Arkansas v Portland

The Razorbacks defeated Portland State 20-13 on Aug. 31 in the opening game of the season.

Arkansas football has a clean slate for the 2019 season. 

The Razorbacks returned to the gridiron Saturday for the first time since late November to take on the Portland State Vikings. It was crucial for Arkansas to start the 2019 season in the win column, and the home squad squeaked out the 20-13 victory. 

Facing an FCS opponent week one usually lends itself to a relatively stress-free opening game, but that was not the case for head coach Chad Morris’s team. Even with a new core of young receivers and transfer quarterbacks, the Razorback offense stalled for the majority of the game, often times resorting to a punt in opponent’s territory. 

Luckily for Arkansas fans, the defense showed up. Portland State did not run a play within the 20-yard line and converted only two third-down chances out of 13 while tallying 230 total yards, over 150 fewer than the Hogs.

Arkansas, for the second year in a row, had multiple quarterbacks to choose from to man the offense coming into the new year. For most of the 2019 offseason, both SMU graduate transfer Ben Hicks and Texas A&M graduate transfer Nick Starkel were vying for the starting role, and Hicks earned the top spot on the depth chart.

Both Hicks and Starkel took snaps against the Vikings on Saturday, and each showed promise with smart throws and decision-making. The two also showcased that there is a lot of room for improvement.

Morris said that both Hicks and Starkel played “just okay,” failing to find a consistent rhythm with the offense.

“I thought (both) did well,” Morris said. “I thought (Hicks) managed the game, but overall the flow with things offensively was not what we want.”

The Razorbacks found themselves in 15 third-down situations and converted five of them. 

Finishing drives is going to be a focal point for Arkansas’s offense in practice going forward, Morris said.

Junior running back Rakeem Boyd was a bright spot for the offense, running for 118 yards and a touchdown in the victory.

Starkel finished the game with 48 passing yards, including a 38-yard pass to freshman receiver Trey Knox, and one interception. Hicks notched 143 passing yards and a relieving zero picks.

The game was ultimately decided by Portland State’s inability to catch up to the Hogs after senior Devwah Whaley’s TD run at the end of the first quarter put Arkansas ahead. There were no lead changes after the first quarter. 

Regardless of the path they took to get there, the Razorbacks earned themselves a 1-0 record to start the season. For Arkansas, that is all that matters.

“Every win is a great win,” Morris said.

In Morris’ first year at the helm of the Arkansas program, the Razorbacks suffered its worst season in school history, mustering a 2-10 record while going winless in the SEC. However, as is the case with every new season, Morris and the Razorbacks start 2019 with an 0-0 record and a chance to work toward improvement. 

“I think with anything you do the second time around, you’re going to be better at it,” Morris said. “We’ve got a tremendous buy-in (from our players), and our culture is stronger than it’s ever been. From what I’ve seen (this offseason), this is a football team that is player driven, and they exemplify what you want your culture to be about.”

Arkansas may not have had the best showing in the season opener, but neither did many of the Hogs’ opponents on the schedule this year. 

Transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant, who many Hogs fans thought would come to Fayetteville for his senior year, lost his first game as the Missouri starter to the Mountain West’s Wyoming Cowboys. The Razorbacks meet Missouri the last week of the regular season in the annual Battle Line Rivalry.

Two of Arkansas’s remaining non-conference opponents started the year 0-1, as Colorado State lost to in-state rival Colorado by double-digits, and former Razorback Ty Storey’s new squad Western Kentucky lost to FCS opponent Central Arkansas.

The Hogs have a better record so far against their next opponent, SEC West foe Ole Miss, as the Rebels lost their first game to rival Memphis 15-10. 

There are still some strides that need to be made on the offensive side of the ball for Arkansas to reach five or six wins this season, namely creating a coherent system between quarterback, receivers and offensive linemen. But a strong Razorback offense paired with an already vastly improved defense could see Arkansas turn from the Heartbreak Hogs to a formidable, not fantastic, football team. At least for this season.

Drew Watzke is the sports editor of the Arkansas Traveler. Previously, he worked as a sports writer and columnist from 2018-2019.

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