HOGS: Starkel must clean up for UK
FAYETTEVILLE - Like champagne, Nick Starkel (in Craven Whitlow photo) strives to finish drives with a kick Saturday night, meaning possessions that end by kicking an extra point or a field goal.
Even a punt will do, says Arkansas (2-3 overall, 0-2 in SEC West) head coach Chad Morris going into Saturday night’s 6:30 kickoff at Kentucky (2-3, 0-3 in SEC East). The SEC Network will televise the game from Kroger Field, where UK head coach Mark Stoops can notch his 29th home victory, tying him for second most home wins among UK coaches all-time.
Starkel has completed 81 of 131 passes this fall for 1,019 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s also ended seven possessions with seven interceptions. Starkel threw three TDs and five interceptions in a 31-24 loss to San Jose State.
“He’s got to protect the football better, and he knows that,” Morris said. “Not every ball’s going to be a touchdown pass. We want every drive to end with a kick. And if it’s a punt, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
With an open date week since Arkansas last played Sept. 28 in the 31-27 loss to three-TD favorite Texas A&M, Starkel has had plenty of time to heed Morris’ message.
It was reinforced by A&M picking off Starkel’s shovel pass and injuring his elbow as he tried to make the tackle.
“I've got to do a better job of throwing the ball away or hold onto it and just run out there,” Starkel said. “Every possession has got to end with a kick. That's something we've really stressed this week.”
Ironically a graduate transfer via Texas A&M, Starkel said his elbow injury has healed. He practiced every practice last week and this week.
Meanwhile, Ben Hicks, Arkansas original starter this fall, played superbly in relief of Starkel against the Aggies. Hicks completed 15 of 27 passes for 181 yards and a TD without an interception.
Morris feels the better about his quarterbacks than any time this season.
It contrast at Kentucky, Stoops lost starting QB Terry Wilson two games into this season. Wison quarterbacked last year’s Wildcats to a stunning 10-3 season capped by a Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State. S
UK backup QB Sawyer Smith was injured in a 24-7 SEC loss at South Carolina.
Smith didn’t practice last week during Kentucky’s open date. Despite Smith deeming himself healed, Stoops has said little about Smith’s health this week other than he’s “out there” along with unused sophomore squadman Walter Wood and the intriguing Lynn Bowden, Kentucky’s most explosive player as its leading receiver, punt returner and kick returner.
Bowden averages 7.6 yards per carry on 13 carries for 99 yards. He has taken direct snaps in the Wildcats’ Wildcat formation. He’s completed three of four passes, one for 32 yards, and as an ex-high school quarterback has quarterbacked in recent practices.
Morris said he expects Stoops to use Smith and Bowden and warns to not deem Bowden just a threat to run.
“Obviously he’s just electric with his ability to run the football,” Morris said. “As a quarterback in high school, you can’t go to sleep on his passing game.”
While conventional quarterbacking seems in Arkansas’ favor, Kentucky’s strong point is its mammoth defensive line which frees playmaking linebackers Kash Daniel and DeAndre Square. Arkansas ranks 11th in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 28 points per game, while Kentucky ranks eighth in the league, giving 24.4 ppg.
Arkansas’ offensive line does not appear full strength. Senior left offensive tackle Colton Jackson of Conway, sorely missed against San Jose State when sidelined in concussion protocol, suffered a similar injury against Texas A&M and likely won’t play against Kentucky.
Also starting center Ty Clary has practiced on a limited basis since his concussion protocol post A&M.
Oddsmakers pick Kentucky by a touchdown.