FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas last year couldn’t win a wild 34-27 game against the Colorado State Rams in Fort Collins, Colo.
But last year against Colorado State the Razorbacks didn’t have transfer quarterback Nick Starkel, freshman receivers Trey Knox, and Treylon Burks, freshman backup defensive back La’Darrius Bishop or even senior tight end Cheyenne O’Grady missing last season’s first two games apparently on disciplinary suspension.
These Razorbacks had them all. And they all contributed to Arkansas exploding a 34-34 third-quarter tie into a wild 55-34 Arkansas victory Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Arkansas’ victory was sparked by a 21-0 fourth-quarter off the Rams outscoring Arkansas, 17-0 in last year’s fourth quarter at Fort Collins.
Starkel in his first Arkansas start and first start period since starting a bowl game for Texas A&M in 2017, passed the Razorbacks to 2-1 going into next Saturday’s nonconference game against San Jose State here. He completed 20 of 35 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns vs. no interceptions.
“I thought Nick did a great job,” Arkansas Coach Chad Morris said. “I really did, He prepared himself very well. He missed some deep balls that he wished he would have back. But he sees the field really well and he communicated with us on the sidelines, I thought his comfort level grew as the game went on.
Knox caught 6 for 90 yards and a touchdown. Burks caught 4 for 92 yards.
O’Grady with the Hogs up 41-34 late and the Rams trying to wrestle him out of bounds to stop the clock, broke away from four Rams tacklers for the 62-yard touchdown at 5:32.
The senior tight end from Fayetteville was withheld the first quarter, Morris said, because he ailed from strep throat earlier in the week.
By Arkansas’ first series of the second quarter, Morris apparently deemed him healed.
“C.J. O’Grady – that was a huge play for us -, “ Morris said. “Determination, will, drive. That was a great finish.”
Bishop, the rookie backup cornerback from Ashdown playing late because starting cornerback Buster Brown was injured late,, completed Arkansas’ 21-0 fourth-quarter. Bishop recovered CSU running back Marvin Kinsey’s fumble caused by linebacker Hayden Henry and returned it for the game-sealing 25-yard touchdown.
“Obviously the big hit from Hayden Henry knocking the ball loose right there (for Bishop’s scoop and score that put us up three touchdowns was a huge part of the game,” Morris said.
They got some big help from returning running backs Rakeem Boyd, 20 carries for 122 yards and two touchdowns, and Devwah Whaley, 9 carries for 81 yards and a touchdown.
Starkel’s passes helped open the running game and vice-versa said, Morris, who upped the offensive tempo faster than it’s been in his season and three games here until running clock late in the fourth quarter.
“Rakeem Boyd and Devwah ran extremely hard,” Morris said. “Our offensive line (again starting true freshman guard Ricky Stromberg) did some good things,” Morris said.
Arkansas netted 520 yards of balanced offense, 305 passing and 215 rushing.
All, whether they were in Arkansas last year or not, responded to Morris’ vow and their own vows not only off last year’s game in Fort Collins but last week’s 31-17 SEC loss at Ole Miss.
“I challenged our guys to respond,” Morris said. “And I started to see the response last Saturday night in the locker room (postgame in Oxford, Miss.) We did not play perfect, our youth did some really good things and some things we’ve got to improve on, But response was it and we did that several times today. We had to. Our backs were against the wall. We got outscored a bit midway through the game and we responded and we finished.”
Despite the 21-point margin outcome, the Hogs indeed needed all they could muster to surpass Coach Mike Bobo’s Rams.
The Rams, now 1-2 of the Mountain West, netted 180 yards on 20 carries from Kinsey and stayed tough in the third quarter with backup quarterback Patrick O’Brien ( 7 of 10 for 106 yards and a touchdown after veteran starter Collin Hill, 13 of 23 for 99 yards and a touchdown, exited the game injured during CSU’s first series of the third quarter.
In Saturday’s 27-24 first half, Arkansas scored just three less points than its entire first two games, 20-13 over Portland State in Fayetteville and last week’s 31-17 SEC loss at Ole Miss.
Arkansas started from behind. On the game’s second play from scrimmage, CSU tailback Marvin Kinsey burst unfettered up the middle, eluded safety Kamren Curl, his not all that close closest would-be tackler and burst for a 75-yard touchdown just 18 seconds into the game. “Respond,” Morris said.
Starkel indeed responded. He threw a 38-yarder to Treylon Burks his first play to the CSU 37. Starkel’s 6-yard pass to Mike Woods on third and three netted the first down preceding the quarterback’s 7-7 24-yard tying touchdown pass to Knox at 13:00
Arkansas backup tight ends Chase Harrell and Grayson Gunter both dropped passes after the Hogs defense forced a CSU punt but Harrell caught his next one for a 14-yard touchdown at 7:54 of the first quarter following Whaley’s 24-yard run on third and one and Starkel’s 17-yard pass to Knox.
Arkansas’ 14-7 lead increased to 21-7. Boyd increased all on a 59-yard TD run following center Ty Clary’s block up the middle at 5:59 after the Rams were flagged for pass interference.
The Hogs seemed about to run away with the game, but remember, they led last year 27-9 in the third quarter at Fort Collins and lost.
Hill quarterbacked a 5-play 75-yard drive fueled by Rams running backs Kinsey and Marcus McElroy running around the ends before Hill and 6-6 receiver Warren Jackson connected for a 6-yard TD at 3:27
Limpert, sensational on first-half kickoffs with 5 of 6 unable to be returned kicked a 54-yard field goal at 1:02 capping a long first quarter with Arkansas up, 24-14.
“Conner Limpert gave us a huge momentum boost,” Morris said. “That kick (the 54-yard field goal) probably could have gone for 65. When it came off his foot it was a rocket. He responded after missing one last week.”
Limpert’s 22-yard field goal on fourth and two from the Rams’ four accounted for Arkansas’ only second-quarter points.
The Rams scored 10 in the second quarter. Hill’s 1-yard plunge scored TD at 7:31.
Cayden Camper, the freshman third-string kicker called out of class when CSU Coach Mike Bobo had enough of his top two kickers’ in the first two games, kicked a 46-yard field goal with four seconds left of Arkansas’ 27-24 first half and had the distance but was wide left on a 50-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter.
Penalties, a roughing the passer penalty on sophomore safety Joe Foucha costing Arkansas a fumble recovery, and freshman offensive guard Ricky Stromberg depriving Starkel a first down on a fourth down quarterback sneak and forcing a punt, hurt the Hogs during the Rams’ 10-point third-quarter including receiver Dante Wright, 4 catches for 97 yards, beating sophomore safety Myles Mason for a 75-yard TD catch from O’Brien and Camper’s 21-yard field goal.
Arkansas’ defense, “challenged at halftime” Morris said after noting the Rams averaged 10.3 per carry in the first half, responded with the fourth-quarter shutout.
“After what happened a year ago, our guys – they weren’t going to let this happen again, they weren’t,” Morris said, citing defensive seniors T.J. Smith, Sosa Agim and Scoota Harris. They weren’t. T.J. Smith, Sosa, Scoota, those guys in that defensive huddle hey were calm but they were certain that we we were going to win this thing in the fourth quarter.”