Best and worst of Arkansas football in 2017

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema watches from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated Arkansas 48-22. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema watches from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated Arkansas 48-22. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

FAYETTEVILLE — When did Bret Bielema’s time with the Arkansas Razorbacks hit the point of no return?

It might have been Oct. 7 at South Carolina. The Razorbacks gave up three defensive touchdowns to the Gamecocks in the second half of what had been a tight game and lost quarterback Austin Allen to a shoulder injury for the next four games during a 48-22 loss.

The back-breaker might have been a 52-20 loss at home to Auburn, which left Bielema with a 1-4 record against the Tigers, including back-to-back losses by a combined 108-23 score.

After a rousing comeback victory at Ole Miss, the largest in school history from a 24-point deficit to a 38-37 triumph, the Razorbacks barely escaped an upset bid by 1-7 Coastal Carolina before a homecoming crowd that looked to fill about half of Reynolds Razorback Stadium’s capacity of 72,000.

If the writing wasn’t already on the wall at that point, the team’s 33-10 loss at No. 24 LSU the next week — the Hogs’ school-record fifth of the season by 20 or more points — signaled a certain end to his tenure.

The Razorbacks battled well — playing to Bielema’s “we’re close” theme — in home losses by the scores of 28-21 to No. 16 Mississippi State and 48-45 to Missouri, but the home fans had made their statement, leaving large swaths of Razorback Stadium unoccupied for each of the last three games there.

Nine days after athletic director Jeff Long’s firing by Chancellor Joe Steinmetz, Bielema got his walking papers from interim athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples minutes after the loss to Missouri.

Regardless of when Bielema’s tenure was deemed no longer tenable, it has left this bottom line for Arkansas football: No postseason appearance for the third time in six years and the beginning of the Chad Morris era of Razorback football on Dec. 7.

Bielema exited with a 29-34 record in five seasons at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, including an 11-29 mark in SEC games.

In the same time frame, the only SEC team with a worse league record was Vanderbilt (10-30). Regular-season conference records by SEC West teams during Bielema’s tenure were led by Alabama’s 36-4, followed by Auburn (25-15), LSU (25-15), Mississippi State (20-20), Ole Miss (19-21) and Texas A&M (19-21).

Here’s a look back at some of the highs and lows of the 2017 season:

Best victory

Arkansas 38, Ole Miss 37. The Razorbacks fell behind 31-7 in the first half as quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and running back Jordan Wilkins carved them up, but the Hogs didn’t stop competing. Santos Ramirez’s strip and recovered fumble in Arkansas territory started the turnaround, and Josh Liddell’s long interception return set up a touchdown to pull the Hogs within 31-21 late in the second quarter. Kevin Richardson’s 22-yard scoop-and-score fumble return touchdown was the game changer, and freshman quarterback Cole Kelley drove the Hogs 62 yards in 12 plays for Connor Limpert’s game-winning 34-yard field goal.

Worst loss

There are several contenders, but since the 32-point setback against Auburn occurred at home — after the Razorbacks kept it close with a goal-line stand and a key interception in the first half — the 52-20 loss to the Tigers takes the category. The game featured another of many second-half meltdowns, as Auburn went on a 28-7 binge in the third quarter, countered only by De’Vion Warren’s 100-yard kickoff return touchdown.

Worst victory

Arkansas 39, Coastal Carolina 38. The Razorbacks had to rally from a 38-25 fourth-quarter deficit behind T.J. Hammonds and Cole Kelley to edge the 1-7 Chanticleers, who played their second-string quarterback for more than half of the game.

Best loss

Arkansas got a series of breaks and lucky bounces — the kind that had eluded the Hogs for much of the past two seasons — to lead No. 16 Mississippi State by scores of 14-0 and 21-14. But a failed fourth-and-2 pass from their own 44 late in the game assisted the Bulldogs’ fateful go-ahead touchdown drive with 17 seconds remaining in a 28-21 loss, the Hogs’ fifth in six games against Mississippi State.

Best call

This is not an actual play call, but call concepts. Adding the WildHog package with Chase Hayden and the Steamboat package with Cole Kelley during the two-week preparation for Texas A&M was a strong design by offensive coordinator Dan Enos. Both packages produced big yardage and led to touchdowns in the Hogs’ 50-43 overtime loss to the Aggies.

Worst call

Kicking deep to Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk after the Razorbacks had taken a 36-33 lead with 5:21 remaining against the Aggies. Sure, the kickoff coverage team performed admirably against the dangerous Kirk prior to that, but his 100-yard return was a dagger. Runner-up in this category was the poorly executed sky kick minutes later in the same game after Arkansas had gone ahead 43-40. Cullen Gillaspia returned the short kick by Connor Limpert 14 yards to the Arkansas 49 to jump-start a game-tying field goal drive.

Best offensive play

Austin Allen found receiver Jonathan Nance on a deep post for a 44-yard touchdown and a 36-33 Arkansas lead over Texas A&M with 5:21 remaining. The same duo hooked up on a 45-yard pass to set up David Williams’ 4-yard touchdown run to regain the lead 43-40 just 1:42 later.

Best defensive play

How about a tie from the same game? Arkansas could not have rallied for a 38-37 victory at Ole Miss without safety Santos Ramirez’s strip and fumble recovery in Arkansas territory with the Rebels on the move in the second quarter and already ahead 31-7. But Kevin Richardson’s scoop-and-score 22-yard fumble return touchdown late in the fourth quarter was a critical game changer, as it pulled Arkansas within 37-35 with 6:01 to play. Honorable mention was McTelvin Agim’s forced fumble at the Mississippi State 4 that Briston Guidry recovered for a touchdown and a 14-0 Arkansas lead in the first quarter.

Best special teams play

Connor Limpert got three practice kicks for a 34-yard field goal in the waning seconds against Ole Miss as Coach Matt Luke opted to call all three of his timeouts. Limpert wanted snapper Robert Decker and holder Reid Miller to proceed like normal, even after the stoppages, and he made all three of the non-official kicks. When the Rebels’ timeouts were exhausted, the snap-hold-kick trio executed cleanly, the blocking held up and Limpert drilled the winning field goal with four seconds remaining in the Hogs’ 38-37 comeback in Oxford, Miss. Honorable mention is De’Vion Warren’s 100-yard kickoff return touchdown vs. Auburn.

Most bizarre play

David Williams had a big hole up the middle against Mississippi State but somehow lost the handle on the ball around the Bulldogs’ 30-yard line. The gain for Arkansas wound up being huge when Bulldogs’ defensive lineman Tre Brown kicked the ball hard toward the goal line. After a botched recovery by a Bulldog defender, alert Arkansas receiver Brandon Martin recovered at the 1 to set up a Devwah Whaley touchdown run for a 21-14 Hogs lead.

Top blocker

Center Frank Ragnow, a second-team All-America choice despite playing only seven games, gets the nod. The senior did not allow a sack in 42 career games. Left guard Hjalte Froholdt is the runner-up.

Top receiver

Jonathan Nance had a late-season lull but he still led the team with 37 receptions for 539 yards and 5 touchdowns, edging out Deon Stewart and Jordan Jones.

Top back

Graduate transfer David Williams turned in a remarkable one-year showing for the Razorbacks, despite splitting time with Devwah Whaley and the duo of Chase Hayden (until his injury) and T.J. Hammonds. Williams led Arkansas with 656 rushing yards and 8 rushing touchdowns.

Top defensive lineman

McTelvin Agim came on late in the new 3-4 scheme and finished with 37 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 3 hurries and 2 forced fumbles.

Top linebacker

De’Jon Harris had a breakout sophomore season with 115 tackles to rank second in the SEC, a team-high 3.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, and 4 hurries to edge out junior Dre Greenlaw (103 tackles).

Top defensive back

Junior safety Santos Ramirez had 63 tackles, 8 pass breakups and a team-high 3 forced fumbles to edge Kevin Richardson (3 INTs, 4 breakups, 1 fumble return TD) and Henre Toliver (3 INTs, 8 PBUs, 1 fumble return TD).

Top offensive performance

Jonathan Nance had 3 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown to park the Hogs’ second-half performance against Texas A&M. He edged four other individual efforts: his 8 catches for 116 yards and a touchdown in a 48-22 loss at South Carolina; Austin Allen’s 19-of-26 passing for 264 yards and 3 touchdowns against New Mexico State; T.J. Hammonds’ 7 carries for 119 yards and a touchdown against Coastal Carolina; and David Williams’ 96 yards from scrimmage and 3 touchdowns against Texas A&M.

Top defensive performance

Agim had 9 tackles, a sack, 2.5 tackles for 13 lost yards and forced 2 fumbles, one recovered by teammate Briston Guidry for a touchdown in a 28-21 loss to Mississippi State. That showing edged out De’Jon Harris’ 14 tackles, including 1.5 for lost yardage, against Texas A&M, and Henre Toliver’s 9 tackles and 2 interceptions with 63 return yards against Missouri.

Top freshman

Running back Chase Hayden slightly over receiver Jordan Jones, guard Ty Clary, quarterback Cole Kelley, cornerback Kamren Curl, linebacker Grant Morgan and kick returner De’Vion Warren, who was the only Razorback on the SEC’s All-Freshman team.

Top sophomore

Linebacker De’Jon Harris over defensive end McTelvin Agim and receiver Deon Stewart.

Top junior

Safety Santos Ramirez over linemen Hjalte Froholdt and Johnny Gibson, and receiver Jonathan Nance.

Top senior

Center Frank Ragnow with an edge over quarterback Austin Allen, running back David Williams and defensive back Kevin Richardson.

Special teams MVP

Kickoff returner De’Vion Warren over kicker Connor Limpert.

Defensive MVP

Linebacker De’Jon Harris over defensive backs Santos Ramirez and Kevin Richardson, and defensive lineman McTelvin Agim.

Offensive MVP

Senior running back David Williams over center Frank Ragnow, quarterback Austin Allen and receiver Jonathan Nance.

Team MVP

Linebacker De’Jon Harris.

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