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Monday, October 8, 2018

Bright spots for Hogs after a thrashing

Posted By on Mon, Oct 8, 2018 at 2:02 PM

click to enlarge HEAD HOG: Chad Morris
  • HEAD HOG: Chad Morris
Yielding 65 points to the nation’s unquestioned elite would not normally allow a coach to effuse much pride or confidence, but Arkansas Coach Chad Morris, in the wake of another thrashing by Alabama, still was able to check some boxes in the blowout loss. There’s accordingly a sporting chance to win games in the back half of a season that once seemed destined for infamy.

No Arkansas running back had crested the 100-yard mark against the Tide since Darren McFadden — who, mind you, is now retired — did it in a 2007 loss at Tuscaloosa during Nick Saban’s first season as Crimson Tide coach. That game also represented the last time the Hogs scored more than 30 points against Alabama in a game until this Saturday, when Connor Limpert’s PAT after a final score pushed the Razorback ledger past that mark (the Hogs did lose 49-30 in a shootout of sorts in 2016 thanks to Austin Allen’s 400-yard game). Rakeem Boyd bolted for 102 yards on only 15 runs to break the former skein, and the Hog offense looked more creative and spirited generally.

Cheyenne O’Grady had another quality outing as Ty Storey’s safety valve, catching a career-best seven balls for 48 yards and two touchdowns, one of which came on a gimmick goal-line play where Cole Kelley deked the defense into thinking he was barreling forward and instead flicked a short throw to the junior tight end as he got behind a linebacker. If O’Grady and his fellow healthy tight ends, Grayson Gunter and Austin Cantrell, can continue to be reliable outlets for Storey, it may dissuade some aggressive defensive coordinators from being quite so zealous with the pass rush.

As for Storey, what else can you say? In unthinkably difficult circumstances, the redshirt junior quarterback again showed mettle in posting career-best completion and attempt figures while accounting for two fine TD passes. The drawback of the day, sadly, was that when the Hogs registered a big fourth-down stop and took two plays to get inside the Tide 5, trailing only 21-7, Storey made a desperate lunge for the goal line on a designed run and got popped right on the ball. The ensuing fumble was smothered by the Tide, and that absurd Bama offense led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa went on a 99-yard march the other direction to re-establish control.

Storey later was victimized by a bad bounce for a pick-six, and had an early lost fumble as well, but given all attendant factors, the young man was tough and composed yet again, and delivered some truly excellent balls to both open and well-covered targets. Most encouraging of all in the passing game? Against a fiendishly athletic, if somewhat untested, Alabama secondary, Storey was able to locate 10 different receiving options for his 25 completions.

The Razorback special teams also posted a mostly error-free day, even if Reid Bauer’s punts weren’t exceptional and Limpert elected to pooch-kick after Arkansas scores to mitigate Alabama’s dynamic speed. Speaking of that, for all the obscene talent Saban has amassed these past few seasons, it seemed cruel to deploy a receiver like Jerry Jeudy against the Hogs’ rather shallow secondary. On a couple of occasions, the Tide’s sophomore receiver — the latest in a lineage that has boasted Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Amari Cooper — was inexplicably settling into a deep curl route 20 yards from the line just as Tagovailoa had settled into the last step of a three-step drop.

Tagovailoa throws a beautiful, precise ball and turns all of his options into viable weapons by never seeming to be remotely off with his timing or his delivery. When he’s not firing darts to the likes of the speedy Jeudy, he’s got a stable of physical yet shifty backs to pitch or hand off to, and they chew up yardage in such sizable patches that the defense never really can settle in for favorable down-and-distance plays. This is evident in a box score where Arkansas, playing cleanly save for the turnovers, actually managed to convert six of 12 third downs, win the time of possession battle handily, and commit only two penalties. Bama adeptly seizes on big-play shots, and capitalizes on your every failing, so categorical triumphs are reduced to meaningless nuance.

Hog fans seemed to extract enough hope from the never-say-die effort — contrasted starkly with the almost immediate laydown they saw against North Texas in the same confines three weeks earlier — that it may bode well for the less foreboding final sextet of games. Starting with a nighttime clash against Ole Miss in Little Rock, the team has a legitimate chance to capitalize on incremental improvements and get back in the win column sooner than maybe anyone envisioned after that debacle against the Mean Green.

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