By Nate Allen
OXFORD, Miss. – Changing quarterbacks from Ben Hicks to Nick Starkel at half and trying to change their fortunes with some razzle-dazzle and Wildcat formations couldn’t change the Arkansas Razorbacks losing their SEC opener of 2019 following their SEC 0-8 for 2018.
The Ole Miss Rebels, never trailing a close 10-3 first half, dominated the second half en route to a 31-17 victory over second-year Chad Morris’ Razorbacks in Saturday night’s SEC opener for both SEC West teams before 47,915 at Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Given the Rebels of Coach Matt Luke were 1-7 in the SEC last year beating only Arkansas, 37-33 in a wild one at Little Rock, fan bases of both teams had circled this game a must for their rebuilding programs.
It reflected in Luke’s postgame’s enthusiasm. “That was fun out there tonight,” Luke said. “That’s as much energy, the best we’ve had here as we’ve had in a long, long time.
”Obviously there was no Arkansas fun heading home to Fayetteville. “Extremely disappointed,” Morris said. “Got a group of young men and coaches that are deeply invested in this program and there’s a lot of disappointment. I want to thank our fans for coming out. Thought we traveled well and had a great crowd. Credit Ole Miss. I knew they would be better. I knew they would respond, and they did. It’s hard to win in the SEC on the road and it’s really hard when you make as many mistakes as we did tonight. I thought our players played extremely hard and fought all the way to the very end. That’s been a credit to our players and the fight that these guys have and the disappointment they have right now.”
A struggling offense and a defense wearing down because of the offense’s struggle often ran through last year’s 2-10 season and did again Saturday in Oxford.“We made entirely too many mistakes offensively,” Morris said. “Defensively, I thought we played hard and it gave us a chance, gave us a spark. But again, we were on the field entirely too long defensively. It’s about a response now is what it is. That’s all it is.”
Is Starkel the starter now? “This isn’t the time or place right now to address it,” Morris said. “We’ll get back and evaluate like we always do. I thought that we needed a spark to start the second half. I thought it was unfair to Ben at times. We had a couple of busts on some routes. We had a couple of drops. We missed Devwah (Whaley) right down the middle. I thought it was time. We needed a spark and I wanted to see who could kind of give us a kick start in our offense in the second half.”
Last year as a sophomore transfer, Arkansas running back Rakeem Boyd netted 109 yards on just 7 first-half carries then missed the second half injured.Boyd played both halves Saturday. He posted some good runs but the yards came hard, 67 net on 17 carries and he was stopped for one on a key fourth and two. “Our big emphasis this week was stopping the run,” Luke said. “We had guys in the right spots at the right time.”
Arkansas, winning its nonconference opener 20-10 last week, takes a 1-1 record into next Saturdays’ 3 p.m. nonconference game with Colorado State at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Ole Miss, also 1-1, losing 15-10 last Saturday to Memphis at Memphis.
Replacing fellow graduate (SMU) transfer Ben Hicks, also last Saturday’s starter, Nick Starkel, formerly of Texas A&M brought some air into Arkansas’ second-half passing game. However on an ineligible receiver downfield penalty, Starkel was denied what would have been a 38-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Trey Knox on Arkansas’ second possession of the third quarter.
Starkel did engineer a 7-play 81-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive which he capped at 1:21 of the quarter on a 6-yard toss to receiver Koilan Jackson. Starkel’s scoring drive included 13-yard passes to Koilan Jackson and Mike Woods and a 22-yarder to Treylon Burks and 26-yarder to Knox. Knox’s 6 catches for 88 yards led Arkansas receivers while Woods caught for 84. The trick plays Morris tried to spark the offense with Wildcat snaps to Boyd and a Boyd handoff to receiver De’Vion Warren and handoff to Hicks getting sacked, mostly failed to ignite.
“You always take a few specials into every game,” Morris said. “When they hit they look great, when they don’t, they don’t.” Arkansas’ lone third-quarter touchdown came via its defense. Junior safety Kamren Curl, slipping and missing a tackle when Ole Miss tight end Octavious Cooley was short on what became an 18-yard run for a first down on a Rebels’ scoring drive, exacted revenge. Curl stripped the ball loose from Cooley and returned the fumble for an improbable 69 yard touchdown. Starkel finished 17 of 24 for 241 yards but the game’s quarterback game ball belonged to Rebels’ redshirt freshman Matt Corral. Corral completes 16 of 24, also without an interception, for 246 yards and two touchdowns. Elijah Moore caught both TD’s one for two yards and one for 46, among his 7 catches for 130 yards. Ole Miss running back Scottie Phillips on 26 carries rushed 143 yards and two touchdowns on a wearying Arkansas defense.
The stout defense/struggling to score offense of their games the previous Saturday stayed the first-half norm at Vaught Hemingway Stadium. Quarterback Matt Corral’s 2-yard touchdown pass capping a 13-play 85-yard drive at 8:41 of the first quarter and Luke Logan’s 33-yard field goal with 3:06 left in the second quarter accounted for the Rebels’ first-half scoring. Arkansas got a Limpert 36-yard field goal hammering the post but dropping through for its three first-half points at 8:19 of the second quarter. Limpert, 19 of 24 on field goals last year with one streak of 10 in a row, missed wide on a 43-yard attempt with 50 seconds left in the half. Arkansas’ biggest play of the half, a Ben Hicks pass nearly intercepted by Ole Miss safety Jaylon Jones, ended up caught by freshman receiver Trey Knox for a 46-yard reception before the late second-half drive stalled and Limpert missed the field goal try. Arkansas only netted 38 yards halftime yards rushing with Hicks, 7 of 16 passing for 99 yards, sacked twice and managed but three first-half first downs. Corral threw passes of 21 and 26 yards to Moore and Ontario Drummond on Ole Miss first-half touchdown drive with Corral tossing the 2-yard TD to Moore. A 30-yard Hicks to Mike Woods pass marked the big gain of Arkansas’ field goal drive.
Arkansas started true freshman Ricky Stromberg at right guard and moved junior Myron Cunningham to left guard because of senior left guard Austin Capps’ ankle injuries last week. Senior starter Gabe Richardson was Arkansas lone upperclassman defensive end with true freshman Mataio Soli starting and rookies Zach Williams and Collin Clay playing considerably with seniors Dorian Gerald (out for the season) and Jamario Bell, not dressed out Saturday, injured last week.