After a much needed bye week, UK returns to Kroger Field and will be facing another SEC team that is in desperate need of a win. Arkansas and Kentucky are set to face for the first time since 2012 and the Hogs make their first trip to Lexington since Bobby Petrino’s first season in 2008. A lot has happened in the decade since.
Nuts and Bolts
Arkansas made the jump to the SEC in 1992 and the program had some rough sledding early on. After a disappointing five-year run by former Clemson national championship head coach Danny Ford, Houston Nutt stepped in for a decade.
The Hogs would win 75 games, go to eight bowl games, play in two SEC Championships, and finish in the top-25 three times under Nutt. Despite winning eight games and upsetting eventual national champion LSU on the road in 2007, the administration decided to make a move. Newly appointed athletic director Jeff Long made quite the splash with the next hire.
Bobby Petrino was fresh off a 41-9 run at Louisville before an embarrassing showing in the NFL . It seemed he resigned from the Atlanta Falcons in December to immediately become the Arkansas coach. What happened next would be the program’s best run in the SEC.
After a 5-7 start, Petrino would lead Arkansas to 29 wins the next three seasons with three top-12 finishes. The Hogs played LSU for a share of the SEC West title on Thanksgiving Friday in 2011 and all signs pointed to them remaining a factor in college football’s toughest division. Then the alleged motorcycle wreck happened.
After the media did some digging, Jeff Long decided to dismiss the very successful coach. Despite this, the program seemed to recover well by hiring Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema who won three Big Ten titles in seven seasons. The Iowa alum would go just 29-34 in five years causing both him and Long to be fired. After what was deemed a bad cultural fit, the Hogs decided to lean into Texas.
Chad Morris was a former state championship winning Texas high school coach before joining the FBS ranks. After one season at Tulsa, he joined Dabo Swinney at Clemson to help build what is college football’s most popular dynasty today. Morris recruited Deshaun Watson and was one of the pioneers in the hurry-up, no-huddle offense becoming a staple in college football. After four years, Morris was hired by SMU in a move that allowed him to return to the Lonestar State.
Despite some excellent recruiting, the wins have not come. Morris has just one winning season in five years and two years with 10 losses. After losing to San Jose State earlier this season, it appears the Hogs are in for another rough year with games against Alabama, Auburn, and LSU remaining.
This is, however, a program with a rich history. The Hogs have been to 42 bowl games, won a national title in 1964, finished second in 1965, and third in 1969 and 1977. The program won 13 Southwest Conference titles and had a great run from 1958-1989. Frank Broyles, Lou Holtz, and Ken Hatfield all had a winning percentage above .700 as the Hogs were perennial contenders in the SWC during those three-plus decades.
This will be eighth meeting all-time between the two programs with Kentucky owning a 4-3 series lead. The last time these two programs met in Lexington, it was Randall Cobb’s coming out party when he scored two fourth quarter touchdowns to complete a comeback victory.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 7-point favorite with a total of 53.5. That’s a projected final score around 30-23. The Wildcats are are 3-4 against the spread and 6-1 straight up as an SEC home favorite since 2014. Arkansas is 8-9 against the number under Chad Morris. The under is 4-1 in Arkansas games this season.
Joe Craddock came with Chad Morris to Fayetteville to become an SEC offensive coordinator at the age of 32. The Razorbacks utilize a spread offense with tempo that wants to throw the ball around the yard. That meant a total roster reconstruction after Bielema’s heavy run based system. So the Hogs have gotten really young, but it’s allowing some of their biggest recruiting wins to get on the field very fast.
— Arkansas Razorback Football (@RazorbackFB) October 4, 2019
Both Treylon Burks and Trey Knox have missed one game due to injury this season, but have started every other. The two four-star rookies have combined for 38 grabs, 529 yards, and two touchdowns. The duo is averaging 13.9 yards per catch and are slowly turning into quality wideouts. Burks is a big slot receiver (6-foot-3, 223 pounds) while Knox is guy the Razorbacks will use to stretch the field.
They aren’t the only weapons in the pass happy offense. Mike Woods has started 12 games and is a true sophomore who is the veteran of the receiving corps. He leads the team in receiving yards. Cheyenne O’Grady has been one of the best tight ends in the SEC and he will provide a unique challenge for UK. The big fella was unleashed against Texas A&M when he recorded a career-high eight receptions so you can expect plenty of targets to head his way. He can rumble.
Cheyenne O'Grady with some SERIOUS YAC on this play. ?
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 16, 2019
The best weapon is found at running back. Rakeem Boyd was on Last Chance U and rushed for 1,211 yards at Independence Community College. The slashing back is second in the SEC in rushing and is on pace for a 1,159-yard season. Stopping the run will be paramount again.
Lining up next to Boyd at quarterback is a bit of a question mark. Arkansas lost two quarterbacks to transfer last season. Therefore, the Hogs brought in two grad transfer quarterbacks who had familiarity with the program. Ben Hicks started for Chad Morris at SMU for two seasons before not being a fit in the offense Sonny Dykes brought to Dallas. Despite being the program’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns, he decided to make a move.
Arkansas landed Hicks, but wasn’t done on the quarterback market. Nick Starkel started his career at Texas A&M and beat out Kellen Mond in 2017 before being hurt in the first game. The next year, Jimbo Fisher arrived in Aggieland and Mond would win the QB1 spot. After being A&M’s primary backup last season, Starkel decided to move on. He landed at Arkansas where he would have two years of eligibility remaining.
Ben Hicks won the job leaving camp and started the first two games of the season. In those outings, he completed just 46.7 percent of his passes with a 5.3 yards per attempt average. He’s a game manager who plays it very safe and it was obvious he wasn’t the long-term answer. Therefore, Arkansas turned to Starkel the next week.
The big armed righty started the next three games and put up some pretty big numbers. The transfer isn’t afraid to let it rip shown by 7.8 yards per attempt average and seven interceptions in just 131 passes. The offense moved much better with Starkel in the lineup, but ball security is a major issue.
In the close loss to Texas A&M, Starkel was lost due to an elbow injury that occurred while trying to make a tackle after a red zone interception. Hicks stepped in and played his best game of the season. This week, Chad Morris states that Nick Starkel is good to go, but was vague about who the starter would be. There’s a lot of gamesmanship going on.
The offense’s biggest weakness through five games has been in the red zone. Arkansas ranks 126th in red zone efficiency and 120th in red zone touchdown rate. Kentucky could have an advantage when the Hogs get into scoring territory.
Back in 1995, Phillip Fulmer promoted John Chavis to defensive coordinator at Tennessee. The Vols won a national title three years later and the man they call Chief has called defenses for a quarter-century in the SEC. Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M, and Arkansas have all employed Chavis, but lately his units have had some issues.
The Hogs currently rank 14th in the SEC in red zone touchdown rate, 11th in scoring defense, 12th in passer rating, and 12th in third down efficiency. Arkansas has been able to rush the passer and force some turnovers, but this old school 4-3 scheme has been a bend-but-don’t-break unit despite having a couple seniors in the front seven who will be draft picks.
McTelvin Agim was a five-star prospect reeled in by Bret Bielema’s staff and he’s played a lot since his true freshman season. The senior has over 30 career starts and will be a bear for UK’s interior offensive line to deal with when they run their normal inside zone concepts. Playing next to him on the line are a handful of seniors and true freshman Mataio Soli at defensive end.
At the second level, De’Jon Harris is back at Mike and the Louisiana native was a second-team All-SEC selection in both 2017 and 2018. The inside linebacker has recorded at least 115 tackles in each of the last two seasons and is a steadying force on the inside. Next to him at Will is sophomore Bumper Pool who is a future star. The Texas native was a blue-chip recruit in the first recruiting class for Morris.
In the secondary, Kamren Curl leads the team in tackles and has been giving the Hogs some very high quality safety play. The San Diego native has two sacks, one interception, and a forced fumble on top of nearly eight stops per game. The strong safety will play a huge role in run defense and he appears to be on his way to All-SEC honors. Surrounding Curl are three sophomore starters as the Hogs have gone full on youth movement in 2019.
Special Teams Breakdown
Connor Limpert is in his third season starting at placekicker and the Allen, Texas native has hit 83.3 percent of his 42 attempts. He’s made multiple 50-plus yard kicks and is a legit weapon for the Hogs when they get into scoring territory. However, in the kickoff department, Lippert has a below SEC average touchback rate of 62.1 percent. Returns will be there.
Arkansas ranks 13th in the SEC in punting, so hidden yards could be there in bunches when facing off against the nation’s best punter on the other side. The coverage teams have been good all season for the Hogs with opponents not picking up many yards.
Keys to Victory
- The offense for Arkansas has been absolutely brutal in the red zone all season and this comes a year after having the worst red zone touchdown rate in the SEC. The Hogs have had turnovers in addition to not getting the ball into the endzone. Through five games, UK has been okay at getting stops in the red zone. This a battle the Wildcats must win.
- Arkansas plays with tempo on offense and would prefer to run about 80 or so snaps on offense. There are quarterback questions to be answered, but there’s no denying that Kentucky wants its defense on the field for no more than 70 snaps. Whoever establishes the tempo and playing style early will have the advantage. UK must get the run rolling early to move the chains and own field position.
- Turnovers could play a huge role with both teams having opportunistic defenses and offenses with a history of loose ball security. If Ben Hicks is in the lineup, expect for the Hogs to be much more cautious. If it’s Lynn Bowden, Jr. at quarterback for UK, this is a question that must be answered.
A Hell of a Game
Kentucky will be honoring one of the most most memorable players in program history on Saturday and earlier this week Mark Stoops said his team was determined to play well. Jared Lorenzen left us back in July, but his memory will be fresh on everyone’s mind Saturday night at The Kroge. It’s no coincidence that this is happening the weekend Arkansas is here.
Back in 2003, UK hosted Houston Nutt’s squad in one of the most memorable college football games of the 2000s. In a contest that would go seven overtimes, UK would fall short but No. 22 would put together a hell of an effort. Back in regulation, he delivered an iconic line that is still being talked about today.
Win it for the legend.