“Boy, that was impressive.”
— No one, Arkansas, evening of Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019
This laughable notion that Arkansas football is morphing toward better days ahead persists for some, I guess.
Chad Morris bragged of the speed with which his offense would operate. There was this incredulous moment at which the used and dingy Buick Skylark that represents Razorback football would suddenly veer into the passing lane and the Skylark would accelerate appreciably. You know, as if a blunt instrument was hitting the Earth with force. You might remember a certain prior Hog coach who spouted off some sort of huckstering nonsense about how he was presiding over the construction of a national champion, and then John L. Smith became infamous for equating urine temperature with success.
To be fair, I don’t think Morris is a huckster or a goon or anything; I just worry that he may not be the right guy, yet again, to reshape things in Fayetteville. What all this farcical salesmanship has netted after 13 games: 10 losses, generally most of the hideous variety, and three wins against the likes of a historically mediocre Tulsa team and now two FCS also-rans, the latest being those ragtag scrappers from Portland State, which boasts Neil Lomax and Julius Thomas as its most notable football alums. The Vikings have a losing record as a program and have never made many ripples nationally.
And that’s not to demean them. As Coastal Carolina did against this beleaguered and floundering program two seasons ago, Portland State marched into Fayetteville and had essentially the same game plan: stay close, compete and take advantage of mistakes. For damn near the entire game, the Vikings did just that. Arkansas moved the football pretty effectively via the running game — Rakeem Boyd, whose promising 2018 debut ended early thanks to a knee injury, had a fine return with 114 yards and a third-quarter touchdown — and the defense was strong, basically save for one play late that made this game uncomfortably close.
The Hogs were otherwise not passable on offense whatsoever. In particular, starting quarterback Ben Hicks wasn’t impressive in the least, and Morris frustratingly stuck with him for far too much of the game. Nick Starkel made one really hideous throw that resulted in a red zone interception, but the balls he completed were sharper than generally everything that came out of the hand of Hicks, the graduate transfer who set records under Morris’ tutelage at SMU.
Boyd’s performance and a nice first showing for super freshman receiver Treylon Burks were the sole sources of encouragement on that side of the ball. The vaunted “tempo” of Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock’s unit was notoriously absent all day, and in fact, the team looked utterly lethargic and at times confused. The offensive line, believed to be the weakest segment on possibly the entire team, actually did an admirable job of pass protection (only one sack was allowed) and opening modest but navigable lanes for Boyd and, on a couple of occasions, Devwah Whaley and Chase Hayden. On the defensive side, the Hogs snared three interceptions, which already is more than halfway to the team’s entire woeful 2018 production, and McTelvin Agim and Kamren Curl had two sacks each.
But it was an absolutely listless and largely inexcusable performance before a clearly distant collection of (allegedly) 60,000-plus. Sure, it’s a hot day and a soft opponent, but the first impression this team left is decidedly not favorable. The SEC suffered a lot of bruises in the first full week of the season — Wyoming ousted Missouri, Memphis took down Ole Miss and Georgia State went to Knoxville and pinned a stunning loss on the Vols — so Arkansas’s win should not be taken for granted at all. On the whole, it was sort of an ugly first Saturday of college football in 2019, and maybe that’s a sort of disturbing trend. Not very many fans genuinely want to watch these pay-for-play games between seemingly mismatched squads, but it’s starting to look like many of the purportedly stronger teams are disinterested, too.
Arkansas absolutely looked that part Saturday afternoon. Hicks failed to complete half his passes and would have had far worse numbers if the receivers had not made a couple of nifty catches of some poorly-thrown ducks. It is hard to fathom that he will last much longer as the starter, but maybe all the scrutiny and criticism will motivate him and prove a growing army of skeptics wrong.
The Hogs go to Oxford for a big SEC opener now, and while the Rebels are sore from losing another time to a Memphis team they refuse to acknowledge as a natural rival, they’re going to be feisty and more than a little raw after a bad debut. Morris said after his team nudged to a dubious 1-0 record that he would “never apologize for a win.” And that’s a fair position to take, especially when you have still never beaten a Power-5 school in your head coaching career, but it’s one that won’t play well later in the year if the hammer continues to be gingerly applied.