Rocket Sanders Breaks Arkansas Rushing Record + More Notes from Gritty Cincinnati Win

Rocket Sanders, Arkansas football
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

FAYETTEVILLE — It wasn’t a sell out, but the Arkansas football fans made their presence felt during Saturday’s season-opening win.

The raucous crowd’s impact was perhaps most felt in a goal line stand when the Razorbacks were on their heels, clinging to a one-score lead. After a quick score to cut its deficit to seven, Cincinnati recovered a bobbled snap at the 3-yard line and had its best chance of the afternoon to tie it up.

Instead, the Bearcats went backward with four penalties. They were called for a false start and illegal formation on back-to-back plays to start the drive, which whipped the crowd of 74,751 into a frenzy and eventually led to a couple of delay of game penalties.

Cincinnati had to settle for a 26-yard field goal when the last of those penalties pushed it back from the 3 to the 8 and it never managed to even the score in a 31-24 loss to the Razorbacks.

“That was the crowd,” head coach Sam Pittman said. “Ten of those yards was Razorback nation, so we thank them for that.”

“The place was rocking and super loud,” linebacker Bumper Pool said. “Very deafening. It’s a cool feeling whenever you get the fans going like that.”

Even though there were several open seats in the upper deck, it was the seventh-largest announced attendance in school history. On top of that, it was the second-largest attendance for a UA home opener and the third-largest for a non-conference game, behind only the 2006 USC game (76,564) and 2004 Texas game (75,671).

“The stadium got so rowdy,” tight end Trey Knox said. “I was talking on the phone, actually, to Coach (Dowell) Loggains and I couldn’t even hear what he was saying and the phone was on my ear. So I knew that the place was rocking and I knew we were going to get a stop.”

Saturday also surpassed last year’s attendance for the Texas game, making it the largest crowd since 2016, when Arkansas cracked 75,000 against Alabama and LSU.

With the Crimson Tide and Tigers both coming to Fayetteville this year, the all-time attendance record of 76,808 set against Alabama in 2010 could be in jeopardy.

Arkansas Football Injury Report

For the most part, Arkansas entered the 2022 season pretty healthy. Sure, running back Dominique Johnson isn’t quite back from a torn ACL and defensive tackle Taurean Carter is expected to miss a while, but no other significant contributors missed the opener.

Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, that same statement couldn’t be made after the game. They lost numerous players with injuries throughout the game — most notably on the back end of their defense.

“We’re beat up in the secondary,” Pittman said. “We knew it was going to be a physical game and we’re beat up.”

Nickel back Myles Slusher was on the ground for quite a while after a big hit behind the line of scrimmage before being helped to the locker room. Later in the game, Jalen Catalon also had to leave with an injury and went to the locker room. Neither of them returned or were seen on the sideline after leaving.

“Slush took a pretty big hit, or hit the guy and took the brunt of the injury,” Pittman said. “I was nervous about him there for a minute, but he’s going to be fine, just wasn’t able to come back today. I don’t know about Catalon, to be honest with you.”

Defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols also missed an extended portion of the game. Although Pittman told reporters that he returned to the game, he was not seen back on the field after getting hurt, but he was seen on the sideline at least.

Jayden Johnson, who was filling in for Slusher at nickel, was also shaken up at one point, forcing Trent Gordon into the game because Latavious Brini — who is also capable of playing nickel — was in at safety for Catalon.

Cornerback Hudson Clark appeared to get dinged up, too, and missed a handful of plays.

Solid Opener for KJ Jefferson

Making his first start as the undisputed QB1 last season against Rice, quarterback KJ Jefferson sputtered out of the gate. Although he had 89 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, he threw an interception, completed only 57.1% of his passes, had just 128 passing yards and one passing touchdown in that game.

It was a different story against Cincinnati. Jefferson was far from perfect, but had 223 yards and three scores through the air on 18 of 26 passing (69.2%). Throw in 62 yards and another touchdown on the ground, he accounted for nearly 300 yards of offense. In fact, he would have hit that mark if sacks didn’t count against his rushing total.

One of his biggest plays came on the game’s final drive. Needing to milk as much of the 5:49 remaining, the Razorbacks were on the verge of going three-and-out and giving the ball right back to Cincinnati with a chance to tie.

Back-to-back runs by Rocket Sanders had managed just one yard, so Jefferson dropped back to pass on third-and-9. He was flushed from the pocket and scrambled for 14 yards to move the chains. Later in the drive, he converted another third down, but did it the hard way with 6 yards up the middle to essentially seal the win.

“It seems like he just does it,” Pittman said of Jefferson’s play-making ability. “They had him dead to rights and he — pshhew! — first down. It seems to me like when the game gets a little tighter, a little closer, a little where he’s got to take over the game, he has that knack to do it.”

Jefferson’s performance earned him an 81.7 Total QBR, a statistic created by ESPN that grades quarterbacks on all play types from 0-100 and adjusts it based on opponent. That ranked sixth among 14 qualified SEC quarterbacks in Week 1 and was significantly better than his 50.3 Total QBR against Rice last season.

More Talent than Ever Before

Between the offense and defense, half of Arkansas football’s starters against Cincinnati were four-star recruits or better coming out of high school, according to Rivals.

Since 2006, which marked the first year all of their starters in the season opener were products of the Rivals era, that is by far the most blue-chip recruits the Razorbacks have started in the first game.

The previous high was eight, which was set in 2010 and matched last year. Perhaps not coincidentally, Arkansas won 10 and 9 games those two seasons, respectively.

Four of the Razorbacks’ five starting skill position players on offense were blue-chip recruits (Jefferson, Knox, running back Rocket Sanders and wide receivers Jadon Haselwood and Warren Thompson). The other six were on defense: defensive tackle Eric Gregory, linebackers Drew Sanders and Bumper Pool, and defensive backs Dwight McGlothern, Myles Slusher and Jalen Catalon.

It’s also worth noting that several other blue-chip recruits came off the bench and contributed on offense or defense, including wide receiver Ketron Jackson Jr., defensive end Landon Jackson and cornerback LaDarrius Bishop.

Rocket Hits Century Mark

After serving as a backup his entire freshman season, one of those blue-chippers – Rocket Sanders – made his first career start Saturday. He celebrated by rushing for 117 yards on 20 carries. It was the second time he’s eclipsed the century mark, with the first coming in a 139-yard effort at Ole Miss last year.

It was also the most rushing yards by an Arkansas player in a season opener since Chase Hayden – who, believe it or not, is still playing college football – had 120 against Florida A&M in 2017. That was an FCS opponent, though. You have to go back another couple of years to Alex Collins’ 127-yard game against UTEP to open the 2015 season to find a better rushing total in an opener against an FBS foe.

Cincinnati wasn’t just any FBS opponent, either. The Bearcats were ranked No. 23 in the AP Poll, marking the 11th time the Razorbacks have ever played a top-25 team to start a season. Sanders’ 117 yards eclipsed Gary Anderson’s 103 against Texas in 1980 for the most in those games.

Even Darren McFadden and Felix Jones combined for only 90 rushing yards in the 2006 opener against No. 6 USC. In fact, throw in Peyton Hillis’ 16 yards and Sanders still out-gained the legendary trio.

“I feel like there was a couple things I could fix by watching film and getting ready for South Carolina,” Sanders said. “That’s gonna help me out with that. It was a blessing to get 100 yards again. I’ve got more to work on of course.”

Sanders’ 20 carries in the game were a career high, surpassing the 17 he had in the aforementioned Ole Miss game. That was one of only four times he had double-digit carries last year.

Hear from Sanders, Knox and Jefferson after Arkansas football’s win over Cincinnati:

Pool Continues Climbing the UA Record Book

Super senior Bumper Pool led the Razorbacks with 13 tackles in Saturday’s win. That brings his career total to 362, which moved him past former All-American linebacker Ronnie Caveness for eighth on the all-time list at Arkansas.

With just 11 tackles next week against South Carolina, Pool would surpass Cliff Powell (367), Caleb Miller (368), De’Jon Harris (371) and Sam Olajubutu (372) and move into fourth place. He would then be able to pass Ken Hamlin (381) and Jerry Franklin (382) with another 10.

If he maintains a 13-tackle pace, which is pretty high, Pool would break Tony Bua’s career record of 408 tackles sometime during the Alabama game on Oct. 1, the fifth game of the season.

Those 13 tackles were also tied with Vanderbilt’s Anfernee Orji (vs. Elon) and Mississippi State’s Jett Johnson (vs. Memphis) for the second-most among SEC players in Week 1. Only Auburn’s Cam Riley had more, with 16 against Mercer.

Freshmen Make Collegiate Debuts

According to the participation chart in the official statistics, seven of Arkansas football’s 20 high school signees in the Class of 2022 appeared in Saturday’s win.

Most notably, freshman running back Rashod Dubinion got a handful of snaps on offense and made the most of them. He had a 29-yard catch and run on his first play and also ran for 16 yards on two carries, including a 13-yard first down on the game-sealing drive.

The rest of the freshmen are believed to have only played on special teams. That includes punter Max Fletcher and long snapper Eli Stein, who won starting jobs.

Fletcher struggled in his first game. He had a 26-yard shank and several low, line drive punts. He averaged 38.5 yards on six punts, but that includes a long of 50 yards on a punt that went into the end zone for a touchback. Use the net of 30 yards on that play and his average drops to 35.2 yards.

One of his punts was actually returned 30 yards and another 7 yards thanks to his lack of hang time. Factor those in and his punts essentially started Cincinnati an average of 29 yards away from where the Razorbacks’ drives ended. On the long return, Stein actually made a tackle, or it could have been worse.

The others who got on the field were defensive lineman Nico Davillier, linebacker Jordan Crook, offensive lineman Patrick Kutas and tight end Ty Washington.

Check out highlights from Arkansas football’s win over Cincinnati:


More coverage of Arkansas football’s win over Cincinnati from BoAS…

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