Curing Arkansas’ special-teams woes key to scoreboard success

Senior Hjalte Froholdt was named a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, an award recognizing an individual as the absolute best football scholar-athlete in the nation.


Earlier in the week, first-year Arkansas coach Chad Morris said losing will never be accepted in his program and that he doesn’t believe in moral victories.

What I’ve learned is that when a coach says they don’t believe in moral victories there usually is a “but” that follows. Then the coach goes about claiming a moral victory even though he doesn’t categorize it as one.

Morris followed his “but” this week by mentioning the play of Arkansas’ defense and how much the offense improved in moving the football against Auburn’s legitimately strong SEC-caliber defense. That was true. Arkansas’ defense did fight its guts out at Auburn under some bad circumstances not of their own making, and Arkansas did move the ball enough to boast more offensive production than Auburn.

However, losing 34-3 to Auburn or to any other team is nothing but a butt whipping. The idea of mentioning a moral victory shouldn’t have even sprung into Morris’ mind.

The Razorbacks’ special teams played so poorly that the Razorbacks had no chance to win the game no matter how well the offense and defense played. Giving up a blocked punt and a kick-off return for a touchdown is more than enough to lose most football games, but there were breakdowns in nearly every area of special teams. Arkansas’ special teams play has been poor all season.

But, that’s old news, right? The Auburn game is in the books. The Hogs (1-3) play the Texas A&M Aggies (2-2) in the Southwest Classic at 11 a.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Again, that’s true, but the point of bringing up the Auburn game again is that the Razorbacks have to stop embarrassing themselves on special teams before they can even start worrying about “not claiming a moral victory” and more importantly begin to think about winning a football game.

Improvement on special teams is the key thing I’m looking for by the Razorbacks on Saturday. Until the Hogs are at least sound on special teams, their opportunity to win a SEC football game is sleight.

A&M’s first-year head coach Jimbo Fisher also talked about moral victories this week after No. 1 Alabama defeated the Aggies, 45-23. While few will admit to believing in moral victories, that’s at least in the ballpark of what the term means.

Texas A&M’s 28-26 loss to No. 3 Clemson is a perfect example of what a moral victory is. The Aggies almost played well enough to win against what was considered a superior opponent.

Personally, I don’t really have a problem with the term “moral victory,” if it fits. It’s just a descriptive term, not an indictment of a team, coach, or player’s desire to win.

Arkansas is a three-touchdown underdog to the Aggies going into the game. If the Hogs play a sound football game, and Texas A&M wins by a touchdown or less, as a Hog fan, I wouldn’t mind if someone tagged it a moral victory. I’d just be thrilled with the progress the team made.

A close game Saturday would be a tangible sign of progress based on the last three games. That and other criticism may seem a bit harsh, but it’s not. If the Razorbacks are going to regain their dignity as a football team losses to Colorado State and North Texas have to remain embarrassing and so does a more than four-touchdown loss to Auburn.

While it may be unreasonable for Arkansas fans to expect the Hogs to make a bowl game this season after such an awful start, it is not unreasonable for them to expect the Hogs to play sound in the kicking game.

Morris explained Wednesday night on his radio show that the issues sprang up when the Hogs began to substitute players on special teams as the game progressed. I don’t doubt that, but Auburn came hard to block a punt early in the football game. The Tigers were inches away from blocking a Razorback punt before finally getting one. To me that indicates Auburn’s staff saw something on film they felt they could exploit. Whether that was a weakness in personnel, scheme, or alignment, I’m not sure.

Coaches shouldn’t be expected to break down their team’s weaknesses or diagnose the cure in public, but considering Arkansas’ special teams play has been shoddy all season, I suspect the Razorbacks’ issues extend beyond personnel.

Morris said earlier in the week the special teams problems can be fixed. Let’s hope he, his staff and the Hogs get the job done because Arkansas is making it way too easy on their opponents with their bumbling special teams play and way too hard on themselves. Until the kicking-game issues are fixed, the improvement on offense and defense won’t really matter.

Sound play on special teams is what I’m looking for from the Razorbacks this week against the Aggies. If that happens whatever improvement the Hogs make in the other two phases of the game will have a much better chance of showing up on the scoreboard rather than just on the stat sheet.