If Arkansas wanted to show a nasty streak and get itself off the scrap heap that is the Southeastern Conference cellar, it had a shiny and literally golden (and black) opportunity on another beautiful Saturday morning in Fayetteville: Just go out there against customary league also-ran Vanderbilt, also winless in league play, if arguably more competitive and experienced on the whole, and prove it.
The opening drive of the game revealed a team seemingly desirous to do just that. The Hogs took nine plays after the opening kickoff to consume 75 yards, and as has been typical when the erratic offense is at a rare state of equilibrium, Rakeem Boyd was the catalyst. The sophomore tailback, sadly, is having the same kind of season that South Carolina graduate transfer David Williams had last year for the Hogs: transferring in with expectations of being more of a sparkplug than a true bellcow, but demonstrating that he’s capable of running with authority and purpose, catching the ball out of the backfield, and doing all the little things necessary to win … on a team that simply doesn’t know how to do that vs. Power 5 competition. Boyd ripped off a 27-yard run on his first carry of the day and capped off the drive with a 5-yard plunge into the end zone. These downtrodden Hogs were up 7-0, the crowd abuzz with a bit of measured optimism, and all looked promising enough because, after all, Vanderbilt hasn’t exactly been an offensive machine in embattled coach Derek Mason’s fifth season.
Boyd had been dinged up in each of the last two games, short-circuiting a potential career night against Ole Miss and his and Ty Storey’s absence for most of the second half of that game likely cost Arkansas a victory. This time, both stayed healthy, but so did Vandy tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn, a guy who mirrors Boyd’s dimensions and burst, but also had been limited of late due to injury. Vaughn scampered 63 yards for a tying touchdown on Vanderbilt’s opening possession, which quickly hushed those hopeful murmurs in the stands and, of course, set the tone for the Commodores’ offense.
Vaughn eventually scored two more TDs and senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur one-upped Storey by playing turnover-free football and making great use of his tight end, Jared Pinkney, who had two first-half scoring grabs. The game turned into a bit of a shootout late, and as proven in prior games of that sort, Arkansas’s deficiencies at most positions really bear themselves out in fourth quarters. This one was 31-24 in Vandy’s favor after Storey connected with Tyson Morris for a TD early in the final period, but John Chavis’ defense was far too gassed to keep that margin where it was, and this one slipped away in much the same manner as previous games against Colorado State and Ole Miss did, ending up 45-31 for the visitors, and only that close because Storey found Cheyenne O’Grady for a meaningless score in the waning seconds to set the final margin.
Chavis’ legacy as a preeminent defensive mind was moderately damaged by a decidedly unremarkable three-year run in College Station under Kevin Sumlin, where it was clear that the Aggies had shortcomings in the secondary and ill-timed breakdowns in the ever-damning “fundamentals.” Right now, “Chief” would really welcome the highly rated defensive line recruits that have vaulted the Hogs’ overall class ranking for 2019 into the national Top 15. Armon Watts, McTelvin Agim, Randy Ramsey and Briston Guidry are resilient players, but savvy playcallers are seeing Arkansas’s alignments and presnap shuffling like it’s a grade-school reader. The Hogs elect to bring significant pressure up front, and seasoned quarterbacks like Ole Miss’ Jordan Ta’amu and Shurmur are simply too good at spotting the rush and scrambling loose or dumping the ball off for a well-blocked screen. It’s agonizing enough for a fan to watch it, but I would imagine it galls Chavis to no end, because he spent the better part of three decades being universally renowned for his creativity and timing as a defensive playcaller.
Thus, much as it was the case last season under an entirely different staff, the Hogs don’t have the offensive chops to keep pace with a defense that simply cannot be relied upon for critical stops. Storey’s been gutsy, but his ball security hasn’t been up to snuff, and his receiving corps has let him down with imprecise routes or lax effort at times. Regrettably, these are not problems that will likely be fixed after the forthcoming bye week or the battle against Top 5 LSU that looms thereafter.