Incremental improvement key to Razorbacks’ success this season

Arkansas senior kicker Connor Limpert was named SEC Special Teams Player of the Week after he went 2-for-2 in field goal attempts and 7-for-7 in extra point attempts against Colorado State last week. His 54-yard field goal in the first quarter was a tie for the ninth-longest in school history.


There have been times when it would be difficult for a Razorback fan to get excited about a game with an opponent like San Jose State.

The Arkansas Razorbacks (2-1, 0-1 SEC) are expected to defeat the Spartans rather easily at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The SEC Network will televise the game.

The Razorbacks are a 21-point favorite after surging in the fourth quarter to beat Colorado State, 55-34, in a game that was much closer than the final score indicates through much of the game.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. San Jose State
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Sept. 28 – Texas A&M (AT&T Stadium in Arlington)
Oct. 12 – at Kentucky
Oct. 19 – Auburn
Oct. 26 – at Alabama
Nov. 2 – Mississippi State
Nov. 9 – Western Kentucky
Nov. 23 – at LSU
Nov. 29 – Missouri

That’s two Mountain West opponents in a row. Did former Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long get some kind of buy-one, get-one free bargain from the conference? Unfortunately with Long’s track record, he probably paid a premium for the two-game set.

Bad jokes aside, the victory over Colorado State was crucial for a Razorback team that is having to re-learn how to win after the program took an inexplicable downturn under Brett Bielema beginning with the final two games of the 2016 season.

Arkansas was ill-prepared for the opportunity the Hogs had two weeks ago at Oxford, Miss. when they tripped all over themselves in a 31-17 SEC loss to Ole Miss. That game is going to haunt the Razorbacks all season for what might have been different. They lost an SEC game to a team the Razorbacks were fully capable of beating if they had only executed better.

Last week, it seemed a similar situation was developing when the Rams tied the game at 34 in the third quarter. To the Razorbacks’ credit, they turned the game around when senior leaders De’Jon Harris, a linebacker, and McTelvin Agim, a defensive tackle, rallied the Razorbacks for an outstanding fourth quarter.

Both Razorback coach Chad Morris and defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis said the two seniors took ownership of the team — Harris in particular — with leadership their teammates responded to. In that moment, the Hogs went from a coach-led team to a player-led team.

One day we may look back on that moment as a critical one for the 2019 squad, and maybe for the Chad Morris era of Razorback football. We may discern that it was the point when the culture Morris was attempting to establish finally took hold.

It could end up being the foundation-setting moment for Morris’ Razorback football program, or maybe it was just a fleeting moment of inspiration.

It all depends on how this Razorback team builds upon it. That starts Saturday night against the Spartans.

Will Hog fans see a team that’s straining to improve, or will the squad overlook San Jose State and continue to make errors that make fourth-quarter rallies against an inferior opponent necessary?

We’ll see.

Thus far, the Spartans haven’t shown the type of running game to gash opponents, but they haven’t played the Razorbacks, yet, either. The Razorbacks are giving up 177 rushing yards a game – a lot of that in big chunks, like the 75-yard touchdown run by CSU on the second play of the game. The Trojans like to pass the ball, averaging 457 yards through the air and 136 on the ground.

The Razorbacks have to shore up run fits before they return to SEC play, or league teams will eat them alive. Admittedly, that’s hard to do when half your defensive end and linebacker rotation is banged up or injured.

There is no way to control injuries, other than not playing, but a key goal for this week — other than winning — has to be staying as healthy as possible.

One way to reduce the risk is to deploy more players, but the only way for more backups to get in the game is for the Razorbacks to get far enough ahead that the coaches feel comfortable in playing guys who have yet to prove they are ready.

The only way for the Hogs to build that kind of lead is for the starters on both sides of the ball to execute at a proficiency we’ve not seen them do this season.

The onus is on the coaches and players to mesh like they have yet to do under Morris for an entire game. Maybe the boost of confidence the Razorbacks gained by blowing open the Colorado State game will help them focus and play more consistently?

Until the Razorbacks begin to play consistently, it’s hard to believe they will. That’s why even with the improvement we’ve seen this season, it’s still hard to see them competing week-in and week-out in the SEC.

However, if the squad continues to show incremental improvement, maybe there will be an opportunity for a true breakthrough in the SEC this year. It sure would be nice to stop having to mention a SEC losing streak, which is up to 12 games now and stretches over three seasons.

Two aspects that encourage me about the Hogs is that they are opportunistic on defense, and the offensive line has played incrementally better each week.

The Razorbacks don’t have the depth, talent, or experience to be a truly dominating defense in the SEC. However, they have shown the knack for being opportunistic.

Scoring defensive touchdowns in back-to-back games against Ole Miss and Colorado State might be the most impressive team accomplishment so far this season. The Razorbacks are tied at 15th in the nation in turnover margin at + 1.33, which is third in the SEC behind Alabama at + 2.33 and Mississippi State at + 1.67. If the Razorbacks can keep forcing turnovers at the at rate, it can make up for a lot of mistakes.

The improvement in the play of Arkansas’ offensive line is encouraging. Despite dealing with injuries and jostling positions because of them, the line has performed better each week. Now, Colorado State did not have an SEC-caliber defensive front, but from tackle to tackle, Arkansas’ O-line meshed better against the Rams than it has under Morris and offensive line coach Dustin Fry. When a unit shows consistent improvement, you know it’s moving in the proper direction.

Morris explained that the Hogs are using junior college transfer Myron Cunningham as a utility man to spell Dalton Wagner and Colton Jackson at right and left tackle to help all three remain fresh. Austin Capps and freshman Ricky Stromberg will man the guard positions. It’s possible Cunningham might play some there, too. Razorback center Ty Clary, who was named to Pro Football Focus’ National Team of the week, played his best game as a Razorback, Morris said. Pro Football Focus also recognized Arkansas’ entire offensive line for the website’s eighth-ranked performance of the week for its play against Colorado State.

Another week of that group working together should only help them before diving back into SEC play against Texas A&M Sept. 28 at the Arlington in the Southwest Classic. The trenches are always a grind in SEC play, but the more this group can play together, the more effective they should be. Weekly improvement by the offensive line and the rest of the squad could be the difference in squeezing into a bowl game at the end of the year or not.

With improved offensive line play, Arkansas’ offensive production has picked up weekly. Tailbacks Rakeem Boyd (55 carries for 303 yards) and Devwah Whaley (20 carries for 104 yards) seem to be finding a groove with quarterback Nick Starkel (44-64-1, 554 yards) backing defenses up with his arm.

Starkel’s doing a nice job of quickly distributing the ball to playmakers like tight end C.J. O’Grady (6 receptions, 199 yards), and receivers Treylon Burks (9 receptions for 172 yards), Trey Knox (13 receptions for 216 yards), and Mike Woods (13 receptions, 24 yards) and should only get more comfortable playing with that group.

Saturday the Razorbacks should win, giving Morris his first back-to-back victories at Arkansas. The victory would give the Hogs one more win than last year and half the victories they need to become bowl eligible with two-thirds of the season left to play.

That’s improvement, and after expecting too much the first two weeks of the season, and too little against Colorado State, I’ll take it.