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September 19, 2018

New coach, old worries for 1-1 Hogs

This article was published September 10, 2018 at 4:00 a.m.

After the last song was sung and prayer sounded at church Sunday, the man to my left, knowing what I do for a living, had this to say:

"I thought when Bielema left this wasn't supposed to happen any longer."

No doubt, the same conversation could be heard from one end of the state to the other, anywhere that sports is discussed. Lou Holtz once said that Arkansas fans treated Razorback football like a national park, something to be nurtured and preserved. That from a man who made speeches all over the country and never really connected with the people back home; still, Lou knew.

In context of Saturday night's Razorback implosion, let us dust off a lead sentence from covering local high schools: Arkansas has a new coach and old problems.

Chad Morris, if you have not been formally greeted, welcome to Arkansas. You have just experienced what a morning after in football season is like in our state.

From a 27-9 lead to a 34-27 defeat against Colorado State, Arkansas went from a Rocky Mountain high to the equivalent of Death Valley Days.

A week after being the toast of the state following a 55-20 exercise against Eastern Illinois, the Razorbacks found themselves roasted on talk shows and websites. After envisioning a 3-0 start, fans could look at the Auburn, Texas A&M and Alabama Southeastern Conference games with increasing trepidation. If Arkansas cannot handle a Mountain West Conference team with so slim a portfolio as Colorado State, who is to say that North Texas, from Conference USA, will be a pushover for the Hogs on Saturday in Fayetteville?

Back in Fort Collins, Colo., victorious Rams fans had a football Sunday to savor. Someone writing for a Colorado audience pointed out that Arkansas is not an Alabama, Auburn or LSU -- but so what? Arkansas, though a projected cellar-dweller in its Western Division, still is a Southeastern Conference member, which certainly means something to Rams coach Mike Bobo, a Georgia man who replaced a former Alabama assistant and Florida head coach (Jim McElwain) in Fort Collins.

Arkansas, known as a poor second-half team under Bret Bielema, let another lead slip through its hands. And with all three units -- offense, defense and special teams -- to blame.

With backup quarterback Cole Kelley firing two third-quarter touchdown passes, the Razorbacks looked to have this one on ice, leading 27-9 against a team pushed around by Hawaii and Colorado in the first two weeks. Connor Limpert missed a field goal from 48 yards that would have made it 30-9, but it didn't seem to matter.

The Razorback offense then went into a shell, punting on its last three possessions. Morris underwent his first second-guessing at Arkansas on a fourth-and-one play from midfield that the coach had time to consider while the teams were changing ends for the fourth quarter. Who knows, the 6-7 Kelley might have leaned for the needed yard. Instead, Arkansas punted Colorado State back to its four, its lead down to 27-17 after the Rams' possession.

It became 27-24, Colorado State driving 96 yards after the fourth-and-one punt, and Arkansas had a crisis on its hands.

"Looking back on it you almost wish you'd gone for it on fourth down," Morris said. "I thought our defense was playing well. We were actually back and forth on it on the headsets talking to our defensive staff. The one thing I didn't want to do was give them a shorter field and allow that momentum to stay with them, so I thought we could pin 'em deep."

About that time, veteran Arkansas defenders became unwitting offenders in Colorado State's comeback. Despite seven straight incompletions at one stretch, the Rams eventually shredded the Hogs through the air, K.J. Carta-Samuels completing 12 for 154 and two touchdowns to Preston Williams, a Tennessee transfer, on a personal 389-yard evening.

With the score 27-all, Colorado State got the ball for the last time after Arkansas punted from its 19. Arkansas' defense looked particularly porous on the Rams' drive that, with eight seconds left, ended with a touchdown run -- not the expected field goal. The Hogs had time only to receive the kickoff and attempt a Marx Brothers-like play that didn't get close.

"This," a colleague said moments after the clock went all zeroes in Fort Collins, "is Arkansas." What followed, as native Arkansan Johnny Cash expressed it in song, was a Sunday morning coming down.

Sports on 09/10/2018
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