Arkansas Defense Sets All-Time High… and Low + Other Insights from Liberty Bowl Win

Arkansas football, Liberty Bowl
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If this season it felt like the Arkansas football team struggled to stop opposing offenses to more than what would be considered a “reasonable” degree in this offense-fueled day and age, you aren’t imagining things.

By giving up 603 yards in their 55-53 triple overtime win over Kansas in the Liberty Bowl, the Razorbacks secured their worst mark in school history in terms of yards allowed per game in a season.

The 465.2 yards they gave up this year broke the previous high of 451.7 set in the pandemic-altered 2020 season, when they played a 10-game, SEC-only schedule. It’s actually the third time in four years — and fifth time in seven years — Arkansas has broken the record.

In a sign of the how offenses have exploded in recent years, the Razorbacks have now given up at least 400 yards per game eight times since 2012, a span of 11 years. Prior to that stretch, it happened just twice — in 1990 and 2009.

However, this year’s mark was still pretty bad even compared to its contemporaries. Through Wednesday’s bowl games, Arkansas ranks 124th out of 131 FBS teams in total defense. It also fell behind Vanderbilt for last in the SEC.

Kansas did almost all of its damage through the air, with Jalon Daniels joining Alabama’s Bryce Young (559) and Dak Prescott (508) as opposing quarterbacks to throw for 500-plus yards against the Razorbacks. He finished with 544 yards.

That performance gives Arkansas the worst pass defense in the country this year, allowing 294.7 passing yards per game. That was just behind Ohio, which gave up 293.7 through the air.

Big First Quarter

If there were any lingering questions surrounding the Razorbacks’ desire to be there, Arkansas needed only 15 minutes to silence them Wednesday evening.

The Razorbacks broke a Liberty Bowl record by piling up 24 points in the first quarter against Kansas. Not only was it the highest scoring quarter in the game’s history, but it was also the most the Arkansas football program has ever scored in a single quarter of a bowl game. The previous record was 21 points in the fourth quarter of the 1976 Cotton Bowl and second quarter of the 2014 Texas Bowl.

It had been more than a decade since the Razorbacks scored that many first-quarter points against a Power Five opponent, when they put up 28 points against Kentucky. The last time Arkansas did that against any opponent was 2019, when it jumped out to a 24-14 lead over Colorado State.

Arkansas Breaks Sack Record

As much as the defense struggled to stop opponents this season, the Razorbacks did get after the quarterback more than they have in a long time.

In fact, with three more in the Liberty Bowl, Arkansas finished the year with a school-record 42 sacks. That broke the previous record of 40 set in 1998.

The Razorbacks tied that mark midway through the second quarter when Terry Hampton tracked down Jalon Daniels in the backfield for just his second sack of the season.

Another defensive tackle, Cam Ball, made the play that broke the record, notching a strip-sack with about five minutes left in the game.

Jordan Domineck delivered the final sack of the season late in the fourth quarter as Kansas was rallying to tie it up. It gave him 7.5 sacks for the year, which is just outside of the school’s all-time top-10 list for a single season.

KJ Jefferson Named MVP

For the second straight season, KJ Jefferson was named the MVP of Arkansas’ bowl game — and he was much better in the Liberty Bowl than he was in last season’s Outback Bowl.

The redshirt junior completed 19 of 29 passes for 287 yards, two touchdowns and one interception while rushing for a career-high 130 yards and another two scores on 14 carries. That gave him 417 total yards of offense — and that doesn’t include a pair of two-point conversion passes.

“I just wanted to put my teammates in the best position to win,” Jefferson said on the post-game radio show. “When it came down to clutch situations, they made big-time plays. I just wanted to show my leadership and carry my team to victory.”

The 287 passing yards are the fourth-most ever by an Arkansas player in a bowl game, while his 130 rushing yards rank ninth in UA bowl history — but are the most by a quarterback.

When asked about the performance of his quarterback, though, Sam Pittman said it went beyond the box score and pointed to his leadership and toughness.

“I think what he did better than anything tonight was he led the football team,” Pittman said. “He was very vocal. I think when you’re playing well, it’s easier to be vocal as well. I think it’s easier to because you’re feeling better… I thought he was in charge of the football game.” Indeed, KJ Jefferson’s outspokenness in the face of challenges – of which there were plenty in the second half and overtime – was something he had vowed to do better in the weeks after the disappointing regular season finale vs Missouri.

According to Pro Football Focus, Jefferson was a top-10 quarterback in the country this season, as his 90.4 overall grade ranked 10th in the FBS. He was third in the SEC, behind only Alabama’s Bryce Young (91.0) and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker (90.9) — both of whom finished top five in Heisman Trophy voting.

Jefferson also completed exactly 68% of his passes this season, which was just behind Feleipe Franks’ single-season record of 68.5% set in 2020.

Matt Landers Cracks Top 10 List

Just as he has all season, Matt Landers made several big plays for Arkansas in the passing game Wednesday against Kansas.

His 59-yard first-quarter score was the Razorbacks’ first touchdown of the night and he ended up hauling in another 43-yard deep ball in the fourth quarter and making a 19-yard catch in overtime.

That gave him three receptions for 121 yards — the fourth time this year that he’s eclipsed 100 receiving yards in a game.

Perhaps more impressively, the Toledo/Georgia transfer jumped up from 19th to eighth on the UA single-season list with the performance, finishing with 901 receiving yards. Landers also caught eight touchdown passes this year, which is tied for the sixth-most in school history.

Arkansas Football Roster Availability

Between injuries, opt outs for the NFL Draft and transfer portal departures, Sam Pittman was left with a depleted Arkansas football roster for the Liberty Bowl.

The Razorbacks had 82 available players Wednesday and only 54 of them are scholarship athletes.

Notable players Arkansas didn’t have against Kansas include 10 regular starters: punter Reid Bauer, wide receiver Jadon Haselwood, wide receiver Ketron Jackson Jr., tight end Trey Knox, defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols, linebacker Bumper Pool, linebacker Drew Sanders, nickel back Myles Slusher, center Ricky Stromberg and wide receiver Warren Thompson.

With all of the absences, the Razorbacks used some interesting personnel groupings.

Offensively, they opened the game in 21-personnel with two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers. That was a package they used several times throughout the game. Perhaps most interestingly, one of the starting wide receivers was Harper Cole.

On the other side of the ball, Arkansas used a four-man front for a majority of the game and several lightly used players — like linebackers Jordan Crook and Jackson Woodard, defensive tackle Marcus Miller and defensive back Jaylen Lewis — got meaningful snaps.

Other Arkansas Football Tidbits

  • With the win, Arkansas improves to 3-3 all-time in the Liberty Bowl and 17-24-3 all-time in bowl games. It has now won three straight Liberty Bowl appearances, as it also beat East Carolina in 2009 and Kansas State in 2015.
  • The announced attendance for the Liberty Bowl was 52,847. That’s the largest crowd for the game since 2017, when the hometown Memphis Tigers were one of the participants.
  • This was just the third all-time meeting between Arkansas and Kansas in football. The teams last played a home-and-home series more than a century ago, with the Jayhawks winning both matchups. In 1905, they beat the Razorbacks 6-0 in Fayetteville. The following year, Kansas beat Arkansas 37-5 in Lawrence.
  • The game was officiated by a crew from the Pac-12, with Matthew Richards serving as the head referee.
  • City-wide water issues caused by the previous week’s freezing temperatures led to Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium being without running water leading up to the game, so 400-plus porta-johns and 80 hand sanitizer pumps were brought in and placed throughout the venue. However, less than two hours before kickoff, the Liberty Bowl announced that all restrooms on the main concourse were fully operational.
  • Starship, a rock band popular in the 1980s, was the halftime performance at the Liberty Bowl. The group put out a pair of songs that reached No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart: “We Built This City” and “Sara.”
  • For just the second time this season, Arkansas came away with points on its opening drive of the game. It was a 10-play, 56-yard drive that ended with a 37-yard field goal by Cam Little. The Razorbacks had gone three-and-out to start the final five games of the regular season.


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