It says, I suppose, much about Arkansas’s team character that after a couple of the worst football weeks the state's flagship program has ever experienced, the Razorbacks actually competed at Auburn. They had some nice, if limited, moments on offense
, and John Chavis’ defense
played an inspired three quarters
of football, wearing down only a bit in the final minutes from sheer exhaustion.
Arkansas, accordingly and shockingly, dominated a lot of statistical categories, namely quarterback sacks (!), rushing yardage (!!) and time of possession. Hell, teams that practically dominate the ledger in that way don't often lose.
And maddeningly, they do not typically lose in a lopsided fashion. But this team has a nagging tendency to buck trends in the wrong direction.
Just as they took the first trip to Colorado ever and lost control of a certain win, and then let North Texas waltz into Fayetteville and lay an unprecedented beating on them, these Hogs managed to outplay Auburn in most areas and still lose by 31 points, 34-3 in the end. Yes, this all constitutes improvement and cause for hope, even if it does mean that the Tigers have now pasted the Hogs by a combined 116 points the past three seasons amid random, ill-spent cries for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn to “come back home” and take over a program he left twice — as both walk-on player and assistant coach — to land here permanently and salvage a shipwreck.
Malzahn has no interest in that and never has. He played the Hogs for a massive pay raise and thankfully his moribund offense
remains Auburn’s problem, although with a shored-up defense
and competent decision making at quarterback, he’s still got a Top 10-caliber
team. But make no mistake, on Saturday, Sept. 22, his Tigers looked thoroughly demure at best in most areas, save one.
And that one facet of the game is where it was decided, almost entirely. Arkansas’s special teams were again a horror show of shanked or returnable kicks, hideous punt protection and coverage, and ineffective field position chess matches. Though the Tigers had three rushing touchdowns and a couple of Anders Carlson field goals, they hardly moved the ball with consistency, and Chad Morris owes Chavis a debt of gratitude for that. Only three times did the Auburn offense
have an offensive play of 15 yards or greater, and had you advised Morris of that development in the pregame colloquy, you might’ve gotten the already-embattled coach to beam widely.
Trouble is, even with quarterback Ty Storey gamely showing heart against a heavy rush and with Rakeem Boyd emerging as the team’s clear top running back, Arkansas has no sense of how to earn dividends off its modest investments. The chorus around the state is that the Hogs simply don’t have the talent, but dumb penalties, poor ball security and inconsistent blocking are not indications thereof. Instead, it’s a product of an innovator trying to innovate rather than adapt, and it gets this kind of net result when the stat sheet tells otherwise.
That is not to mock either Morris or offensive coordinator Joe Craddock for stubbornly square-pegging it when there’s
only round holes to be found. Some of what we saw on Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium was, in fact, Good Football™ that often becomes something far greater as a season progresses if a team can simply get out of its own way. Considering the debacle against North Texas was so extreme, it was almost unfathomable that Arkansas sustained any drives and got any stops, and they did a little of both.
Third downs, ultimately, were the team’s undoing, and that’s why Boyd or Maleek Williams has to take over the very docile running game and start eating up yardage early in a series. Storey was left to scramble a lot when the Tigers brought pressure on those pivotal downs, and as a result, after converting two on a single, fruitless (Connor Limpert whiffed a 40-yard field goal try) drive early, the Hogs only cashed in a single third down the remainder of the game in 14 tries. Combined with the awful field position the punting unit created all night, Auburn was able to make a slugfest look like a cakewalk and give the Hogs a loss in their SEC opener for the eighth consecutive year.
Keep in mind, that last ignominious bit of data encompasses now four total head coaches. Arkansas needs the momentum of a positive league start for once at some point, and Morris and Chavis, though the effort was notable, couldn’t stall that awful skein.