State of the Hogs: Arkansas lowers 'Boomer' on Hurricane

By: Clay Henry
Published: Saturday, October 20, 2018
Arkansas defenders tackle Tulsa quarterback Seth Boomer (12) during the second quarter of a football game, Saturday, October 20, 2018 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Charlie Kaijo
Arkansas defenders tackle Tulsa quarterback Seth Boomer (12) during the second quarter of a football game, Saturday, October 20, 2018 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

— There was good news waiting on the visitor’s sideline at Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday. All of the Tulsa quarterbacks were from the mainland.

After dazzling performances the last two weeks from Hawaiian-born quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Jordan Ta’amu, the Arkansas defense had only to contend with a pedestrian offense run by a mere mortal from Collinsville, Okla.

For an Arkansas team that had been searching anywhere for improvement in a six-game losing streak, that was the key ingredient that sparked the Razorbacks to a 23-0 victory over the 1-6 Golden Hurricane.

Tulsa redshirt freshman Seth Boomer had completed just 36.5 percent of his passes after taking over as the starting quarterback against Houston and South Florida. And, that dropped after Boomer hit on just 8 of 25 against the Razorbacks.

It was the right medicine for an Arkansas defense that had given up 1,250 yards the last two weeks by Alabama (639) and Ole Miss (611).

Tulsa finished with 260 yards, but got 61 on the Arkansas reserves in the final two minutes, including 65 on a go route down the sideline. The Hogs preserved the shutout when McTelvin Agim sacked Boomer on fourth down at the 18-yard line with 11 seconds left.

It’s not like the Razorbacks had an electric quarterback, either. In fact, first-year coach Chad Morris had to spend the week getting a new starter ready while Ty Storey worked his way through concussion protocol. Morris said after the victory that Storey is expected to start against Vanderbilt, but that’s not a sure thing. Storey will continue to get checks for concussion symptoms throughout the Vandy preparations.

But this week, it came down to piecing the game together between true freshman Connor Noland in his first start and a series of relief stints from sophomore Cole Kelley. Most of Kelley’s work came after Noland took a nasty hit at the end of a scramble in the third quarter.

Noland was intercepted on his second pass of the day but bounced back to complete 10 of 16 for 124 yards. He carried five times for 20 yards and did not have a lost yardage play. He threw into double coverage on a deep pass, but wide receiver Deon Stewart bailed him out by deflecting the probable interception away.

But that was about the only thing the Greenwood product did wrong. Offensive coordinator Joe Craddock leaned on running back Rakeem Boyd until he became dehydrated after 22 carries, then split the second half with runs from Chase Hayden and Maleek Williams. The game plan was more simple than what the Hogs ran the previous month as Storey took over as the team’s leader and offensive spark.

Storey practiced Tuesday and Wednesday, but Morris said it was obvious they were going to have go a different direction.

Storey wore a black jersey for practice Tuesday, when the media is allowed to watch for 20 minutes. Quarterbacks always wear black, meaning they can’t be hit. But black means they are cleared for everything else.

“Ty practiced for the most part all week long, he was out there,” Morris said. “We knew it was day-to-day. When you get into that protocol you take day-to-day steps.

“We felt like, especially in the quarterback position, we’re no contact anyways; but we knew there was a possibility that he may not play. Cole and Connor have been getting significant reps off and on for the last several weeks. We really didn’t have a final decision until Wednesday night. We probably had an idea, and we were preparing for it.”

With Noland making his first start, Morris said the plan was to run the ball and put the game in the lap of an offensive line that took another blow on Saturday when left tackle Colton Jackson woke up with back spasms. Trainers worked to relax those muscles around an area that had to be fixed by surgery in the summer. When the spasms continued into warmups, redshirt freshman Dalton Wagner had to be inserted into the lineup.

“We were going to put the pressure on our offensive line and on our running backs,” Morris said. “Rakeem Boyd being first, with the player he’s become the last several weeks. We knew Connor was going to have a good day, but we did not want to put the pressure strictly on Connor.

“We challenged our guys up front. We needed to run the football. They’re a little bit different team than what we’ve seen all year long — odd stack and they’re fits are a little bit different, but we felt like we could run the football.”

Morris said he found out Jackson couldn’t play on the bus ride to the stadium.

“We felt like maybe during warmups we could get him back, but he couldn’t go,” Morris said. “… I thought Dalton Wagner played well. The way you cross train those guys you have to play them in different positions, and they responded.”

The game centered on lost-yardage plays and mistakes in the kicking game. Tulsa had too many in both areas. Tulsa had eight snaps for 42 yards in losses. Those plays wiped out an offense that was based on dive plays. Tulsa was just 4 of 15 on third downs.

It had become apparent by then that Tulsa could not muster a passing attack. Boomer’s passes hung in the air long enough for beaten cornerbacks to break and deflect his passes. Ryan Pulley intercepted one, and the Hogs could have gotten two or three more. And, there were some coverage sacks, missing the last two weeks against the speedy wide receivers of Alabama and Ole Miss.

Tulsa had its chances, but woeful special teams wiped them away. While Connor Limpert was going 3-for-3 on field goals for the Hogs, TU’s Nate Walker was missing from 28 and 48 yards.

The Hurricane gave up a 29-yard punt return and also muffed kickoffs that forced it to start from its own 4 and 10. There was also a holding penalty on another kickoff that pushed it to its 10 for a possession.

The Hogs did make one mistake on special teams, a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct by Nate Dalton, a reserve cornerback. Dalton took a swipe at the Tulsa return man after a fair catch. Morris quickly sent Dalton to the locker room.

“That’s not who we are,” said Morris, adamant after the Ole Miss game that he’d put his foot down when the Hogs had several penalties like that at the end of the emotional loss.

Morris said special teams have improved steadily all season. He said it helps buy in from the rest of the team when mainstays like Dre Greenlaw, De’Jon Harris and Santos Ramirez volunteer to play on coverage units.

Winning the field position battle almost all day relieved some pressure on Noland. He thanked his defensive mates afterward.

“They did a great job,” he said. “When you get the ball on the 40-yard line a couple times that definitely helps. They did a great job keeping the ball in a good position for us and the other team scoring zero points that kind of helps. They did a great job. I’m really proud of them and the fight they gave.”

While the Hogs were building a 20-0 lead through the game’s first 40 minutes, Boomer was set to throw 15 times. He completed just 2 of 11 with four sacks. He would finish with six sacks.

The Hogs tackled well throughout, but most of the action was not in space like in the previous two games when Tagovailoa and Ta’amu found open receivers. It gave Ramirez, the free safety, a much easier angle to the ball carrier. Ramirez led the defense with 10 tackles. Greenlaw added nine. Agim had seven, including 3.5 for lost yardage.

It prompted questions in the post-game about defensive coordinator John Chavis, upfront on Monday that the issues with poor tackling and mounting losses were “on me.” Chavis said he longed for the day when he could enter the media room with a smile.

Morris assured everyone was smiling in a happy Arkansas post-game locker room, where recruiting was just as much on everyone’s minds as winning.

“There were a lot of smiles in that locker room, and should be,” Morris said. “We’re all in this thing together. That’s those special moments that you cherish in locker rooms like that.”

Agim said it wasn’t a big celebration by Chavis, the coach players call “The Chief,” but the smiles were there.

“He was smiling,” Agim said. “He didn’t do any of the crazy antics he did before. He just came up to us and told us he appreciated us. He kept it simple, but you could tell he was joyful.”

Morris was not surprised to see the defense play well.

“I said it last week that they were our rock, and they did not disappoint today,” Morris said. “We continue to build and have done that all year long. That’s a credit to our staff as well.”

Transferring Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant was among those grinning from ear to ear. Bryant visited for the weekend and signed autographs in the northwest corner of the stadium throughout the game. He participated in a Hog Call as he made his way toward the field in the final seconds, posing for pictures and interacting with fans.

Bryant visited North Carolina two weeks ago. It may take awhile to pick a school, but he seemed to have a great time at the game. He spent time before and after the game with former UA quarterback Ryan Mallett.

Morris loved the atmosphere and seemed to know it was a good setting for another boost in recruiting.

“What a great day, homecoming,” Morris said. “I want to thank the fans that showed up and made today a special homecoming day. The environment, you continue to impress. You continue to inspire. It’s very much felt every day that we walk in this building. We love that. So thank you to all those that showed up and showed out today.”

There was also a thank you for his players. Morris had asked them in his pre-game speech to dig deep to find some "guts." They did. They played hard throughout the game. Even in a losing streak, the Hogs have played hard.

“Our players, as we know, have battled all year long,” Morris said. “The outcomes have not gone our way, but these guys continue to fight. It says a lot about who we are, it says a lot about our program, and it says a lot our state and it says a lot about what we’re trying to build here.

“We’re going to continue to fight, and we’re going to continue to put one foot in front of the other. I’m proud of our staff. Our staff has been there the entire way. They continue to inspire and motivate and coach these young men knowing that we’re all in this together. We knew that something was going to happen our way if we continue to get back up. These guys did. I’m very, very proud of them.”

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