by Otis Kirk
FAYETTEVILLE –No. 10 Arkansas outscored Missouri State 21-3 in the fourth quarter to take a 38-27 victory in front of 74,133 fans in Razorback Stadium.
The Bears and Bobby Petrino came to play as expected. Arkansas couldn’t get out of its own way early with two penalties on punt returns and a pair of fumbles. Missouri State went up 17-0 on a 24-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jason Shelley with 10:36 remaining in the first half.
The first lead for the Razorbacks came with 9:16 remaining in the game when Bryce Stephens returned a Grant Burkett punt 82 yards for a touchdown. That put the Hogs up 31-17. It came just two minutes, 22 seconds after KJ Jefferson had hit Rocket Sanders for a 73-yard shovel pass touchdown, Cam Little added the PAT following both those touchdowns. Sam Pittman was obviously elated to see Stephens’ punt return.
“Yeah, Sam Mbake was on their gunner, and we felt like if we could handle the gunner we’d have not an opportunity to score a touchdown but an opportunity to get a decent return,” Pittman said. “Mbake did a really good job on the outside, and you know Bryce won the 100-meters in Oklahoma. He’s fast. He got up the sideline. Guys did a great job, but he got up the sideline and outran them. Big, big, big play in the game. I was happy for him and the special teams. I was happy for (Scott) Fountain. We thought we’d have a chance to return one, but we obviously didn’t think it would go for a touchdown.”
Stephens, a redshirt freshman, showed his speed on the play and described it afterward.
“Man, I was on the sideline and I just knew we needed a momentum play, so I had to make one,” Stephens said. “We talked about it on the sideline before that and Sam told me to look at his side when I’m back there, so I did what I did. I mean it was great blocks all around, so I just appreciate my teammates for doing that. Hit the hole and went outside.”
Jefferson also chimed in on Stephens’ play and the momentum changer.
“Like he said, we needed a momentum play and Bryce delivered.” Jefferson said. “Shoutout to the special teams. Coach Fountain, the guys on special teams, they put together a great plan this week. Just having a guy like Bryce back there, you can trust him and knowing that he’s due for a big play any given moment. We needed that tonight and he delivered.”
Sanders also was pleased to see the return go for a touchdown and give the Hogs a lead for the first time.
“Yeah definitely,” Sanders said. “And I feel like with coach Fountain he takes special teams serious and I feel like that’s something we needed to get us rolling.
The final nail in Missouri State’s chances came after Zach Williams sacked Shelley at the Missouri State at the Arkansas 48 forcing a punt with 6:50 remaining in the game.
Jefferson methodically took the Razorbacks down the field milking the clock and finalizing a nine-play, 80-yard drive with the redshirt junior quarterback coving the final yard with 1:38 remaining in the game. A relieved Pittman is happy to get to 3-0 on the season. But did he think his team overlooked Missouri State?
“No, I don’t,” Pittman said. “I’ll be honest with you, I thought we had a really good week at practice. I think we were focused. Now, I think there’s a difference in looking forward to next week and not giving enough respect for the team you’re playing. I think that. I just think Missouri State outplayed us to be perfectly honest with you. But, if I was going to have a reason why, or something like that, it would be because they did. We went in there and beat Cincinnati, and nobody was happy. Cincinnati is a really good team. So, we’re not going to have problems getting up for the next few. The name on the side of the hat is pretty significant. But, I don’t in any way want to not give Missouri State everything they deserve. Their team wasn’t better than us today because we beat them, but coach was better than me today, and I have to get that fixed.”
Sanders didn’t completely agree with the Hogs not playing focused football.
“Yeah, the concern was I felt a lot of people – of course I feel we played down to their level,” Sanders said. “We played down to their level. We had a great week of practice, man. We just played down to their level. The thing we did as a team we relaxed and everybody came around. Even the players on the team not playing today, they came around, and everybody had the same energy, man. I feel like we relaxed as a team and worried about the next play and getting over the fumbles that we had, me and KJ. That helped a lot just by being relaxed.”
Missouri State got on the scoreboard first with a one-yard run by running back Jacardia Wright with 2:47 remaining in the first quarter. Arkansas answered with a drive of its own, but Sanders fumbled at the Missouri State one-yard line. The Bears took a 10-0 lead with 13:29 remaining in the first half on a 28-yard field goal by Jose Pizano.
Sanders got the Hogs on the scoreboard with a three-yard run with 8:25 remaining in the first half. That pulled the Hogs to within 17-7. Jefferson hit Jadon Haselwood for a 38-yard touchdown with 1:04 remaining in the first half. The Bears took a 17-14 lead into intermission.
Arkansas got the ball first to start the third quarter, but a pass that bounced off Trey Knox’s hands into Tahj Chambers hands gave the ball back to the Bears.
With 5:36 remaining in the third quarter, Little booted a 27-yard field goal to tie the game at 17. It was a 14-play drive that covered 84 yards in 3:57.
But Missouri State wasn’t finished. On the very next drive, Missouri State had a fourth-and-one at the Arkansas 47. Drew Sanders had just stuffed a running play on third down. On fourth down, Shelley faked a handoff and found Ty Scott running free behind the Arkansas secondary for a touchdown and 24-17 lead.
The Bears added a 31-yard field goal to take a 27-17 lead with 12:09 remaining in the fourth quarter. It was at that point the Razorbacks took control of the game.
Jefferson finished with 19 of 31 passing for 385 yards and two touchdowns with the one interception. Sanders rushed 22 times for 167 yards and a touchdown. He also caught two passes for 75 yards and a touchdown. He talked about the shovel pass that helped bring the Hogs back.
“That was crazy,” Sanders said. “I actually ran that against South Carolina and it didn’t work — well, it worked, but I didn’t read it how I was supposed to read it. I feel like getting that play called, I got chills. I got chills knowing I was going to take it far, if not to a touchdown. By looking at the one against South Carolina, I feel like I could have scored on that play. By watching that play, it helped me out today with that play.”
On defense, Arkansas was once again led by Sanders with 12 tackles, five solo, 2.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss and a pass breakup. Safety Simeon Blair added 10 tackles. Bumper Pool had nine tackles and two quarterback hurries. Jordan Domineck added seven tackles, a pair for loss and two sacks. Zach Williams added five tackles, a pair for loss, two sacks and a quarterback hurry. Jayden Johnson added five tackles, 1.5 for loss, 0.5 sack and two quarterback hurries. Landon Jackson finished with four tackles, one sack and a tackle for loss.
“The leaders on our team really did help us out the entire game just keeping everybody’s heads up and making sure everybody knew the game isn’t over, nothing is over, even when we’re down 17-0,” Domineck said. “They always told everybody to keep their heads up, don’t get divided and make sure everybody stays together as a team. We’re going to be able to overcome this. We were able to overcome it through the great leadership of Sim, of KJ, of everybody that’s a leader on our team.”
Arkansas will be at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday to take on Texas A&M at 6 p.m. on ESPN. The Aggies bounced back to defeat Miami 17-9 Saturday night.