When starting quarterback Cole Kelley came back onto the field to start the second half, he was met with a chorus of boos from the Arkansas Razorback fans that were still left in the stands. It was September 15, the third week of the season, and the Razorbacks were down 34-10 to the North Texas Mean Green. At the end of the day, Cole Kelley would complete just 16 of 35 attempts, throwing four interceptions as Arkansas would be blown out at home by a score of 44-17- their second loss to a non-Power 5 conference opponent of the season.
Coming off of a 4-8 season in 2017, Razorbacks fans had high expectations for improvement. In December, Arkansas hired former SMU coach Chad Morris to replace Bret Bielema, who was fired literally moments after the season ended. Despite a 14-22 record in his three years at SMU, Arkansas fans were generally optimistic about the hiring of Morris, especially considering his recruiting connections in Texas. And while SMU’s record under Morris looks like nothing to write home about, he took a program that went 1-11 in 2014 and improved them to 5-7 in 2016 and 7-5 in 2017. That’s exactly what Arkansas is looking for: steady improvement. Morris inherited a program that went 29-34 in five seasons under Bielema, including a lousy 11-29 record against SEC opponents.
Morris and his team hoped to go into their Week 4 conference opener with a 3-0 record and a fresh supply of confidence. Unfortunately for the Hogs, their season has gotten off to a messy start.
The season opener against Easter Illinois went well, as Arkansas pummeled the Panthers 55-20. Junior QB Ty Storey came off the bench and posted an impressive 12-for-17 completion rate with 261 yards, three passing touchdowns and one rushing TD. The defense dominated too, forcing six fumbles and sending the Razorbacks away with a win and a full supply of confidence.
That confidence didn’t last long. Arkansas faced Colorado State on the road and held a 13-point lead going into the 4th quarter, until the Rams rallied from 18 points down to claim the come-from-behind victory. Colorado State was a 13-point underdog in this game, but they sure didn’t look like it. Their defense provided constant pressure and picked up two interceptions, holding both Arkansas QB’s to a combined 11 total completions. Needless to say, the Razorbacks were in trouble, but they looked to rebound in Week 3.
Instead, more stunning disappointment would come for Chad Morris and his team. Arkansas faced a North Texas team that hadn’t defeated an SEC team in over 40 years. The Hogs never had the lead, and they were blown out at home 44-17. Perhaps the most notable play of the game was the 1st quarter punt return touchdown on a fake fair catch. As returner Keegan Brewer caught the ball on the 10 yard line, he slowly began walking as if heading back to the sidelines. As soon as he walked past two Arkansas defenders, he took off down the left sideline for a 90-yard touchdown. No fair catch whistle was ever blown, and an official review showed that Brewer never signaled for a fair catch. This would be the worst of many embarrassing plays for the Razorbacks, as they fell to 1-2 on the season. The quarterback struggles continued as Cole Kelley threw 4 interceptions, and backups Connor Noland and John Stephen Jones each threw another. The team played so poorly that the home crowd at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium- at least, those who hadn’t left- booed the team, and specifically QB Cole Kelley. This was not the way that they wanted to start the season, especially with a tough matchup the following week on the road against a #7 Auburn team.
Driving to work in downtown Little Rock, I occasionally turn on the local ESPN radio station and listen to fans call in to talk about their Hogs. I will say this about Arkansas fans: They’re loyal, and many continue to be optimistic despite the team’s troubles. While there was plenty of talk about the embarrassment against North Texas and the disaster that the season seemed to be so far, there were still many who called in to predict a Razorback upset road victory against Auburn in the coming weekend.
I hope those people didn’t put money on those predictions, because Auburn took care of Arkansas 34-3. The name of the game for Arkansas was mistakes and penalties. Arkansas drew brutal penalties for 12 men on the field, illegal substitution, and illegal formation, all of which helped hold Arkansas scoreless in the first half. In addition to the penalties, the special teams seemed to fall apart in this one, allowing a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a partially blocked punt which would lead to another Auburn score. One positive on the Arkansas side was the fact that the defense held Auburn to 91 rushing yards.
While no team can feel good about losing, a loss to a top-10 ranked team may be an easier pill to swallow than a blowout loss to a non-power 5 conference opponent. However, the fact remains that Arkansas is now 1-3 at this point in the season, when they likely expected to be 3-1. And the path through the SEC does not get easier for the Hogs, who are in last place in the West. They face a 2-2 Texas A&M team at AT&T Stadium in Arlington this weekend, and then welcome #1 Alabama to Fayetteville the week after. The only non-conference game remaining is their matchup against Tulsa on October 20, but as the Hogs have already learned this season, non-conference games aren’t automatic wins. Their best chances to get another win this season will likely be that game against Tulsa, or their October 27 matchup against Vanderbilt, who has been one of the weaker SEC teams of late.
It’s hard to pin the Razorbacks’ struggles on one single factor. There has been little consistency at the Quarterback position, as Chad Morris has been alternating between Ty Storey and Cole Kelley at starter. Through four games, Storey is 17-for-30 for 297 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Kelley’s numbers: 31-for-56 for 379 yards, three touchdowns, and four interceptions. Connor Noland and John Stephens Jones have also seen minimal playing time at QB as well. Neither Storey nor Kelley have been absolutely horrible, but neither has been great either.
The defense has allowed 33 points per game, which is consistent with the past two years, but things are actually trending upward. They held Auburn to an average of 2.5 yards per rush, and have 9 sacks already, which puts them on pace to have more sacks per game than any season since 2013. It’s the special teams units that have been a disappointment so far. Chad Morris called the special teams’ performance “unacceptable,” mentioning that the Razorbacks put a lot of emphasis on special teams in weekly practices.
To add to the Hogs’ troubles, their leading receiver in 2017, Jonathan Nance, announced early this week that he is intending to transfer. Last season, as Arkansas’ biggest deep threat, Nance finished with 37 receptions, 539 receiving yards and five touchdowns. This year has been a different story (no pun intended), as Nance has barely seen any playing time. He has one catch for -2 yards. There’s no doubt that playing time is Nance’s motivation, stating that he will “transfer in December to fulfill my dream to play football.”
The 2018 Arkansas football season has no doubt been a disappointment thus far, especially considering the expectations for first-year coach Chad Morris. Any season with two losses to non-power 5 conference teams is sure to bring frustration, anxiety, and many questions. However, there is still two-thirds of the season left to play. Things could change, and the season could be salvaged. Additionally, Chad Morris signed a six-year deal. He still has plenty of time to turn this team around, especially when his first recruiting class arrives on campus.
So be patient, Hog fans. I know it’s hard, but sometimes you have to suffer through a rebuilding period to get your team to a championship. Until that time, keep on flying those Razorback flags and wearing the cardinal and white.
I live in Arkansas; believe me: this won’t be a problem.