Connor Noland found out midweek he would be starting for Arkansas against Tulsa on Saturday.
He started with an interception on his first drive, but that was his only turnover and ended up with a steady day leading the Razorbacks to a 23-0 win over the Golden Hurricane before an intimate gathering of 40,128.
All week in practice, Ty Storey was out there. Nobody really knew what the final verdict was going to be after he suffered a concussion against Ole Miss last week.
“We probably had an idea, and we were preparing for it,” Chad Morris said after the win Saturday.
That preparation was for Noland, a highly-touted freshman from Greenwood, to get his first collegiate start.
“He’s probably dreamed of this moment his entire life,” Morris said. “To be able to come out and lead the Hogs to a win, I’m very proud of him.”
Noland tried not to think about it, but it did creep in there.
“I tried not to think about it, but when you grow up watching the Hogs play then get the opportunity be out there on the field with my first start meant a lot to me, so it was a big moment,” Noland said later. “But I just tried to downplay that a little bit and focus on the game.”
That first interception wasn’t due to the moment being too big for Noland. He just made a mistake.
“It’s a game so there’s gonna be mistakes like on that first drive,” Noland said. “I’ve had a lot of experience with just moving on and going to the next play. That was kind of my mindset after it happened, then coach came up to me and patted me on the back and told me to focus on the next play.”
While it may sound a little strange to some, Morris obviously liked what he saw in Noland after that interception.
“It did not faze him one bit,” Morris said. “That says a lot about a young man that’s a competitor. He’s been in these situations before, you can definitely tell that. First freshman starter in 12 years, to come in in an environment where we are in our program of needing a win.”
Senior offensive lineman Hjalte Froholdt noticed and was impressed.
“For a young guy to be that fresh and enthusiastic about getting back out on the field, it’s extremely impressive,” he said later. “He never froze up or gave you the deer in headlights look and didn’t say anything.”
That’s what we’ve heard about him since fall camp. He appears to have a level of maturity not a lot of freshmen have.
“He was comfortable with himself and said, ‘Well, I threw a pick, but now to the next play,’” Froholdt said. “His mood was still up, he was enthusiastic about the game and it was really good to feel that. He made a mistake, but he understands that and you can’t let it rollover and that was awesome to see from a freshman.”
One of the things Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock try to do is not put any of their quarterbacks in a bad situation. With a true freshman, the running game became key.
“We knew Connor (Noland) was going to have a good day, but we did not want to put the pressure strictly on Connor,” Morris said. “We challenged out guys up front.”
And Tulsa’s defense had been pretty decent against the run. Arkansas ground out 196 yards rushing and controlled the game (over 35 minutes in time of possession).
“We had a heavy run game plan going in, just, making sure Connor is comfortable back there by not putting him in any bad situations and trying to stay ahead of the chains and not get in any third and long situations,” Froholdt said. “But we had all the confidence in Connor, he can run the ball really well as well so we just put him in situations to do that.
“He did a tremendous job making sure we’re all on the same page whenever we had checks and making sure we check from run to pass or pass to run. We definitely relied on our run game and I’m happy my guys stepped up and played well.”
With that solid performance, you wonder which way Morris will go next week against Vanderbilt. While the Hogs’ offense wasn’t flashy, it was workmanlike.
If there was an issue it was Rakeem Boyd getting 99 yards on 19 carries in the first half and not seeing much action in the second half after a fumble, then two carries that netted just three yards.
“Dehydrated,” was how Morris termed it later.
He fumbled twice. Noland jumped on the first one, but it was on the Hogs’ first play of the second half that Boyd fumbled a second time, losing this one to the Golden Hurricane.
That’s when Arkansas’ defense stepped up. They made the key plays in the second half, delivering defensive coordinator John Chavis his first shutout with the Hogs.
“He was smiling,” defensive lineman McTelvin Agim said later. “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.”
That means we may see Chief smiling at the Monday press conference.
Which will be a first. Getting goose eggs on the scoreboard will do that.
And having a freshman quarterback break the losing streak gives this team and fan base a shot of sorely-needed optimism.
“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.”
With a big recruiting weekend going on, including an official visit from former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, it went well for Morris, who is always recruiting.
“We had a lot of great recruits here today,” Morris said. “I can’t wait to show off Fayetteville tonight to our recruits.”
It wasn’t hard to tell he’s happier doing it after a win.