FAYETTEVILLE — The momentum had already shifted in favor of Arkansas football, but Bryce Stephens made sure it stayed there with an electric go-ahead punt return touchdown Saturday night.
Having already dug out of a 17-0 hole, their largest ever in 20 games against FCS foes, the Razorbacks found themselves still trailing by three with 9:35 remaining against Missouri State. That changed less than 20 seconds later.
During that span, Stephens — the speedy redshirt freshman from Oklahoma — fielded Grant Burkett’s booming 57-yard punt at the 18, got blocks from Sam Mbake and Hudson Clark, weaved his way through traffic and bolted down the home sideline.
With no flags on the play, he gave Arkansas its first lead of the night with fifth-longest punt return touchdown in school history, at 82 yards. Only Joe Adams (97), Ken Hatfield (95), Terry Stewart (90) and Orlando Watters (87) have had longer ones for the Razorbacks.
“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 (Mbake) told me to look at his side when I’m back there, so I did what I did.
“It was great blocks all around, so I just appreciate my teammates for doing that. Hit the hole and went outside.”
A soft-spoken guy, Stephens described the immediate celebration as a “blackout moment.” Although he had a couple of solid returns against UAPB and LSU as a true freshman last year, it was his first punt return touchdown since his sophomore year at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City.
It was the Razorbacks’ first since Nathan Parodi had one against UAPB last year, but prior to that, the Arkansas football program hadn’t returned a punt for a touchdown since since Joe Adams did it against Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl following the 2011 season. Parodi’s was also at War Memorial Stadium, so Stephens’ play was Arkansas’ first in Fayetteville since Adams’ legendary return against Tennessee on Nov. 12, 2011.
As fate would have it, Adams was in the building and got recognized for his recent induction into the UA Sports Hall of Honor. When asked by a reporter if there may have been some good karma because of his presence, Pittman responded with a laugh and asked his boss — athletics director Hunter Yurachek — if he could make the trip to Arlington, Texas, next week for the Texas A&M game.
“That’s what it was,” Pittman said. “We need to take him down to Dallas. Hunter, can we do that? Find somebody that’s got some kickoff returns and let’s get him too.”
Somebody get Felix Jones on the line. He probably remembers how to get to AT&T Stadium.
Razorbacks Rack Up Sacks
Perhaps lost in the excitement of Stephens’ punt return and Rocket Sanders’ 73-yard touchdown on a shovel pass that preceded it was the fact that the defense forced a three-and-out in between those two long scores.
Arkansas started that defensive possession with back-to-back sacks to put Missouri State in a low-percentage third-and-long situation. First, Jordan Domineck and Landon Jackson combined to throw Jason Shelley down for an 8-yard loss and then Drew Sanders sacked him for a loss of 4 yards.
“Any time you can affect the quarterback, it’s going to be huge in the game,” Sanders said. “Their quarterback was phenomenal, just making plays all over the place. But if we can get to him, it’ll help switch the momentum back to our side definitely.”
Those were just two of a whopping eight sacks by the Razorbacks, their highest total in a game since notching eight against Auburn in 2012. That gives them 17 through three games, which is already more than they had in all of 2020 (14 in 10 games) and leads the FBS (USC and Washington State are second with 14 apiece).
“Going into that game, that was exactly the game plan,” Pittman said. “We were going to put pressure on him because we knew how good their receivers were. We just couldn’t contain him. He’d get outside the pocket and make plays with his feet.”
Transfer additions account for 11 of those sacks, with Sanders leading the way with 5.5. That is tied with Michigan State’s Jacoby Windmon for the most in the country and puts him well on his way to achieving Best of Arkansas Sports’ preseason prediction that he’d be the first Arkansas player with double-digit sacks since Jake Bequette in 2011.
Teammate Simeon Blair said opposing quarterbacks are scared of Sanders, which is precisely why defensive coordinator Barry Odom has drawn up some special packages designed for him to get in the backfield.
“He’s very strong and that’s his forte, you know,” Pittman said. “Before he transferred, he was a line of scrimmage guy. I like what we’re doing with him. We’re putting him on the edge, putting him inside over the guard.”
That strength was on full display in the Hogs’ most spectacular defensive play of the year so far:
Matt Landers’ Career Day
Although he had been one of KJ Jefferson’s top targets the first two weeks of the season, Matt Landers was hanging his head over a play he failed to make.
Against South Carolina, the Georgia/Toledo transfer dropped a perfectly placed deep ball on what would have otherwise been a touchdown. He responded with his best performance to date, hauling in seven passes for 123 yards against Missouri State.
“I’m proud of Matt, because he dropped a pass against South Carolina and he struggled with that,” Pittman said. “It was bothering him. I hope he doesn’t mind me saying that. I told him, I said, you’re going to drop another one eventually, you will. But it ain’t because you don’t want to and it’s not because you can’t catch it. It’s just you dropped it, so get over it and move on.”
He is the fourth different Arkansas player in three seasons to hit the century mark in receiving, joining Treylon Burks, Mike Woods and De’Vion Warren.
Career High for KJ Jefferson
With as much success as they were having on the ground, the Razorbacks really hadn’t turned it loose through the air yet in 2022. That changed Saturday night, as KJ Jefferson completed 19 of 31 passes for a career-high 385 yards.
He did lose a fumble and throw his first interception of the season, but the pick came on a ball Trey Knox tipped in the air, so it wasn’t really his fault. He also threw two touchdowns and ran for another, as he finished with 40 yards on nine carries.
“I knew my guys could run and make plays down the field, so my thing was just being able to try to get them a catchable ball, give them a shot and let them make plays on the outside,” Jefferson said. “Then just looking at their defense, we knew they were loading the box, so they were ready for the run, so we knew we could open up the pass game and the run would come after that.”
Jefferson’s previous career high was 366 yards against Georgia Southern last season and this marked the fourth time he’s eclipsed 300 passing yards, which is tied with Clint Stoerner for the fifth-most such games in UA history. Only Ryan Mallett (14), Tyler Wilson (10), Brandon Allen (5) and Austin Allen (5) have had more.
“We just told KJ on the last couple of drives, ‘Hey, it’s your game. Go take over,’” Pittman said. “And that’s what he does. I just wanted him to know we were expecting him to. And he did. That’s what good players (do). They can’t always do it every single time, but most of the time he can do it.”
Arkansas Football Injury Report
Here’s the latest on several Arkansas football players dealing with injuries…
- TE Trey Knox (ankle): Despite dealing with a lingering ankle injury, Knox started and played virtually the entire game… Finished with three receptions for 30 yards
- S Latavious Brini (ankle): Although it didn’t seem quite as bad as Knox’s, Brini was also dealing with an ankle injury this week, but he started and played virtually the entire game… Finished with five tackles
- RB Dominique Johnson (ACL): Pittman said they were prepared to play him, but he was fourth in the pecking order behind Rocket Sanders, AJ Green and Rashod Dubinion… Ultimately didn’t play for the third straight week… “His mind was kind of wishy-washy on if he was ready or not, so I think he’ll be fine and ready to go next week,” Pittman said. “I do believe he’ll play next week though.”
- DE Jashaud Stewart (undisclosed): In a surprising development, Stewart did not dress out for the game… Pittman didn’t reveal any specifics, but said he’ll “hopefully” be fine to practice Monday
- DB Myles Slusher (undisclosed): Despite optimism that he could return this week, Slusher didn’t dress out for the second straight week after suffering an undisclosed injury against Cincinnati in Week 1… Pittman said they’re “hoping” he can practice Monday… “I sure think he will, but I don’t know that,” Pittman said.
- CB LaDarrius Bishop (knee): Did not dress out
- QB Kade Renfro (ACL): Just as he has all year, Renfro dressed out and went through pregame warmups, but did not play against Missouri State
- WR Isaiah Sategna (knee): Did not dress out after rolling his ankle in practice Tuesday
- DT Taurean Carter (knee): Did not dress out, expected to be out for a while
- S Jalen Catalon (shoulder): Out for the year
New Starters for Arkansas Football
The Razorbacks made a couple of changes to their starting lineup on the defensive side of the ball.
Although it bounced back and forth between a three- and four-man front, Arkansas opened the game in its “base” 4-2-5 defense and, with Jashaud Stewart out, Landon Jackson made his first career start.
In the secondary, Malik Chavis started opposite of Dwight McGlothern at cornerback, replacing Hudson Clark. However, the two appeared to rotate quite a bit.
Record Attendance for FCS Opponent
A confluence of factors — a top-10 ranking, late kickoff and Bobby Petrino’s return —gave Saturday’s game far from the feel of a typical FCS matchup.
In fact, the announced attendance of 74,133 was the Razorbacks’ largest ever for a game against a team from that level. In the first 19 such games, the previous high was 72,453 for a game against Southeast Missouri State in 2006.
It was the 18th time Arkansas has cracked 74,000 fans and just the fourth time for a non-conference game. Two of those have now come in 2022, as the Cincinnati opener drew 74,751.
Arkansas Natives Return
While the return of former head coach Bobby Petrino drew most of the headlines, Saturday was also a homecoming for three Arkansas natives on the Missouri State football roster.
Most notably, wide receiver Jordan Jones was back where his college career began. The seventh-year senior — who committed to the Razorbacks way back in the summer of 2014 — spent four seasons in Fayetteville, transferred to Cincinnati and was there for two years before landing at Missouri State this offseason.
After missing the Bears’ last game with a concussion, the Smackover native started and caught one pass for 19 yards.
Fellow wide receiver Hunter Wood, a Springdale Har-Ber product, played some on offense, but did not record any statistics. He was, however, called for a personal foul on the game’s opening kickoff, causing Missouri State to start its drive at the 13 instead of the 25.
Safety P.J. Hall Jr., who played at Joe T. Robinson in Little Rock, is listed on the participation chart. He, too, didn’t record any statistics.
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…