Can Morris keep Hogs engaged despite the losses?

Chad Morris / Photo:

It’s tough to swallow as an Arkansas fan that the Razorbacks played their best game of the season on offense and defense last Saturday, but the outcome was still a 34-3 loss to Auburn.

It’s sad when fans are assigning a pecking order to which losses are better than the others, but at the moment, that is the situation.

Last Saturday’s loss was nothing but embarrassing. Auburn played poorly on offense as head coach Gus Malzahn admitted, and he was probably right that it had much to do with the poor execution on his Tigers’ part as it did what the Razorbacks were doing on defense.

I don’t mean to denigrate the performance of Arkansas’ defense. The unit aquitted itself well based on the lousy circumstances served up to it by the Hogs’ special teams and offense.

Playing on a short field much of the night because of the inept performance by Arkansas’ special teams, the Hogs’ defense fought to the end of the ballgame in a situation where Arkansas defenses wilted the last two seasons against the Tigers.

It no doubt helped to have seniors Dre Greenlaw and Randy Ramsey back at linebacker and defensive end respectively. Both gave Auburn fits along with Scoota Harris, Ryan Pulley, Sosa Agim and others. Defensive coordinator John Chavis and his staff are shaping the Razorbacks up on the defensive side of the ball, but even dominating defenses need more help from the other two phases of the game than what Arkansas’ defense is getting now.

Auburn does have a strong defense, and the Razorbacks, frankly, moved the ball better on the Tigers than I expected. Junior quarterback Ty Storey took a licking, but showed his toughness, durability, and knowledge of head coach Chad Morris’ scheme despite the fact the Hogs could not force their way into the end zone. It would be too much to say that I saw promise in his performance, but there was improvement.

The return of left tackle Colton Jackson to the starting lineup and the moves that came with his return made a difference. Hjalte Froholdt gives the Razorback running game more punch playing left guard than he did at center. Ty Clary reportedly played well enough at center that it appears the Hogs will move forward with the starting lineup that also included Johnny Gibson at right guard and Brian Wallace at right tackle. The more that group practices and plays together, the more effective it should be.

Rakeem Boyd had a solid game at running back, showing a nice combination of speed, power, and hands. Devwah Whaley ran the ball well, too, before being sidelined with an injury. There is some promise in the running game. The more effectively the Razorbacks run the football, the more opportunities there will be in the passing game.

Opportunities in the passing game were limited. Storey was under duress most of the night, going 13 of 31 for 141 yards and an interception. Many of the passes went to running backs and several were short-armed.

Arkansas’ leading receiver from 2017 Jonathan Nance became so frustrated that he bailed on the team, making use of the NCAA’s new rule which allows a player to play in four games and still redshirt. Nance, a senior on schedule to graduate in December, now retains a season of eligibility and can be immediately eligible to play elsewhere as a graduate student.

What can be said about Arkansas’ special teams? Nothing positive. A missed field goal was the least of the problems when you think about Auburn returning a kick-off for a touchdown, blocking a punt, the Razorbacks poor punt coverage, and poor punt average. Special teams breakdowns were complicit in 24 of Auburn’s 34 points.

Morris explained Monday in his press conference that a quality control analyst (Tanner Burns) works up the special teams game plan each week and that the coaching staff spends 15 to 20 minutes a day working on the various aspects of the kicking game.

I’m guessing that time allotment will go up this week?

The indication given from Morris, Chavis, and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock was that the issues come more from the personnel than the scheme. The expectation is to see Arkansas deploy more experienced players on special teams, including starters. Morris also said there were assignment mistakes that can be fixed.

Was there some sunlight coming out of the embarrassing loss to Auburn?

Yes, there was. As long as the offensive line stays healthy and this unit can work together, it should improve. The same with Storey at quarterback.

Arkansas’ defense played well, though I do think Malzahn was being kind to his good buddy Morris by not throwing downfield more in the game.

The key going forward is Arkansas not backsliding in those areas so that Morris and his staff can concentrate more time and effort into other aspects of the game that need to improve. No backsliding.

While I certainly did not anticipate Arkansas losing to both Colorado State and North Texas, I have always believed Arkansas’ season would hinge on the state of the team mentally and physically coming out of the three-game stretch with Auburn, Texas A&M, and Alabama.

Can the Razorbacks improve during these three games and not get too beaten down in the process for that improvement to take hold in the last half of the season?

Texas A&M is nearly a three-touchdown favorite going in to Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, that will be televised by ESPN. The Aggies (2-2, 0-1) are smarting, too, after suffering a 45-23 loss to No. 1 Alabama. However, A&M’s program is not in the disrepair that Arkansas’ is in at the moment.

How hard the Razorbacks play and how long they compete against the Aggies will give an indication of how mentally sound the Hogs are at this juncture of the season. Morris and his staff’s ability to keep this squad mentally engaged despite the circumstances is the key to seeing more improvement.