taking one ineffective cog — Ty Storey (5-13-2 36 yards) — out of the game, Cole Kelley came in and promptly threw his prettiest ball as a Hog quarterback, a 25-yard score to LaMichael Pettway in the back corner of the end zone, to push the Hogs up 20-9 early in the third; one possession later, Kelley threw a shorter pass for longer results, a shovel to T.J. Hammonds on an end-around that turned into a 64-yard score. Arkansas led 27-9 and looked poised to run the Rams ragged.
The devil would not bow its head and concede defeat, thanks largely to Morris’ own inexplicable decision-making on a fourth-and-1 at midfield to start the fourth quarter. The Rams had done precious little to intimidate the Razorback offense and Whaley, in the midst of a career night, or Kelley’s 6-foot-7 frame could’ve simply flopped for a first down. Instead, Morris punted, and the decision was such a functionally play-not-to-lose one that even CBS Sports’ color commentator, Aaron Taylor, who personally witnessed the program’s highlight of the last five years when he and Carter Blackburn called the miraculous Hunter Henry heave at Oxford in 2015, couldn’t hold his tongue.
As the night wore on, Taylor fell back on that second-guessing often. Arkansas’s offense was stymied by itself and a resurgent Ram defense as its own offense went into fugue state. The Rams’ two TDs, a two-point conversion, and a short field goal had tied it late in the fourth at 27, but Arkansas didn’t even look interested in trying to recollect itself for a rally, and Colorado State ended up scoring in the final seconds to cement a 25-point rally for a 34-27 win. The Hogs now limp back home, unsure of what they have, but Morris has the biggest lesson to learn: Don’t play safe when the circumstances dictate aggression. He paid the iron price for a game his players deserved to win.