How will Hogs respond to botched effort at Ole Miss

There’s an old saying among college football coaches that every freshman a team starts will end up costing that team a game.

It’s a generalization that probably never was exactly true and is less so today for a myriad of reasons; however, when you are counting on young and/or inexperienced linemen and defensive backs, that saying might not be as antiquated as we’d like to think.

We saw a lot of mistakes grow out of inexperience last Saturday in the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 31-17 loss to Ole Miss. Fourteen freshmen played for the Hogs in the loss, including five true freshmen starters.

It would be wrong to say that all the mistakes that mired Chad Morris’ Hogs were committed by young players and inexperienced players, but a preponderance of them were.

Ole Miss made the most out of freshman nickel back Greg Brooks’ inexperience. The young man’s head was on a swivel with what the Rebels threw at him. Good offensive coordinators are going to check perceived weak spots in a defense, and if they find a chink in the armor, they are going to attack it until some adjustment is made.

On offense the pressure seemed to get to sophomore offensive tackle Dalton Wagner as the Razorbacks were flailing to catch up in the second half. He broke out of his stance early for a procedure penalty, and later in the same series took a bad step in pass protection and never set his hands on an outside rusher that yielded a sack before quarterback Nick Starkel got set in the pocket.

Mistakes weren’t limited to freshmen, either. On a trick play in the second half Nick Starkel surprised sophomore receiver Michael Woods with a pass. Starkel was supposed to throw to the opposite side of the field to Treylon Burks, who was then to pass to a wide open C.J. O’Grady.

The initial mistake was all Starkel’s, but a more experienced receiver would have just advanced forward for as much yardage as he could get instead of retreating backwards in an attempt reverse the field and lose 14 yards.

Senior running back Devwah Whaley killed a drive with a fumble on a bungled exchange with Starkel. It appeared Starkel had the ball in the mesh point, but the mistake could be attributed to both.

The misalignment by Burks that ultimately called back freshman Trey Knox’ touchdown reception is a play Arkansas offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said the Hogs had run in practice numerous times. Why Burks didn’t line up in the slot, and why didn’t Starkel or another player alert him and have him back up are chalked up to experience.

All of those and the Razorbacks’ other mistakes combined to trip them up in their effort to upend Ole Miss on their home field.

The anticipation of such mistakes by an inexperienced team in their second game is what had me apprehensive about the Ole Miss matchup being played so early in the season when I first saw the Hogs 2019 schedule.

I had hoped the Rebels would have similar struggles, but Ole Miss’ loss to Memphis in their opener helped them work through some kinks before playing the Hogs, and again home field advantage isn’t make believe, especially for inexperienced squads.

The Razorbacks had their chances with the Rebels. It was a seven-point game in the fourth quarter, but the pressure created by Ole Miss and compounded by the mistakes wore on Arkansas’ offensive and defensive unit.

Was coaching complicit in the loss to the Rebels? Sure, it was. Coaching is key in every victory and every loss.

It is concerning that both of Chad Morris’ teams have opened the season ill-prepared, but the Razorbacks’ inexperience is a mitigating factor. While this is his second season, the overall turnover in student athletes from last year limited the amount of carryover experience, particularly on offense.

While everything counts, including last year’s record, Morris’ Hogs are still on a steep learning curve. There is only so much players can pick up in practice. The true lessons — good and bad — come in games.

Those lessons will continue this week when the Razorbacks play host to Colorado State at 3 p.m. in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.

Immediately following the loss to Ole Miss, Morris said it wasn’t the time to name a starting quarterback for the Colorado State game. He wanted to evaluate the game footage first, and probably have time to talk to Ben Hicks and Starkel about their change in roles.

Morris didn’t even have to announce that Starkel would start. It was in the game notes prepared by Arkansas Sports Information Department.

“It wasn’t what Ben did or didn’t do,” Morris said. “It’s what Nick did.”

What did Starkel do?

Against the Rebels Starkel completed 17 of 24 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown. It wasn’t enough to lead the Razorbacks in a comeback over the Rebels. Too many mistakes by the Razorbacks negated that happening, but Starkel’s arm did give the Hogs a spark, and it did give Razorback fans hope for something better in the future.

Starkel has the type of arm and throws with the type of accuracy that most teams must respect. Squads like Alabama and LSU may still play their safeties down against the Razorbacks, but most other teams won’t. That should allow the Razorbacks a better chance at running the football, giving Arkansas’ offense an opportunity to have a balanced offensive attack.

Balance should allow the Razorbacks to extend more drives and score more points, which is what the defense desperately needs if there is any chance for it to be effective in the fourth quarter.

Last year the Razorbacks’ defense melted down in the fourth quarter against the Rams. The Hogs led 27-9 in the third quarter, but Colorado State rallied to tied the game with 5 minutes left, and put the game away with touchdown run by Izzy Matthews with 8 seconds remaining to wrap up a 34-27 upset.

If the Razorbacks aren’t careful, the Rams (1-1) could upset them again. Arkansas is a 10-point favorite in the game, but I’m not sure the Hogs have accomplished enough to be that kind of a favorite over any Division 1 team this season.

As huge an opportunity as last week’s game at Ole Miss was for the Hogs, this Colorado State matchup became that much bigger. The Razorbacks need to not only improve, but pick victories this week and next against San Jose State.

The Razorbacks can’t afford to fritter away Saturday’s opportunity against an improved Rams football team.

Morris said that Arkansas would not let their first loss of the season lag over into this week. He said this week is about the Razorbacks getting up and responding to that loss.

As always, it will be interesting to see exactly what happens.