Unpacking the Insanity of Arkansas’ Referee-Tainted Liberty Bowl Win vs Kansas

Arkansas vs Kansas, Liberty Bowl, Arkansas football
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / ESPN

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Had Jason Bean seen his tight end break wide open, Arkansas and Kansas may still be playing inside Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.

Instead, the backup quarterback never looked Mason Fairchild’s way and his pass sailed harmlessly through the back of the end zone to give the Razorbacks a wild 55-53 triple overtime win over the Jayhawks in the Liberty Bowl.

It was a peculiar, yet oddly fitting, way to end a game that featured multiple questionable calls — both by the coaching staff and the officiating crew — and what would have been the worst collapse in UA history had Kansas finished off the comeback.

“I’m exhausted,” head coach Sam Pittman said. “I never played a snap and I’m just beat up.”

Star quarterback Jalon Daniels had thrown for a school-record 544 yards, which was also a Liberty Bowl record, and nearly single-handedly dug the Jayhawks out of a 25-point deficit, but his final touch was a lateral to his backup on a trick play.

“We struggled running the ball all day,” Kansas head coach Lance Leipold said. “It was a play we’ve used before. … Really couldn’t see everything Jason saw, whether he had the opportunity to run or not, tried to make a throw and incomplete.

“When you go for a couple two-point plays earlier and then you get into situations where you have to keep using two-point plays, you’re going to go to different plays, you just don’t have a chart of like six of them, 10 of them on your play call sheet.”

Arkansas Gets Conservative

After forcing a punt on the opening drive of the second half, Arkansas marched right down the field, with Rashod Dubinion capping a 10-play, 80-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run.

It was the Razorbacks’ sixth score in nine possessions and put them up 38-13 midway through the third quarter. A blowout was, seemingly, well underway.

However, the offense suddenly stopped moving the ball. Arkansas went three-and-out on three of its next four possessions and had only one first down on the other drive in that stretch.

Asked about that particular sequence after the game, Sam Pittman indicated that at least for the first few of those drives, he didn’t handcuff offensive coordinator Kendal Briles or purposely let the foot off the gas because of a lesson learned last month against Ole Miss.

“We went ultra-conservative against Ole Miss up 42-6 and they came back into the game a little bit,” Pittman said. “I tried not to until we got down to about the eight-minute mark because I was telling KB that he could do whatever he wanted to do.

“That might have had something to do with it, but it didn’t have anything to do with the quarter before that. I think I’ll just give KU credit.”

Lance Leipold echoed that sentiment, but did mention the ‘c’ word being thrown around Arkansas football fans.

In addition to what appeared to be conservative play calls, Kansas gave the Razorbacks some trouble with movement up front and their running backs — Dubinion and AJ Green — missed some reads.

“I think there was some things that they were doing that were — I don’t want to say were conservative — but we started playing the run better,” Leipold said. “We were starting to get a few more people around the ball.”

Controversial Calls Spark Kansas Comeback

While it’s fair to point out that the Razorbacks didn’t do much to help their cause, they still likely would have won by multiple possessions had it not been for a controversial call late in the fourth quarter.

Kansas burned its third and final timeout with exactly three minutes left in regulation and Arkansas finally moving the ball again. It was a 15-point game at that point, so things were looking good.

However, Matt Landers took a reverse and ran for a first down that likely would have all be sealed a two-possession win Wednesday. Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the ball came loose as he went to the ground at the 20 and the Jayhawks scooped it up, returning it to near midfield.

“I’m the one that told KJ to run the reverse,” Pittman said of the play call. “It was there. They had the whole damn team — excuse me, the whole darn team — inside and I thought we’d get outside of them and get the first down and the game was over.”

The play was eventually reviewed and stood as called on the field, despite replays appearing to show Landers’ wrist, forearm and elbow touching the turf before the ball popped out. 

Pittman’s disagreement with the call was evident in the postgame press conference, even though he declined to reveal his true feelings.

“No, I saw it,” Pittman said with a laugh when asked if he hadn’t seen a replay of it. “But I like my money.”

There were numerous questionable calls that went against the Razorbacks throughout the game, including an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Bryce Stephens that contributed to the aforementioned four straight punts.

In the second overtime, it looked like Arkansas won the game by stopping a Kansas two-point conversion attempt, but cornerback Quincey McAdoo was flagged for targeting on the play. Although he led with the crown of his helmet, it didn’t look like he made much contact with Jalon Daniels’ head. The call was confirmed after a review, resulting in an ejection for McAdoo.

Pittman was also asked about those penalties and would only say that he saw the play, as he continued his goal of avoiding a fine for criticizing officials.

“For us just to come together as a whole team and just play the next play, play the next play, don’t worry about last play…and keep moving forward and encouraging each other, that’s what helped us win tonight,” quarterback KJ Jefferson said. “I’m just proud of everyone.”

Forcing Overtime in the Liberty Bowl

After the Landers fumble, Jalon Daniels led his team right down the field and scored with 1:05 remaining. It was still an eight-point game, though, so Arkansas was in good shape.

All the Razorbacks needed to do was recover an onside kick, but none of their hands team went after it and Kansas recovered. The confusion was likely due to the fact that Arkansas had a severely limited roster and had to switch up some of its personnel, especially on special teams.

“The bounce was there, we just didn’t go attack the bounce,” Pittman said. “I’ll tell you what, to be perfectly honest with you, I think the players that we had out there would have made a better play if we had practiced it more.

“Now, we practiced it, but with that being something at that point in time, we probably should have put them in a better situation than that.”

Leipold said afterward that it was the first onside kick he remembered his team successfully recovering and it led to a game-tying touchdown with just 41 seconds left.

At that point, the Jayhawks had completely erased a 25-point lead to force overtime.

“Usually when this happens and a team comes back and they tie it at the end of the game, usually the momentum is so severe that the team that was ahead all the time loses,” Pittman said. “We gathered our team. I think we thought we could win the whole entire time, and at that point it looked bleak to be perfectly honest with you.”

Offense Flips a Switch in OT

The Razorbacks sat in neutral for much of the second half, punting four straight drives and fumbling on their next-to-last possession.

With the score tied, something clicked in overtime. Arkansas needed only two plays on its two overtime possessions and also converted both of its two-point tries.

“It says a lot about the football team,” Pittman said. “I think we came to win. I don’t know how we did. We had it, we gave it to them, they earned it back or however you want to say it, but like I say, about 90% of (the time) when that gets to that point, you lose. We didn’t. The offense made it really easy in overtime — made it really easy for us.”

The last of those plays was in the third overtime, when the teams switched from starting on the 25-yard line to alternating two-point conversions.

Even though he had started with the ball in the second overtime, Pittman chose to start on offense again. It may sound unconventional to start on offense in overtime, but because both teams are forced to try two-point conversions — meaning there’s no choice between going for it on fourth down or converting.

“On the two-point conversion, it was my choice and I decided hopefully to put some pressure on them if we made our two-point instead of going on defense,” Pittman said. “Fortunately we made it. I don’t know if it put pressure on them or not. It would have us if they would have made theirs first.”

What proved to be the game-winning play was a pass from Jefferson to Dubinion on the opening attempt of 3OT. Briles dialed up a wheel route and Arkansas executed it to perfection, as Dubinion was wide open on the play.

“Basically we came out in a different formation, tried to see what they were going to be in,” Jefferson said. “They were in man bringing pressure, so I told Coach Briles I wanted at least to get on the move if I had to (run) and I told Dub, ‘Make sure to run the wheel route and get your head around.’ I just put the ball in the air and he made a great play on the ball.”

A Win is a Win

Had Kansas managed to complete the victory, it would have replaced the 2016 Belk Bowl as the biggest blown lead in school history. In that game, Arkansas led 24-0 at halftime before giving up 35 unanswered points to Virginia Tech.

The conservative play calling, the controversial penalties and the general play-making ability of Jalon Daniels easily could have been enough for the Razorbacks to fold in overtime, but instead, they came away with a win that Pittman was fired up about afterward.

“There’s been some really great wins since we’ve been able to be here — we’ve beaten six top-25 teams and won a couple of bowls and been eligible and all that kind of stuff,” Pittman said. “This one was as gratifying as any of them because we had a lot of guys that didn’t play.

“We were down numbers. But the ones we had out there wanted to win, and they practiced hard. This is as much of a gratifying as a head coach as I’ve had since I’ve been here.”


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