Rakeem Boyd sprang through a wide-open running lane off right tackle two plays into Saturday night’s relatively and ironically critical Razorback game against Kentucky. The junior running back, who’s been a beacon of tenacity and talent in an awful stretch, peeled off 74-plus yards in an instant for a quick Hog lead in a game that had the ol’ “must-win implications.
It was as your average Hog fan would have embraced without hesitation, were it not for the painful fact that how this team starts or finishes or plays in between is totally without correlation to the remainder of the game. There was a fast start on the road that chilled a boisterous night crowd gathered for an SEC Network contest. The Wildcats were paying tribute to the late Jared Lorenzen, the sizable, gregarious, and gun-slinging early aughts QB who memorably tried to will his team to a win in a seven-overtime affair 16 years ago against the Razorbacks. It was actually a very spirited Kentucky football crowd, the type that is normally reserved for the basketball team in Rupp Arena & Galleria, which is of course a AAA farm team for the entire NBA year after year.
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Kentucky looked sort of lost early, but the problem is that Arkansas has redefined the various ways and means of losing. On this particular night, despite stretching out a nice little lead early, the Hogs’ offense was again vanillacized (I’m calling the rights to this one) by Chad Morris and/or Joe Craddock, and more damning, the Razorback defense that fought so hard against Texas A&M looked totally ill-prepared after a bye week. John Chavis is getting plenty of online vitriol for continuing to oversee a defense that will make some really nice plays from time to time and then blow assignments tackles, and what-not the rest of those occasions. It is every bit as maddening to watch some really respectable defensive players like Scoota Harris, Kamren Curl and Jarques McClellion look outclassed on plays, not because of physical or mental lapses on their part, mind you, but schematic failings.
Arkansas, of course, blew this game spectacularly in the end. That initial Boyd touchdown run was punctuated by a lot of terrible drives that went nowhere, and Morris, naturally, sticking with a thoroughly inept Nick Starkel for way, way, way, way, way, too danged long. Ben Hicks amassed more yardage on his first four passing attempts than Starkel had in nearly three quarters of 7-for-19, 41-yard garishness. The Hogs got one great offensive drive together, scored their second touchdown of the night to reclaim the lead late, and you know how the rest of it went: The Wildcats’ desperation mode at quarterback led to wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. getting heavily groomed to play the position for a few days or so and he made Chavis, looking like a frustrated pizzeria owner in a generic sitcom, appear moronic all over again. Final: Wild Blue 24, Simply Red 20.
There were so many facets to this game that pointedly and sickeningly reminded us all why this is indisputably the worst epoch of Razorback football in a history littered with failures of all flourishes. Bad coaching. Bad execution. Bad karma. Bad everything. What used to be more episodic in nature has now become a self-contained maelstrom of drama, disappointment and disgust each week. You don’t have to watch the previous six games of 2019 or any of 2018 to get up to speed; you can watch a single Razorback game, get a full-frontal picture of everything that is wrong within three tortured hours, and then continue or stop at your leisure. The tone rarely changes — it’s black comedy to the hilt — but the jokes always seem fresh.
But you get the stark sense now that some irreparable damages are being done, what with departures of prized recruits everyone says we have to let Morris “coach up” before a judgment can be rendered about his tenure. And I am not exclusively talking about commitments. Four-star CB Devin Bush, who played a little bit earlier in the year, just bailed right on out before the leaves turned, as did reserve linebacker DeVon McClure. And why not? When some promising player abandons ship this soon, it IS cause for concern, and NOT cause to castigate the 18-year-old who was sold a bill of goods. Bush came here on the promise that better times were ahead and he’d be a part of it; maybe he was a little impatient, but maybe he also saw absolutely no foreseeable resolution to a cultural problem, and certainly not one on which he desired to waste three to four years of his precious time.
Perhaps nothing is a greater indictment of the program than some really palpable disengagement by some of its usual big backers. The David Bazzels and Marcus Elliotts of the world are visibly and audibly vexed and downcast. Steve Sullivan, as ardent a supporter of state institutions as you’ll find, is flexing some uncharacteristic disapproval by way of social media posts. The whole laissez-faire attitude surrounding Arkansas football in 2019 has trickled down to every source, as the “DriveTime Sports” hosts are now reading vulgar entries from Urban Dictionary without irony on the air and there seems to be nary a soul in the studio to filter out these calls from “Rusty Trombone” and what-not. Hell, it took me five DAYS to write THIS.
I hate that. For all of us who bleed Hog red. I’ve been candid from the get-go about the perspective of this column: I’m an unabashed fan of Arkansas sports and football is the bellcow. I’m a homer, if you will, and that’s been the point of the piece since the beginning. (And if you are looking for a similar, unvarnished take on things, please do yourself a favor and read the brilliant works of my friend and colleague Trent Wooldridge across social media and blogging platforms.) So, yeah, I’m not exactly objective.
But neither was the late, inimitable Orville Henry. I grew up admiring him like many fledgling or moonlighting sports journalists here. And I’ll never forget his blistering and marvelous opining on the Houston Nutt hiring in 1997, a take that concluded with this pithy masterstroke about the sketchiness of that process: “I am furious.”
(Once again, with feeling)
Me too, Orville. Me too.