The stage is set for a Razorback victory Saturday night in Lexington, Ky.
Arkansas (2-3, 0-2 SEC) visits Kentucky (2-3, 0-3) at 6:30 p.m. for an SEC Network-televised game that is the Hogs’ best chance of winning an SEC game the rest of this season, which of course would be the first of the Chad Morris era.
Pardon me for chalking forthcoming games with Auburn, Alabama, and LSU as losses, and while as a Hog fan I am hoping that the Razorbacks will have a chance to defeat Mississippi State and Missouri in home games, right now Kentucky seems to be the most vulnerable squad left on Arkansas’ SEC slate.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Kentucky
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12
Where: Lexington, Ky.
TV: SEC Network
Oct. 19 – Auburn
Oct. 26 – at Alabama
Nov. 2 – Mississippi State
Nov. 9 – Western Kentucky
Nov. 23 – at LSU
Nov. 29 – Missouri
Despite having issues with injuries at quarterback, the Wildcats are a 6.5-point favorite over the Hogs if the betting line means anything to you.
After posting a 10-3 season last year, the Wildcats are struggling. They have lost three SEC games in a row.
For the longest it seemed Kentucky would upset then No. 9 Florida on the third week of the season until the Gators’ defense chomped down on the Wildcats.
A Florida interception not only halted a Kentucky drive but also set up the Gators’ game-winning, 66-yards drive of just three plays. Kentucky missed a field goal that would have given them the lead late in the game, but Florida locked the game down with a 76-yard touchdown run by Josh Hammond to break the Wildcats’ hearts.
With starting quarterback Terry Wilson out for the season with a knee injury and backup quarterback Sawyer Smith limited with a wrist and shoulder injury, Kentucky lost 28-13 at Mississippi State and 24-7 at South Carolina.
Arkansas played better on defense in its 31-27 loss to Texas A&M, but thus far the Hogs haven’t proven to be as potent as the Bulldogs or the Gamecocks on defense. Safety Kamren Curl leads the Hogs in tackles with 39 on the season along with 2 sacks and 2 interceptions. Those numbers speak well of Curl’s development, but it’s usually not good news when a safety, the last line of defense, leads a team in tackles,
But Arkansas did a solid job against A&M, all this considered, and with a bit of improvement, the Razorbacks defense could give Kentucky’s struggling quarterbacks some fits.
Though Kentucky coach Mark Stoops’ squad enjoyed a bye last week like the Razorbacks, rumors out of Lexington say that Smith is still struggling with his health and that wide receiver Lynn Bowden will take most of the snaps for the Wildcats Saturday. That info has to be taken with a grain of salt, but it seems Arkansas will see Bowden under center at least some in the game.
Bowden, who played quarterback in high school, is an outstanding athlete and has some zip on his passes, but he did not train as a quarterback in preseason. The Razorbacks have prepped for Kentucky’s regular offense and for a Wing-T type attack if Bowden does play quarterback. A major concern is that the Razorbacks are still counting on a largely inexperienced group as backups along the defensive line, and maintaining outside containment has been an issue at times this season.
Bowden told Kentucky reporters that he was eager to play quarterback, and Stoops said that was to be expected.
“Well, any great player wants the game to go through him,” Stoops said, “and the ball to go through him, 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. But, no, we constantly rely on our players on what they’re comfortable with, what they’re confident in and things we’re doing well, things of that nature. We always take those type of things into consideration.”
Overall the Wildcats’ defense is middle of the pack in the SEC, but they have a stout defensive line featuring rotating nose guards 360-pound Quinton Bohannon and 370-pound Marquan McCall as well as 6-9, 300-pound tackle Calvin Taylor.
Arkansas’ offensive-line play has been spotty at best this season, but the group played their best game against the Aggies. Maybe they will be up to the task against Kentucky?
While the Razorbacks are as healthy as they have been overall this season, it appears starting left tackle Colton Jackson is questionable after suffering a concussion. Junior college transfer Myron Cunningham, who has started three games, but did not play against the Aggies, will start at left tack if Jackson can’t go.
Stoops said he was impressed with the way the Razorbacks’ played in their last game.
“They played really well,” Stoops said. “They played good on both sides. I think you all know what type of team Texas A&M is. And Arkansas had every opportunity to win that game. So you know they are putting it together.
“I have great respect for Coach [Chad] Morris; he’s a heck of a coach. There’s no doubt they’re doing the right things on both sides of the ball, They have Coach Morris on the offense and philosophy that he has. And Coach [John] Chavis on the other side. They have some very good coaches that are working very hard and they’re very close to putting it all together.That was evident watching the Texas A&M game. And they had a chance to have the week off and regroup and kind of put a plan together as well. So you know it’s going to be a great challenge.”
Though Morris wisely quashed a quarterback debate by naming Nick Starkel the starter after the A&M game despite Ben Hicks playing well against the Aggies following Starkel’s exit with an arm injury, Starkel has thrown six interceptions in his last six quarters of play — 5 against San Jose State and 1 on the play he was hurt against the Aggies.
You have to wonder how long of a leash does Starkel have if he doesn’t protect the ball better?
Even if Starkel does tone down on the risky throws, Hick’s performance against A&M begs the question if there is room for him to get playing time no matter how well Starkel plays.
Though Starkel has a stronger arm, from Stoops’ standpoint, the Razorbacks are about the same no matter which player is taking snaps.
“They’re both good players,” Stoops said. “I think that, obviously [they’re] different like any individual, but they’re both good. They both have experience and both good players. Nothing changes in their offense. So to me, they both looked really good at times and did some really special things, so we’ll see where they go.”
I think early momentum will mean a lot in this football game. You could argue with the way each team’s season has gone that confidence is a fragile thing in both locker rooms.
The Razorbacks need to make sure the Kentucky crowd stays in their seats early by not giving up anything easy. Arkansas has been prone to give up chunk plays for points early in games both this season and last. The Hogs have to avoid that tendency on Saturday if they hope to pull off, yes, an upset.
The Razorbacks also need to take advantage of red-zone opportunities. They are 126th in the nation at 65 percent in scoring range. That has to improve, and a lot of that comes down to quarterbacking.
If the Razorbacks are to win, they need Starkel or Hicks or a combination of both to pull their games together and lead the Razorbacks in a manner that we haven’t seen yet this season.