Arkansas to play in the Liberty Bowl

Razorback sophomore running back Raheim Sanders (#5) from Rockledge, FL runs for a touchdown against Ole Miss at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville

By Otis Kirk

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas and Kansas are headed to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Wednesday, Dec. 28, with a 4:30 p.m. kickoff televised on ESPN.

It will just be the third meeting in history between the Razorbacks and Jayhawks. Kansas won both of the previous meetings, but that was 1905 and 1906. Lance Leopold has turned Kansas’ program around. The Jayhawks raced out to a 5-0 record this season before losing six of their next seven games. Sam Pittman has taken notice of Kansas’ turnaround.Razorback sophomore running back Raheim Sanders (#5) from Rockledge, FL runs for a touchdown against Ole Miss at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville

“Unbelievable, what he’s done there and the positivity around the program,” Pittman said. “It’s very hard to do. But I don’t know that anybody’s really surprised at what the man and his program and his staff have done. I mean, he’s done it everywhere he’s been. So I’m really, you know, we want to win. I’m not telling you that, but I’m really excited for coach and for his team as well because KU deserves a heck of a football coach and a heck of football team, and they’ve got it now with Coach.”

Leopold sees some comparisons in the programs. In 2021, Arkansas went from 3-7 to 9-4 to begin the turnaround under Pittman. Kansas was 2-10 in 2021 so thus a four-win jump this season.

“Yeah, for our first year a year ago and looking at the job he did, I don’t know Coach Pittman very well,” Leopold said. “I’ve met him. I know a lot of people that do. He’s highly respected. He was always a highly respected offensive line coach and professional in college football. He’s done an outstanding job and has really turned that program around. Again, I think he does things the right way. They’re well coached.

“Hopefully there are some good parallels between what they did a year ago and what we were able to do this year.”

One concern for Pittman is while his Razorbacks defeated Penn State 24-10 in the Outback Bowl last year this will be Kansas’ first bowl game since 2008. Pittman wants his team to be able to match the energy that will obviously be present from the Jayhawks who are excited to be in a bowl game.

“I think that is a concern, I do,” Pittman said. “You look at our team, even though we practiced all the way up until we’re getting ready to go to the plane, on the plane in another bowl my first year, we didn’t get to participate until last year, and we certainly were chomping at the bit to go and play. We aren’t a team that spends every single year in a bowl.

“The Liberty Bowl is a big, big, huge deal for us, and we should have a really good home-field advantage with the crowd. And so there’s a lot of reasons that winning the bowl game would give us an opportunity to have a winning season. The great bowl games are the ones you win, so I know KU will be pumped up about it, certainly deserve what they’re getting, certainly deserve all that. But we can only control ourselves, and I can promise you we’ll be ready to play.”

The only win for Kansas it its final seven games was a 37-16 victory over Oklahoma State on Nov. 5 in Lawrence. The downward spiral started on Oct. 8 when Kansas lost a close one to TCU, 38-31, which is a team in the College Football Playoffs. They followed with losses to Oklahoma (52-42), Baylor (35-23), the win over Oklahoma State, loss to Texas Tech (43-28), Texas (55-14) and Kansas State (47-27).

“Well, we got off to a fast start, the fastest start we’ve had here in a long time,” Leopold said. “Really proud of the way we got off, especially two road wins where we fell behind and battled back to get road victories against two good opponents in West Virginia and Houston. Able to get another couple of home wins against Duke and Iowa State and then we were fortunate to have College GameDay come to Lawrence, Kan., for the first time and battled what we see now to be a CFP playoff team.”

Leopold talked about what happened in the TCU loss that helped lead to the second-half slide.

“Unfortunately in that game our starting quarterback and someone who was getting into the Heisman race, Jalon Daniels went down,” Leopold said. “We had a couple of other injuries. Daniel Hishaw was a highly productive RB, lost him a week earlier. Kind of hit a bump there. 

We had to battle back. Jason Bean, our backup quarterback, played extremely well. But we kind of hit a hard patch of the season where things were a little rough. But we were able to defeat a rated Oklahoma State team at home to secure bowl eligibility and here we are. I think as we prepare for this bowl game I think we’ll be the healthiest we’ve been since probably that early October period. We’re excited to take on a quality opponent in the Arkansas Razorbacks.”

Daniels completed 115 of 175 passes for 1,470 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. Daniels rushed 63 times for 398 yards and six touchdowns. Bean completed 87 of 135 passes for 1,280 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. On the ground, Bean carried the ball 38 times for 222 yards and four touchdowns.

Running back Devin Neal topped the Kansas rushing chart. He carried 171 times for 1,061 yards and nine touchdowns. Hishaw carried 44 times for 259 yards and five touchdowns.

Kansas’ pair of talented wide receivers Lawrence Arnold and Luke Grimm both had good seasons. Arnold pulled down 36 passes for 597 yards and four touchdowns while Grimm caught 42 passes for 456 yards and five touchdowns.

The defensive standout for the Jayhawks is safety Kenny Logan Jr. He topped the team with 96 tackles, 65 solo, three pass breakups, two interceptions, a forced fumble and one recovered.

Leopold talked about what a win over the Hogs in the Liberty Bowl would mean to his squad.

“Obviously I think any time you can end your season with a win and playing well helps the momentum as you head into second semester, winter conditioning, spring ball,” Leopold said. “It helps you in recruiting, again, with the extra exposure. And again, for us to play a quality opponent and a team from the SEC, I think is always another feather in our cap, so to speak, that we can continue to gain confidence as we continue to build our program. There’s a lot of things that are needed and we’re going to need to play well and prepare well to go to Memphis and play Arkansas, but there can be a lot of positives that come out of it.”

In this day and age of college football, opt outs are a big thing for bowl teams. Pittman was asked if he feels good about who he will have available to play in this game?

“Yes, I do,” Pittman said. “Obviously, the opt-out of bowls has been something now that’s been going on for quite a little while. And we’ll certainly have our share of guys that do that as well. But, you know, KJ Jefferson’s gonna be in that bowl. Rocket Sanders is gonna be in that bowl. Majority of our offensive linemen, our D-linemen. We’re gonna have a team that’s going to be there ready, excited and ready to compete against a fine KU team. But I feel very strong that we’ll have good representation, and we certainly need our older leadership. We’re going to use the next 10 or 12 practices to head start into next year as well.”

Rumors have persisted that Pittman was on the verge of losing his defensive coordinator, Barry Odom, to Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane has a head coach opening, but multiple sources indicated on Sunday night the Odom negotiations with Tulsa had hit a snag. One thing could be about salary. Odom made $1.85 million at Arkansas this season while Phillip Montgomery reportedly made around $1.8 million as the head coach. Pittman was asked if he expects to have both coordinators for the Liberty Bowl?

“I do,” Pittman said. “Yes. Here’s all I’m saying. I’m in Texas trying to walk into a home visit, and the ol’ boy sitting next to me is named Barry Odom. So if that has anything to do with the Liberty Bowl, then it does. Go Hogs.”

This will mark Arkansas’ sixth appearance in the Liberty Bowl. The Hogs lost their first three appearances there, but have reeled off two wins in a row. Bobby Petrino’s Razorbacks defeated East Carolina 20-17 in overtime on Jan. 2, 2010. Then, on Jan. 2, 2016, Bret Bielema’s Hogs downed Kansas State 45-23. 

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