FAYETTEVILLE -- The adversity the University of Arkansas faced after its blown lead last week got one-upped Saturday.
North Texas outplayed the Razorbacks all over the field, intercepted six passes and scored on a bizarre 90-yard punt return to stun Arkansas 44-17 before an estimated crowd of 44,306 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The boo birds were out early in the second half when starting quarterback Cole Kelley re-entered after throwing three first-half interceptions that led to 17 North Texas points.
He went on to throw his fourth interception on a deep flea-flicker pass on which the Mean Green got early pressure.
"We took a punch today, especially in the first half," Arkansas Coach Chad Morris said. "To get our mindset to change and rally back when things go bad, we've got to continue to work on that. That's something that's disappointing."
The Mean Green improved to 3-0 for the first time since 1989 by beating an SEC opponent for the first time since 1975. Arkansas (1-2) lost for the first time in 10 games against North Texas, and suffered its eighth-worst loss in a regular-season nonconference game since World War II.
"I don't think it's an upset," North Texas Coach Seth Littrell said. "I'm very confident in our football team. We've done the right things. We knew it was going to be a challenging game, but we truly felt we had the best team."
Most of the second half was played with more than half the crowd cleared out of Razorback Stadium. Arkansas did not take a snap past its own 28 in the second half until the Hogs stopped the Mean Green on fourth down at the Arkansas 32 with 1:05 remaining. Maleek Williams blew through a hole on the right side for a 68-yard touchdown on the next snap for the Hogs' lone second-half highlight.
The Razorbacks face a difficult four-game stretch against SEC West opponents with a full-blown quarterback crisis. Kelley, a sophomore, went 16-of-35 passing for 185 yards, but appeared out of sync with the Arkansas receivers against press-man coverage and threw a career-high 4 interceptions.
"They were going to see if we could throw the football, and they were coming up and pressing our receivers to see if we could get by them," Morris said.
"Our plan was to stop the run and make them put it in the air," said North Texas cornerback Nate Brooks, who had two of the six interceptions. "When they did, it was our ball."
Junior quarterback Ty Storey did not play, and freshmen Connor Noland and John Stephen Jones combined to go 4 of 10 for 25 yards with 2 interceptions while the Razorbacks were pinned back throughout the second half.
"We were going to try to stay with one guy," Morris said. "That was the message. I was trying to get to the point of staying with one guy as long as we could with the hope of giving the entire game to Cole."
Kelley faced heat from all sides as North Texas got pressure while stacking the box with extra defenders.
"We gave up a lot of pressure in the second half when Connor came in," Arkansas center Hjalte Froholdt said. "Cole got hit a couple times pretty hard, too.
"The quarterback can't throw the ball well and can't sit in the pocket, and the receivers can't run good routes if Cole has to start scrambling, or whoever is back there has to start running around because what he's seeing is a big D-lineman in his face."
North Texas notched 5 sacks -- all against Noland -- for 27 lost yards and 8 tackles for loss.Gallery: Hogs routed by North Texas
The Mean Green took control during the first quarter as Kelley threw a pair of interceptions. The Mean Green turned those takeaways into 10 points.
The first-quarter weirdness reached its apex after the Razorbacks drove to the North Texas 37 midway through the quarter while trailing 7-0.
Morris elected to try to pin the Mean Green deep, and punter Blake Johnson hit a 27-yard punt to the 10. North Texas punt returner Keegan Brewer fielded the punt and stopped as if it were a fair catch, which duped Grant Morgan and Nate Dalton into pulling up instead of attacking. After a brief pause, Brewer surprised the Razorbacks by bolting to his left and running untouched for a 90-yard touchdown to make it 14-0.
"We worked on it all week, just trying to see how we would be able to execute and act like it's a fair catch," Brewer said. "It was scary, but coach [Marty] Biagi told me it would work."
Morris said his message to the punt coverage unit was that it has to play through the whistle.
"You've got to have your eyes up and look for the fair-catch call," Morris said. "A true fair-catch signal was not given and it was evident on that. He stopped and delayed, and we were right there in position, but you've got to play through the whistle."
North Texas outgained the Razorbacks 376-336.
Arkansas could not establish its running attack for the second consecutive home game. The Hogs had 31 carries for 58 yards before Williams' late touchdown run to finish with 126 on the ground.
North Texas did not unleash its passing attack but really didn't have to as the Razorbacks imploded. North Texas was content to play ball control and field position in the second half.
Quarterback Mason Fine, the NCAA leader with 431 passing yards per game, went 24-of-45 passing for 281 yards with 1 touchdown.
Fine and Loren Easly had one rushing touchdown apiece, and Kemon Hall returned an interception off John Stephen Jones for a 24-yard touchdown to make it 44-10 with 7:42 remaining.
Former Razorback Cole Hedlund booted three short field goals and scored 14 points in his return as a graduate transfer for the Mean Green.
The Razorbacks stabilized the game for a short stretch early in the second quarter. Kelley's 25-yard back-shoulder completion to Mike Woods set up Kelley's 5-yard charge up the middle to cap a 61-yard drive to cut the deficit to 17-7.
Arkansas went 49 yards on its next possession, highlighted by Jared Cornelius' 14-yard catch and Woods' 13-yard grab on a curl. Connor Limpert's career-best 54-yard field goal pulled the Hogs within 17-10.
The turnover bugaboo struck again, however, as Brooks beat out receiver Chase Harrell for Kelley's low throw on the right sideline. North Texas took over in Arkansas territory for the third time and cashed in quickly.
After Jalen Guyton caught a 31-yard pass with a smooth double move against Nate Dalton, Easly powered in from 3 yards out on the next snap to make it 24-10.
After Connor Limpert missed a 37-yard field goal wide right, the Mean Green drove for a dagger touchdown. Fine connected with Jaelon Darden for a 36-yard pass, then Jarques McClellion was penalized 15 yards for a late hit to spark the drive. Fine hit Rico Bussey for a 7-yard touchdown on third and goal to make it 31-10.
Sports on 09/16/2018
Print Headline: Three QBs throw 6 interceptions as Hogs routed by North Texas