FAYETTEVILLE — The 28-point favored Arkansas Razorbacks needed sophomore safety Joe Foucha’s interception with 11 seconds off Portland State’s backup quarterback to survive 20-13 in the season-opener for both teams Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Backup quarterback Jalani Eason finished on behalf of third-quarter injured quarterback Davis Alexander as the Vikings of the lower FCS division’s Big Sky Conference and only 4-7 last year, never could be put away until Foucha’s pick.
However when you come off a 2-10 season as the team that then first-year Arkansas Coach Chad Morris inherited last year, any victory must seem a good one.
“We never apologize for winning,” Morris said. “There’s no such thing as a bad win.”
For his game-sealing theft, Foucha got both accolades and a lecture postgame from Morris. Foucha risked losing the ball while returning the interception 20 yards instead of immediately going to the ground with the Vikings out of timeouts.
“I was about to tackle him myself,” Morris said. “I guess we haven’t worked on that enough but he knows.”
Arkansas’ defense “played well,” Morris said.
Defensive backs Kamren Curl, Jarques McClellion and Foucha all posted interceptions.
Morris credited them and said they were considerably helped by the defensive front, four of the six sacks with Curl netting two on safety blitzes, pressuring both Alexander and Eason and limiting PSU to 75 yards rushing on 28 carries, played well. Two long field goals, 50 and 47 yards, by Cody Williams, was all the scoring that the Vikings until their somewhat fluky touchdown with 4:14 left in the game.
With PSU trailing 20-6 and Alexander injured, Eason was under fourth and 14 pressure from Arkansas middle linebacker Grant Morgan of Greenwood when he scrambled around defensive end Gabe Richardson and threw a desperation pass through safety Kamren Curl’s hands for an astounding 32-yard touchdown to tight end Charlie Taumoepeau with 4:14 left in the game.
Alexander, a 22-yard run on PSU’s first field goal drive, “was their spark,” in the first half, Morris said.
“The defense played well but we did lose containment on their quarterback,” Morris said. “He was the spark that got them going in the first half.”
Morris was outraged that Arkansas started its season with Hayden Henry’s personal foul penalty on the opening kickoff, the second-biggest PSU play on the Vikings 6-play. 42-yard drive for Williams’ 50-yard field goal.
“We had a couple of personal fouls which is totally unacceptable which resulted in points,” Morris said. “You can’t do that.”
Offensively the Hogs outgained, PSU, 395-230 in total offense including running back Rakeem Boyd’s 114 of their 204 net rushing yards and utilizing the speed of receiver De’Vion Warren, 3 for 37 on reverses.
Morris praised the running of Boyd and running back Devwah Whaley, scoring Arkansas’ touchdowns, Whaley from the one in the second quarter capping a 10-play 64-yard drive, and Boyd from the two capping a 12-play 67 yard drive in the third quarter.
Connor Limpert’s 34 field goal tying it 3-3 at 9:40 in the first quarter and his 25-yard field goal completing Arkansas’ scoring at 10:44 of the fourth quarter.
He also cited the offensive line’s run-blocking improvement over last year, just 80 yards in a season opening victory over lower division over Eastern Illinois.
However for the most Morris said, “I was very disappointed offensively. I never thought we got into a rhythm.”
Hicks, 14 of 29 for 143 yards, and though slow afoot surprising running for a first down on a 10-yard option keeper with the defense chasing Whaley, quarterbacked all four scoring drives.
Starkel completed Arkansas’ longest pass, a 38-yarder to freshman receiver Trey Knox as did freshman receiver Treylon Burks, 3 catches for 52 yards, squandered Curls’ 29-yard interception return to the PSU 14 by committing Arkansas’ lone turnover, throwing a pick to PSU linebacker Robert Holt.
PSU took over with 1:23 left but Arkansas’ defense forced a three and out forcing a punt for the Hogs to regain the ball with 34 seconds left at their 35.
Starkel hit the 38-yarder to Knox at the 27. But on consecutive plays Starkel threw a first down incompletion, threw an 8-yarder to tight end Grayson Gunter who could not get out of bounds with the Hogs having no timeouts, and finally a 3-yarder to Boyd who did get the first down and out of bounds but not before time expired.
“I was disappointed that at the end of the first half we had a chance to kick a field goal,” Morris said. ”I was signaling (before the pass to Boyd to kill the clock and we had a miscommunication and that’s on me.”
For the game’s final series, Sam Loy had pooch-punted the Vikings back to their three with 1:04 left and no timeouts before Foucha filched PSU’s last chance.
Ole Miss awaits Arkansas in next Saturday’s SEC opener in Oxford, Miss.