FAYETTEVILLE – Asserting themselves with big plays at the outset of each half, the 20th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks before 66,311 Saturday at Reynolds Razorbacks whipped the 23-point underdog Georgia Southern Eagles, 45-10 to rack a 3-0 nonconference start heading into next Saturday’s SEC opener against the 3-0 nationally No. 7 Texas A&M Aggies at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium.
Underdogs similar to the Sun Belt Conference’s 1-2 Georgia Southern, had embarrassed and derailed Arkansas’ previous Chad Morris era in 2-10, 2-10 seasons of 2018 and 2019, but second-year Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman’s Hogs jumped on the Eagles, 14-0 and even with a shaky second quarter led 28-10 at half.
Arkansas’ defense, badly victimized on GSU’s option game only once on quarterback Justin Tomlin’s 76-yard second-quarter touchdown run, and later on passes leading to a second-quarter field goal, pitched a second half shutout.
“I thought we played well against the option,” Pittman said offering kudos to Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom. “Really proud of our defense, we were swarming to the ball. Loved the defensive game plan that we had.”
Offensively Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson finished completing 13 of 23 passes for 366 yards and three touchdown, one a 91-yarder to junior receiver Treylon Burks.
The Burks taking a short pass and going the distance marked the second longest pass in Razorbacks historyclipsed only by a 92-yarder from Matt Jones to Richard Smith in 2002 against Tennessee.
Burks, an All-American candidate but with only 79 reception yards on 10 catches, in victories over Rice and Texas, logged 127 on 3 catches Saturday.
However as he did with early big yardage catches against Rice and Texas, Helena native/senior receiver Tyson Morris opened Arkansas’ festivities.
After Arkansas’ defense forced a game-opening series three and out, Morris on Arkansas’ first play from scrimmage caught a 47-yard bomb from Jefferson that would have gone for a touchdown had not Jefferson fallen to catch it at the GSU 26.
Running back Trelon Smith ran the next three plays netting a 13-yard touchdown on the third.
With a fourth and three offsides penalty gifting Arkansas a first
down as the Hogs were putting, plus a key roughing the passer penalty, Arkansas tallied its second first-quarter touchdown on running back Dominque Johnson’s 11-yard run capping a 15-play, 94-yard drive.
Morris, after a Jefferson to Burks 24-yard pass and Johnson, 48-yard rum, put Arkansas up 21-0 at 8:42 of the second quarter catching a 14-yard down the middle strike from Jefferson.
“It seems like he (Morris) makes at least one big play all the time,” Pittman said.
Definitely more than one this game, not only with that first big reception and then the touchdown but joining tight end Blake Kern clearing Burks’ downfield path on the short pass become 91-yard touchdown, Pittman said.
“I was really excited about Kern and Tyson Morris on that screen,” Pittman said. “We worked the heck out of it this week, throwing it out there to Burks and then he went I think 91 yards.”
Burks said, “ I really want to thank Tyson Morris, KJ and Kern for the blocks and the (KJ) throw. Without them, it wouldn’t have even been a play. So I just thank them.”
But it was a big play that Burks needed, Rusty from an Aug. 14 scrimmage injury that held him out of practice until two workouts before the Rice game, Burks dropped passes he just drop against Rice. Arkansas was so successful running the ball against Texas (333 yards) that Burks was more utilized as a blocker against Texas.
“Honestly I would say practice makes perfect,” Burks said, “I knew exactly what I was looking at on defense and catching the ball.”
Jefferson started Saturday’s game looking for Burks and Morris.
“From reparation earlier in the week, we knew we were going to take shots down the field,” Jefferson said. “Come out, starting the game fast and wanted to mix it up.”
Burks caught his touchdown at 11:38 of the third quarter after Jefferson and receiver Warren Thompson, the transfer from Florida State, connected on a 60-yard TD pass.
Backup quarterback Malik Hornsby rushed Arkansas’ final touchdown, a 6-yard jaunt.
Jefferson performed so well that Pittman confessed his mind magnified when his quarterback threw incomplete.
“”Every time he misses a throw, it’s like ‘oh my gosh’ in my mind!,” Pittman said. “But when he throws one that goes 91, he throws a nice drop pass to Warren Thompson, 60 for a touchdown, I’m like ‘well, that’s what he’s supposed to do.’ I mean, I think (NFL Hall of Famer) Dan Marino missed a pass or two. So my mind has to work a little bit different. He’s our quarterback and he’s doing a nice job.”
Jefferson would have have had four touchdown passes but an ineligible receiver downfield penalty deprived him of a second-quarter TD pass to freshman receiver Ketron Jackson.
The Hogs settled for Cam Little’s 25-yard field goal.
Penalties, 9 for 93 yards, was “a concern” and must be cleaned up heading into the A&M, Pittman said.
Other than penalties, two late hits especially vexed him, Pittman lauded the defense led by safety Jalen Catalon’s nine tackles and two pass breakups, and defensive end Tre Williams applying pressure “to be in their backfield all day,” Catalon said.
Williams had two lost yardage stops and a quarterback hurry for a defense that broke down just one play.
“ Odom came in at halftime and kind of said that was a bad call he made,” Catalon said. But l we’re a defense where if he makes a bad call we’ve still got to do our job you know and make it right. It was just one those things that we had to shake off and move on and We did a great job with that and responded.”
Arkansas offensive line, so shuffled because of during the game injuries to right tackle Dalton Wagner and center Ricky Stromberg that senior Ty Clary started at right guard, played right tackle and finished at center, bulldozed Arkansas backs for 269 yards rushing.
It’s early nonconference done, now it’s clear for a battle of nationally ranked unbeatens with the Hogs and Aggies in Dallas.
“ I’m proud of our team and our coaches to be 3-0.” Pittman said. “Texas A&M is a great football team. We’re excited to get down to Dallas. We’ve got a week to get prepared for them and we will.”
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, Cw3 Sports Action