FAYETTEVILLE — One of the biggest goals for Arkansas football this offseason was to improve its pass rush so it could get after the quarterback a little more in 2022.
The result has been nine sacks through two games for the Razorbacks, including six in their 44-30 win over South Carolina on Saturday.
Granted, that number was inflated by a couple in the closing seconds, but it was the most by Arkansas in an SEC game since notching eight at Auburn in 2012. In the decade since, only three teams of any kind have given up that many sacks to the Razorbacks and two were FCS foes — Portland State (2019) and Nicholls State (2014) — and the other was Tulsa (2018).
The nine sacks are Arkansas’ most in back-to-back games since 2018, when it had nine against Tulsa and Vanderbilt, and the most in its first two games of a season since 1999, when it had 10 against SMU and ULM.
After making just one in the opener, Drew Sanders had the Razorbacks’ first two sacks of the game, including one on which he knocked the ball loose for a fumble that South Carolina managed to recover.
“I think he played a heck of a game,” head coach Sam Pittman said. “He’s getting better each week because he’s understanding and turning it loose a little bit more. If you see today versus when he first came in the spring, you’d think you had two totally different people. He’s a really good player and a great kid and I’m glad he had a great game today.”
He is turning into the beast many projected he’d become when he was a five-star recruit coming out of high school in 2020. On top of the two sacks, Sanders finished with a team-high 11 tackles, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.
“Drew had a great game today,” teammate Latavious Brini said. “I look up, I see Drew making a play every time. I turned to somebody and I said, ‘That’s Drew? Drew is making that play?’ Drew did great.”
Razorbacks Collect Rare Safety
For the first time in almost exactly seven years, Arkansas put two points on the board with a safety when defensive end Jordan Domineck forced Spencer Rattler into committing an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone.
The last time the Razorbacks notched a safety, it was late in their embarrassing loss to Toledo at War Memorial Stadium and it was intentional. Rather than punting near their own end zone and risking a block, the Rockets opted to have their punter run out of the back of the end zone.
Although he’s not currently credited with the safety, Domineck did get credit for a sack on the play and there’s confusion surrounding whether he should also get the safety rather than it being credited to the “team.” If he does, he’d be the first individual Arkansas player with a safety since Jerry Franklin tackled an Ole Miss running back in the end zone in 2011.
“Man, he’s a playmaker,” teammate Simeon Blair said. “He’s a go-getter. I think I talked about this last week. He’s a guy that does it in practice all the time. He’ll run out of the stack and go make a play on the perimeter. He’s just a guy that’s a dog.”
Wins in Back-to-Back SEC Openers
Just like last season, when they beat Texas A&M to open SEC play, the Razorbacks are 1-0 in conference play. Prior to that, they had lost 10 straight SEC openers and hadn’t won them in back-to-back years since 2003 and 2004.
Arkansas is now just 11-20 in their first conference game of the season since joining the SEC in 1992.
“I think it’s a big deal any time we win an SEC game,” Pittman said. “It’s a big deal, no matter who the team is. South Carolina was a hot team. They had finished their year really well last year. … It feels really good to be 1-0 in the SEC.”
KJ Jefferson’s Efficient Night
Arkansas didn’t take too many deep shots against South Carolina, but that should take away from just how efficient KJ Jefferson was Saturday.
What he did with his legs rightfully received the most attention, but the redshirt junior also completed his first 10 passes of the game and ended up completing 18 of 21 for the game. At 85.7%, it was the second-best completion percentage in a single game with a minimum of 20 attempts in school history.
The only more accurate game with at least 20 attempts was by Ryan Mallett when he completed 87.5% of his passes (21 of 24) against Tennessee Tech in 2010. That was an FCS team, so that means Jefferson’s mark is the best against an FBS foe, topping Mallett’s 85.2% (23 of 27) against South Carolina in 2009.
Even if you lower the threshold to 13 pass attempts, Jefferson’s percentage would still be tied for third in school history and the best against a Power Five opponent.
Had Matt Landers not dropped a pass that hit him in the hands, Jefferson would have shattered the single-game school record because 19 of 21 comes out to 90.5%.
Bumper Pool Continues Climbing the Record Book…
With seven more on Saturday, linebacker Bumper Pool now has 369 career tackles. That moved him past Cliff Powell (367) and Caleb Miller (368) for sixth on the UA’s all-time list.
He should jump past De’Jon Harris (371) and Sam Olajubutu (372) next week against Missouri State, but might not play long enough – assuming the Razorbacks handle their business against an FCS foe – to catch Ken Hamlin (381) and Jerry Franklin (382).
If he maintains his current pace of 10 tackles per game, Pool would surpass Tony Bua’s school-record 408 tackles during the Mississippi State game on Oct. 8.
“He bleeds Arkansas,” Pittman said. “A lot of kids in there do, but he’s one of them that really does.”
…And Has ‘Special’ Moment
One of Pool’s seven tackles was a nice open-field sack of Spencer Rattler, but the highlight everyone will remember from the game was on special teams.
Trailing by two possessions with 6:25 remaining, South Carolina attempted to get the ball back with an onside kick. Mitch Jeter’s kick went straight to Pool, though, and he took off down the field.
He was finally dragged down inside the 10 after a 34-yard return. It was the Razorbacks’ longest kickoff return since LaDarrius Bishop’s 42-yarder in last year’s opener against Rice and their longest in an SEC game since Treylon Burks had a 42-yard return against Mississippi State in 2019.
“When I saw Bumper catch it and take it out, I thought he was gonna go score,” quarterback KJ Jefferson said. “And then I asked him in the locker room, ‘Why didn’t you go score?’ He said, ‘Well, they came up pretty quick.’ So I wanted Bumper to score, man.”
On the Gamecocks’ next onside attempt, the ball again went straight to him again, but this time he simply fell on it.
Penalties Galore for Arkansas Football
If there was one glaring negative from the game for Arkansas football, it was all of the penalties. The Razorbacks were flagged 10 times for 122 yards.
Included among those penalties were three personal fouls for illegal hands to the face on three different Arkansas defensive linemen – Cameron Ball, Landon Jackson and Jordan Domineck.
“I certainly haven’t seen that in practice and I watch every rep of everything — one-on-ones and individual and team,” Pittman said. “I don’t believe we’ve had one before, but we’ve got to get it cleaned up. To be honest with you, that’s what kept them in the game.”
Penalties have been an issue throughout Pittman’s tenure. It was the seventh time in 25 games that Arkansas drew double-digit flags, but the 122 yards were the most since he became head coach. In fact, they were the most since Arkansas lost 130 yards on penalties against Vanderbilt in 2010.
Through two games this year, the Razorbacks have committed 17 penalties, or 8.5 per game. That is up from last year, when they ranked 121st nationally with 7.9 per game. They committed 6.5 per game in 2020, which was tied for 81st in the FBS.
Check out highlights from Arkansas football’s win over South Carolina:
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