Hogs Beat Rice

Razorback sophomore quarterback KJ Jefferson (#1) from Sardis, MS dives into the endzone for his second touchdown run against Rice Saturday afternoon at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, AR.

FAYETTEVILLE –  Down 17-7 at 10:28 of the third quarter to the revved Rice Owls compounded by a morass of penalties, offensive miscues, and shoddy special teams play, the Arkansas Razorbacks finished with a flourish in Saturday’s season-opener.

Greatly aided by three second half interceptions, two by safety Jalen Catalon and one by cornerback and Ashdown native Montaric “Busta” Brown from a defense that kept the Hogs in the game when they struggled early, the Razorbacks scored 31 consecutive points beating not only the Owls but Las Vegas’ 19-point spread, 38-17 before 64,065 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Arkansas second-year Coach Sam Pittman asserted it sure didn’t look early into the third quarter that he would be head coach celebrating his first Razorbacks nonconference game after last year’s 3-7 was covid revamped to be an entirely SEC schedule.

Pittman had predicted it wouldn’t be easy against Arkansas’ old Southwest Conference opponent now in Conference USA, but he hadn’t banked on the Hogs so nearly derailing themselves.

I told the team that we’re going to face adversity,” Pittman said.  “But I didn’t know it was going to be the entire first half. But it was, and give Rice credit.  They were really prepared. They did a nice job. I’m so happy we won, but we didn’t field a very good football team today and we’ve got to get a lot better.”Well, mainly offense and special teams must get better.They host Texas, 1-0, next Saturday at 6 p.m. on ESPN at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

“The defense did a really good job in the first half,” Pittman said.  “They (Rice)  had field position the whole time, because we couldn’t get any first downs. We just didn’t play well at all. But we came back in the second half. We still had way too many penalties, we caught the ball a little bit better, KJ (Jefferson, the starting quarterback) started making some plays.”

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Jefferson rushed a 34-yard touchdown for the game’s first score at 8:23 of the first quarter but otherwise struggled in a the first half completing just 4 of 11 for 21 yards plus throwing an interception.

His receivers, including Preseason All-American Treylon Burks, rusty from having just two practices Wednesday and Thursday this game week since injuring his leg during the first Aug. 14 preseason scrimmage, didn’t help with “too many drops,” Pittman said 

Starting with a 31-yard pass to Helena native/Fayetteville High grad Tyson Morris on Arkansas’ first third quarter touchdown drive that Jefferson finished with a 5-yard touchdown run, Jefferson responded to finish 12 of 21 for 128 yards and a touchdown, nine-yards to Morris, and two touchdowns on 89 net yards rushing that would have been three touchdowns and plus 100 yards rushing had not a holding penalty subtracted from what would have been a 64-yard touchdown run but still achieved a first down.

Jefferson also quarterbacked drives closed by 2 and 3-yard touchdown runs by running backs Trelon Smith, the game’s leading rusher netting 102 yards on 22 carries, and third-team running back Dominique Johnson, and a drive closed by freshman Cameron Little’s  34-yard field goal.

Big freshman backup running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders debuted well,  7 carries for 47 yards,

The one-handed caught 31-yarder to Morris was deemed Arkansas’ pivotal offensive play.

“”Well, I thought it was a pretty good catch,” Pittman understated. “I think the guy was on him.  He only had one hand to catch the ball with, and he did it. I think it gave us juice.”

Catalon concurred from an Arkansas defensive perspective on Arkansas’ offensive flow.

“ T. Mo has had a really good camp and I’m just glad he got his number called,” Catalon said. “He made play during the game that honestly got the offense going and it was kind of like the first little spark that got things going outside of KJ’s touchdown.”

Catalon, 11 tackles and 83 yards returned from his two interceptions, played huge with Arkansas minus fellow defensive captain/All-American middle linebacker Grant Morgan.

Morgan was penalized for a targeting hit at 8:03 of the first quarter and automatically ejected for the rest of the game but will return for next Saturday’s 6 p.m. game against Texas.

Fourth-linebacker Andrew Parker filled Morgan’s spot the remainder of the first half because senior Hayden Henry, also deemed a first-teamer with Morgan and weakside ‘backer Bumper Pool, had to sit Saturday’s first half from a second half targeting penalty finishing last year’s final game against Alabama.

Henry will start Saturday against Texas because Pool, 14 tackles to lead Arkansas against Rice, must miss the first half against Texas because of a late second half targeting penalty against Rice.

“You need your good players to play well, and that’s what Cat did,”Pittman said. “And I really loved the interception that Montaric Brown had because he cut that corner off. He drove on that ball. That was a heck of an interception, too.”

However, Pittman said the co-stop by Pool and nickel back Greg Brooks of Rice running back Jordan Myers turned the game as much as any play.

Not as deep or as big as Arkansas, the Owls appeared to wear out with repeating cramping in the 94-degree heat while the Hogs liberally substituted on a defensive line that pressured Rice quarterbacks Will Green, 12 of 25 for 153 yards and three interceptions but a 41-yard touchdown to receiver August Pitre on the Hogs’ lone major coverage bust, and Luke McCaffrey, 5 of 10 for 75 yards.

Starting with lineman Austin Nix’s fumble recovery having to rescue kick returner LaDarrius Bishop on the game’s opening kickoff, the Razorbacks special teams first-half floundered with penalties and suffering a blocked punt.

“At half, I said Rice was kicking our butts in special teams,” Pittman said.  “They were more urgent than us. They blocked a punt on us. We just missed a block on the outside, that’s all it was. But, people go through games and don’t get punts blocked, and we need to be those people. There was a lot of bad stuff out there that looks like as a head coach this wasn’t a very well coached football team. That’s on me.”

But, ultimately, they did win convincingly.

For a program under the previous Chad Morris regime who was embarrassed 45-19 in 2019 by Western Kentucky of Conference USA, that marks major progress. 

Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Dalton Wagner cited the difference between Saturday’s comeback and those nonconference embarrassments ending as badly as they started. “Coming out in the second half, I think you look at it two years ago, guys would have rolled over,” Wagner said.  “But Coach Pittman, playing for him, playing for the seniors that came back, playing for everybody on this team, the fans, the state of Arkansas, guys have bought in.”

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