Razorbacks’ offense continues to sputter as big game with Ole Miss looms on the horizon

I know as a Razorback fan the best thing for me to do is to look forward to Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game with Ole Miss rather than wallow in the details of last week’s season-opening victory over Portland State.

A win is a win as second-year Arkansas coach Chad Morris reminded us in a very defensive manner in the press conference following the game.

Like most of the 61,055 in attendance and the rest of the Razorbackers who tuned in via TV or radio, the game didn’t go as expected despite the 20-13 final. Arkansas was a four-touchdown favorite, and some felt like that was too little.

Please forgive us for our overzealousness. It was the first game and expectations clearly got out of hand.

But don’t ever ask Morris to apologize for a victory. He let us know that he’s never going to do that in his opening statement to the media, as if anyone was really going to ask for one?

Maybe it was a reference back to his last postgame media conference where he did basically apologize for the Hogs’ performance in a 38-0 loss to Missouri, calling it unacceptable. Maybe not, but it was just odd and defensive start to a press conference for a coach that was pretty much given a free pass by fans and media for one of the worst seasons in Razorback history.

Morris was clearly ticked off by the performance of his offense following Saturday’s game. Arkansas did move the ball on Portland State but had too many mistakes and blown assignments to convincingly put away the Vikings early. That happens to many teams in opening games.

I much preferred the demeanor of the Razorback players after the game, particularly quarterback Ben Hicks, who had a mediocre day at best, completing 14-of-29 passes for 143 yards.

Hicks, who didn’t throw an interception or a touchdown, matter of factly said the Hogs would study the game film, make corrections, and move forward. He said the Razorbacks’ youngish receivers would learn what college football is all about during that process, and firmly said the Razorbacks will play better against Ole Miss. He also credited the defense for forcing three turnovers and made the point that it is the offense’s duty to cash in on those bonus possessions.

While the graduate transfer’s performance in the game wasn’t sterling, his leadership following it made me understand a little more of what Morris and Arkansas offensive coordinator Joe Craddock see in him.

The instant evaluation of many fans following the game was that Hicks and Arkansas are not talented enough to find success in the SEC with a dink-and-dunk passing game that we say on Saturday. Admittedly there were two completed passes — a screen and one to the flats between two defenders — that I thought were ripe for interceptions.

Many fans feel it’s time to move on to Nick Starkel, the graduate transfer from Texas A&M, at quarterback. We always seem to love the man in waiting. But Starkel threw an awful interception in the red zone where he obviously didn’t see the linebacker playing underneath, and then botched an opportunity for a field goal late by running a play when he should have spiked the ball to set up the field-goal attempt.

Morris took credit for that mistake because while he was calling for the ball to be spiked, other staffers were signaling to run a play.

That’s a bad place for a quarterback to be in, especially a transfer with a new coach and offensive coordinator, but a true heady quarterback would have known the situation and spiked the ball regardless of the call from the sideline.

But I have say, Starkel’s 38-yard pass to Trey Knox right before the interception may have been the best-looking ball thrown by a Razorback dating back to Ryan Mallett.

I’m in agreement with others who feel freshman quarterback K.J. Jefferson (6-3, 228) needs to be put on the fast track. There might be a role he can play this year to help get the ball on the corner, and if this season does go to pot, the grooming for a possible starting role next year needs to happen.

It was wise for Morris to go ahead and announce Hicks as the starter for Ole Miss after the victory to cut off some speculation this week, but the quarterback competition appears to be ongoing. That is a disappointment after the unsuccessful merry-go-round with Ty Storey and Cole Kelley through the first four games of last year. Being unsettled at QB two years in a row raises questions.

While there certainly is promise with young receivers like Knox and Treylon Burks, the best thing the Razorbacks’ offense has going for them at the moment is running back Rakeem Boyd. Once Morris and Craddock finally realized it was legal to run Boyd on back-to-back plays in the third-quarter, the Hogs went on the game-winning drive.

As for the offensive line, Morris credited them for playing well. Hicks and Starkel mostly played with a clean pocket, and Boyd went for 114 yards on 18 carries. Arkansas probably should have leaned on the running game more early to wear the Vikings down.

The return of senior tight end C.J. O’Grady this week should give the offense a boost no matter who is playing quarterback. Morris praised Chase Harrell for his blocking at tight end, but his three drops on four targets were costly. Two of those drops would have extended drives, and Harrell might have scored on one of them.

Defensively, several penalties marred what was a solid first-game performance. Penalties revved up Portland State’s offense on their fourth-quarter scoring drive, and a penalty set up a field-goal drive on their first possession. That can be cleaned up and needs to be. Arkansas played aggressive up front and in the secondary. Six sacks and three interceptions is a good day against any opponent.

Defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis and ends coach Steve Caldwell have to shore up assignments for back-side containment, but Portland State quarterback Davis Anderson was a nifty scrambler and tough customer.

My biggest question about the defense was how well would the youngish secondary play. They looked solid last Saturday. Kamren Curl is the first safety in a while to remind me that Arkansas has a great tradition of play-making safeties.. The one worry was the starters played most of the game. The starters will wear down over the course of the season, if the backups can’t lend more of a hand.

Looking forward to Ole Miss and beyond, I’m not sure what to think. The good thing is that improvement can be made, but will it be enough to put Arkansas in a bowl game?

We’ll know more about that after Saturday’s game in Oxford, Miss. The Rebels (0-1) weren’t that impressive — particularly offensively — in a 15-10 loss against what might end up being a top-25ish Memphis squad in November. The Rebels weren’t particularly impressive offensively; although holding a usually high-scoring Tiger squad to 15 points is notable.

But it’s obvious the Rebels weren’t that impressed by Arkansas either. The Rebels’ notes package, compiled and provided by the Rebels’ sports information department, posted on Arkansas’ website Tuesday morning has the Razorbacks listed 0-1, despite the Hogs’ 20-13 win over Portland State.

Hopefully the team will similarly overlook the Razorbacks on Saturday in a game that stacks up to be critically important for both’s quest to become bowl eligible. This game might be the biggest game in Morris’ and Rebel coach’s Matt Luke’s short tenures at the two programs.

Popular thought in the summer is that the loser of this game would be scraping the bottom of the SEC West barrel, and based on the outcomes of last Saturday’s games, nothing happened that would sway that opinion.

I like that Boyd admitted following last Saturday’s game that he’s looking for redemption of sorts against the Rebels. After rushing for more than 100 yards in the first half, Boyd was sidelined with a back injury and watched from the sidelines as Ole Miss drove 99 yards for the game-winning touchdown in a 37-33 victory.

Morris called his offensive game plan for Portland State intentionally vanilla. Hopefully, he’s planning to bring a bag full of flavor with him to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday. I’m beginning to wonder if he realizes that he was hired to bring some excitement back to Razorback football. Excitement in most fans eyes means points.

Ole Miss is a seven-point favorite, but this game is one that will be won more on desire than the difference in talent.

The Razorbacks wasted an opportunity to make a favorable impression to its fans in the season opener. Maybe, they were saving it up for Ole Miss and their SEC opener?

If the Hogs can win Saturday, all the worries about the Portland State game will be forgotten.