Hogs face desperation game against Kentucky

Arkansas offensive coordinator Joe Craddock / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The Arkansas Razorbacks’ open date last week gave the Hogs and their fans alike a breather, and we all needed it.

Five games in, this has already been a stressful season, and the meat of the schedule doesn’t really arrive until Oct. 18 when No. 12 Auburn (5-1) visits Reynolds Razorback Stadium for an 11 a.m. contest that will be telecast by the SEC Network.

The Razorbacks (2-3, 0-2) have had difficulty eating from the SEC equivalent of a child’s plate so far, beating Portland State, 20-13, and Colorado State, 55-34. The three losses ache like coulda, shoulda, and woulda excuses always do.

The coaching staff did not have the team ready for Ole Miss on Sept. 7, but it was a 7-point game on the road in the fourth quarter before a series of Arkansas mistakes allowed Ole Miss to walk away with a 31-17 victory.

The Razorbacks barely showed up to Razorback Stadium on Sept. 21 and choked on a cupcake, falling 31-24 to San Jose State in one of the most embarrassing losses in school history.

Before the open date, the Razorbacks finally decided to play four quarters of football a full month into the season and acquitted themselves well in 31-27 loss to No. 24 Texas A&M.

Arkansas coach Chad Morris said after the game there are no moral victories. That’s true, but if his team had played as hard and as well against the rest of the early season schedule as it did against the Aggies, the Hogs might be 4-1 right now and certainly no worse than 3-2. More importantly they wouldn’t be facing a desperation game at the midpoint of the regular season.

If the Razorbacks want to have a shot at a bowl game, a winning record, and playing meaningful football at any point during the rest of the season, the Hogs need to win at 6:30 p.m. Saturday when they face the Kentucky Wildcats (2-3, 0-3) at Kroger Field in an ESPN-televised contest.

Going into this game, the 2019 Razorbacks still have aspirations for this season, but if the Razorbacks fall Saturday to the Wildcats, the season truly becomes only a building process for next year with the likes of Auburn, Alabama, Mississippi State, LSU, and Missouri awaiting the Hogs. A nonconference game with Western Kentucky looks like a winnable game today, but Arkansas can count on nothing.

Mark Stoops’ Kentucky squad finds themselves in a similar situation, though his Wildcats have a more manageable schedule down the stretch with Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Tennessee Martin, and Louisville as winnable games if Kentucky can get some stability at quarterback.

Quarterback has been the biggest issue for the Wildcats since the third game of the season when a victory over No. 8 Florida slipped through their fingers, 29-21. Original starter Terry Wilson is out with a knee injury and backup Sawyer Smith is struggling with a wrist and shoulder injury that is making it hard for him to throw. There is a very real possibility Lynn Bowden, Kentucky’s star wide receiver, could play under center this week.

Stoops said Monday that the Wildcats, who also enjoyed a bye last Saturday, go into their Arkansas preparation expecting Smith to start. Smith has completed 54 of 117 passes with 4 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.

“So [Smith] took a solid week off, and he needed that,” Stoops said. “And the word I got from our trainer here this morning was that he feels significantly better. So that will be the plan. We’ll see. I’m not trying to withhold any information on you guys. It just is what it is. He’s banged up, you guys know that. You know the other options that we have been working and but we’ll proceed with Sawyer, and anticipate him being the starting quarterback and being able to play this week. So that’s the plan and we’ll see how the week goes.”

However Bowden is eager to take snaps, too.

“Well, any great player wants the game to go through him and the ball to go through him,” Stoops said, “so what better way than quarterback? You touch it every snap. So that doesn’t surprise me. Any playmaker wants the ball and wants the game to go through him.”

Whether Bowden plays quarterback or not, the Razorbacks are going to see a lot of him. Bowden leads the SEC and is 11th nationally in all-purpose yardage per game with an 140-yard average. He leads Kentucky in receiving with 30 catches for 348 yards and a touchdown. He’s completed 3 of 4 passes for 39 yards and has 99 yards on 13 carries. He has 200 yards on 8 kick returns and 53 yards on 3 punt returns.

The Wildcats have an average SEC defense, allowing 24.4 points, 171.2 yards rushing, and 224.6 yards passing per game.

Even with Kentucky’s questionable quarterback situation, the Wildcats are a 7-point favorite at home over the Razorbacks.

Kentucky will also be honoring former quarterback Jared Lorenzen on Saturday. Lorenzen died July 3 from an infection that was complicated by heart and kidney problems at just 38 years old. Nicknamed the Hefty Lefty, Lorenzen looked like a defensive lineman playing quarterback at 6-6, 285 pounds for the Wildcats and for four years with the New York Giants.

He led Kentucky to a 29-17 victory over the Razorbacks in 2002, but is best known to Hog fans for his play in the epic 2003 seven-overtime loss to Arkansas, 71-63, in an overtime quarterback duel with Matt Jones.

“It’s a special day; it’s a special week to remember Jared Lorenzen, and we’re proud to honor him this week,” Stoops said. “One of the most beloved and iconic players to ever play at the University of Kentucky, and it will be an honor for us to recognize him and recognize his family this week. So, just more incentive for us and for our team.”

The Razorbacks’ play on Sept. 28 against the Aggies was encouraging to me as a fan. It was arguably the defense’s best performance of the season against arguably the best team the Hogs have played.

Offensively, the Razorbacks still stumbled over themselves with too many mistakes to win a close ballgame, but the offense moved the ball between the 20s with either Nick Starkel and Ben Hicks at quarterback.

The struggle for Arkansas is punching the ball in for a score once reaching the Red Zone.

Morris squashed a quarterback controversy quickly after the game, saying Starkel remains the starter. With a year of eligibility left after this season, Starkel is the logical choice of QB to build around if he can get his interception issue under control. He threw away the game against San Jose State with five interceptions, and threw a pick in the red zone against the Aggies on the same play the sent him out of the game with an arm injury.

It will be interesting to see how Starkel performs at Kentucky and whether Hicks will get playing time off the bench.

Starkel’s arm is formidable when throwing to the right color, but Hicks, though not exactly nimble, looked better rolling out and buying time with his feet against the Aggies.

Many fans want to see freshman K.J. Jefferson, who is very athletic, but offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said Monday that the young man continues to work through mechanical issues with his throwing arm, and just isn’t yet ready to play on Saturdays.

It’s difficult to project a game when every quarterback on both teams is a question mark. At this moment, the Kentucky game looks like the most winnable SEC game remaining on the Razorbacks’ schedule.

However, based on what we’ve seen from Morris’ Arkansas teams over the last year and a half, it’s hard to have confidence that the Hogs will be capable of taking advantage of the situation.