FAYETTEVILLE — KJ Jefferson reminded the world just what he’s capable of Saturday night.
Returning to action after missing the previous game with a shoulder injury, the star quarterback’s numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, as he accounted for only 215 yards of offense, but his presence was certainly felt in Arkansas’ 42-27 shellacking of No. 14 Ole Miss.
On a frigid night inside Reynolds Razorback Stadium, when temperatures dipped below freezing, the Razorbacks’ offense was red hot under Jefferson’s guidance. Their 503 yards were more than double last week’s total in a 13-10 loss to LSU.
Throw in the fact that he clearly wasn’t himself a week earlier against Liberty and it’s been a while since fans saw a healthy Jefferson leading the offense, bringing to mind the old adage, Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
“Man, it’s nice to have KJ back,” head coach Sam Pittman said. “We weren’t too clean on the first two drives, first two scoring drives, but he made us clean because of his athleticism.”
Without Jefferson, the Razorbacks’ offense looked lost. Calls for offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ head reached an all-time high after back-to-back offensive clunkers. All of that was on Jefferson’s mind as he stepped on the field.
“I took it as a challenge, knowing that I didn’t play last week,” Jefferson said. “I had to come in and make a statement tonight.”
It was mission accomplished for Jefferson, who threw three touchdowns within the game’s first 16 minutes. He ultimately completed 17 of 22 passes (77.3%) for 168 yards, plus added 47 yards on eight carries.
“I think that having last week, taking it to rest, it was hard on him,” teammate Dalton Wagner said. “Obviously nobody wants to take a week off and try to heal up an injury. I know it was very hard on him, but he came back and responded the right way… I haven’t seen him more confident this year than he was today.”
KJ Jefferson Injury Update
A shoulder injury suffered the week of practice leading up to the Texas A&M game has lingered for nearly two months. It reached a head the last couple of weeks, with Jefferson requiring a steroid shot the week of the Liberty loss and then not playing against LSU.
As Wagner pointed out, that time off seems to have worked wonders. Pittman revealed afterward that his star quarterback didn’t need any medication this week and that he’s been throwing the ball well in practice.
“I’m close to being back to 100%,” Jefferson said. “I mean, nobody’s 100% — you’re playing SEC ball, I don’t feel like anybody is 100%. But it felt good just being back out there with my teammates and just being able to be out there on the field and actually encourage them and see what’s going on.”
Considering how well the defense had been playing of late, Pittman said he felt confident that the offense would be able to put together a big performance if they could get Jefferson back healthy.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.
Reemergence of Arkansas’ Rushing Attack
Just a couple of weeks after he couldn’t put much zip on the ball and was more gun-shy than he’s ever been, KJ Jefferson came out firing. Slinging the ball all over the field, each of Arkansas’ first three touchdowns came through the air and he had 164 passing yards in the first half.
It seemed as though he might be on track for another 300-yard passing game, but the Razorbacks didn’t need to throw it that much because of their large lead and effectiveness on the ground.
Much like it did the first eight games of the season, Arkansas dominated in the run game, rushing for a season-high 335 yards on 43 carries. Rocket Sanders got the bulk of that, finishing with 232 yards, but Jefferson did manage 47 yards himself.
It was the fourth time the Razorbacks have rushed for 300-plus yards under Pittman and a dramatic improvement from the previous two games in which they set season-low rushing totals in back-to-back weeks. The mere presence of a healthy Jefferson might have been enough to inspire the offensive line to have a much better outing than in those two games.
“The biggest improvement is KJ Jefferson, to be perfectly honest with you,” Pittman said. “When you have a guy behind you like that, it builds confidence in you when you have a big runner that can physically run over people.
“When you have a guy back there that can break tackles and make things happen, you play a little bit better, to be honest with you.”
Right tackle Dalton Wagner agreed that having Jefferson back at quarterback was a major factor, but hinted at another reason.
“KJ bails us out on a lot of bad situations,” Wagner said. “It’s hard to tell sometimes, but he bails us out of a lot of bad situations. Things that we don’t block up maybe the best, he’s able to get out of it through either his read or just his athletic ability to make a play.”
Jefferson’s Return Provides ‘Confidence Booster’
Even though head coach Sam Pittman has spoken highly of both quarterbacks, Malik Hornsby and Cade Fortin have struggled to replicate what KJ Jefferson can do behind center.
A physical runner with good speed, plus a cannon for an arm, Jefferson is critical to the success of Arkansas’ offense, so getting him back was the “confidence booster we needed,” Wagner said.
“We knew going into it that getting KJ back healthy was going to open up the offense a little bit more, because you have to respect him as a passer, too,” Wagner said. “He’s done a tremendous job, too, being that dual threat of ‘I can pull it, I can run it, I can pass it as well,’ too. We rallied around him the best we could.”
Sure enough, the Razorbacks are now averaging 36.9 points when Jefferson starts and is healthy. In their other three games — against Mississippi State, Liberty and LSU — they managed just 15.3 points.
Had those games not happened, or had Jefferson been healthy and maintained that 36.9 scoring average, Arkansas would be firmly inside the top 20 nationally in scoring offense.
While he does have great numbers himself, including completing 67.6% of his passes and throwing 20 touchdowns with only three interceptions, Jefferson’s presence means so much more to the Razorbacks
“KJ is the motor to our offense and to our team,” linebacker Bumper Pool said.
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