FAYETTEVILLE — Needing one more win to get bowl eligible, Arkansas football delivered arguably its worst offensive showing of the Sam Pittman/Kendal Briles era Saturday afternoon.
The Razorbacks struggled to simply get positive yards much of the game and finally got heated up in the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t enough to overcome their early deficit and they dropped a disappointing 21-19 loss to No. 23 Liberty inside Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
He shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame, as he was instrumental in the late-game push, but quarterback KJ Jefferson didn’t look like himself and the offense struggled as a result.
“It just seemed like we were certainly out of sync for whatever reason,” head coach Sam Pittman said. “Maybe it’s because KJ didn’t throw the ball a tremendous amount this week, I don’t know, but we were out of rhythm. He seemed to be out of rhythm back there.”
Pittman admitted that his star quarterback was “banged up this week” and was limited in practice, even though he did participate every day. Jefferson missed a game earlier this season with what was believed to be a concussion, but has also been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury since before the Texas A&M game.
On social media and message boards in the hours leading up to the game, rumors swirled about his availability. Those were seemingly squashed when Jefferson came for pregame warmups, but his play indicated there might have been something to the speculation — especially considering what wide receiver Jadon Haselwood told reporters afterward.
“Obviously this week, Malik (Hornsby) was getting most of the snaps and throwing to us and stuff like that,” Haselwood said. “But I mean…we were just out of sync. I mean, I didn’t know who was starting coming into the game just like you all.”
Arkansas went three-and-out on three of its first four possessions and its first seven drives failed to produce points, with five punts, a turnover on downs and an interception.
Things were going so poorly at one point that Pittman actually asked offensive coordinator Kendal Briles if he thought they should mix things up at quarterback. Ultimately, though, they decided Jefferson — even not at 100 percent — was the better option than backups Malik Hornsby and Cade Fortin.
“He told me what I needed to hear, that KJ is our guy and he’ll get going here eventually, and he is our guy,” Pittman said. “That was — in my opinion, that was the right thing to do, leaving him in there.”
It proved to be the right call, as Jefferson did eventually get it together and lead the Razorbacks on back-to-back touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, but his was stopped just shy of the goal line on a keeper that would have been the game-tying two-point conversion with 1:11 remaining.
He ended up completing 23 of 37 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns with an uncharacteristic two interceptions, plus added 36 yards on 16 carries — a total that was 68 yards on 12 attempts excluding sacks.
“Obviously, he didn’t play as well as he had,” Pittman said. “I’ll say this, he wanted to win. I mean, he was busting his butt down there at end and making plays, trying to get us to overtime. He just didn’t throw the ball as well as he normally does.”
Jefferson Holding On Too Long
Speaking of those plays that hurt KJ Jefferson’s rushing total, Arkansas gave up a season-high four sacks against Liberty.
That number is certainly jarring. Even though the Flames came into the game averaging 3.75 sacks, which was tied for second nationally, the Razorbacks were allowing only 1.75 per game and had the sixth-best pass-blocking grade (84.2) in the country, according to Pro Football Focus.
However, it’s hard to put those sacks on the offensive line. The unit routinely gave Jefferson plenty of time in the pocket, only for him to hang on to the ball way too long. He did manage to escape a few times, but Liberty did what many teams have struggled to do and actually got him on the ground.
“I didn’t think we protected all that bad, even though we gave up the four sacks,” Pittman said. “Either he wasn’t seeing the open guy or we just weren’t getting open, because I didn’t think our protection was all that bad. He was back there for quite a while sometimes, most of the time.”
Liberty Bottles Up Run Game
In the week leading up to the game, Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze told reporters that Arkansas had the best offensive line that he had faced since taking over the program in 2019.
While it lived up to that billing, for the most part, in the passing game, the Razorbacks were completely overwhelmed in the run game, particularly early on.
Six of their first seven carries failed to gain yards and it wasn’t until the final play of the first quarter, a 19-yard run by AJ Green, that their rushing total crept above zero. Making that start even worse is that Sam Pittman said there weren’t any surprises by Liberty’s defense because it used a similar game plan against Wake Forest earlier in the season.
“Basically, they were twisting away from the back,” Pittman said. “They were trying to take our stretch play away from us, which we anticipated coming into the game and had blocked it up obviously a lot better in practice than we did tonight. But it wasn’t some scheme we didn’t know they had. They were twisting inside and twisting the two away from the back and blitzing that side as well.”
The run by Green seemed to briefly open things up in the run game, as he also picked up 14 yards on the first play of the second quarter. On Arkansas’ next drive, Rocket Sanders — the SEC’s leading rusher — picked up 50 total yards on three straight runs after his first nine attempts resulted in minus-5 yards.
The adjustments helped some, but there were still several times when the running back was met in the backfield and dropped for a loss.
“We were flipping the back a little bit,” Pittman said. “We hopped the back a little bit. We went to the gap schemes. They were a little bit feast or famine to be perfectly honest with you.”
When the dust settled, the Flames had a whopping 14 tackles for loss, which included the four sacks. It was their most TFLs since becoming an FBS program in 2018 and the most Arkansas had ever allowed under Pittman, easily surpassing the 10 given up to Alabama in 2020 and 2021.
In fact, it was the most tackles for loss Arkansas has allowed since Oklahoma had 14 in the 2002 Cotton Bowl following the 2001 season, more than two decades ago.
“It seemed like we were behind the twist with the ball-carrier, and we needed to be in front of it,” Pittman said. “They were getting penetration early in the game with that and we couldn’t get the ball to the edge.
“We went back inside and…they were twisting inside as well. It seemed like they had a pretty good call for what we were trying to run and we couldn’t catch up with their speed is what it looked like to me without watching the tape.”
Throwing Short of the Sticks
Between the sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage, Arkansas found itself behind the chains quite a bit Saturday.
In fact, the average distance needed on the Razorbacks’ 16 third-down plays was 10.1 yards, resulting in only four conversions. At 25 percent, it was their worst third-down conversion rate since making just 3 of 16 (18.8%) last year at LSU.
“We tried to run the ball, like we do, or we tried to throw the ball and tried to run it on second down,” Pittman said. “But today, instead of a lot of them being incompletions, they were sacks, or instead of it being second-and-6, it was second-and-12 because of negative-yardage plays.”
Perhaps most frustrating to the 70,000-plus fans in attendance was the fact that Arkansas routinely threw short of the sticks on those plays. Jefferson passed the ball on 13 of those third downs and only five of them were to receivers beyond the line to gain.
“I think they were giving us those underneath throws,” Pittman said. “I think he threw one deep early in the second half and the safety picked it off. He may have gotten a little shy of trying to throw a deep ball.”
To their credit, Jadon Haselwood and Rocket Sanders each made nice plays after the catch to still get enough yards for a first down and Arkansas converted 4 of 6 fourth downs, but most of those came during the Razorbacks’ final two drives.
Adding Context to Arkansas’ Offensive Performance
Fresh off of offensive explosions against BYU and Auburn, in which it racked up 93 points on 1,164 yards, Arkansas entered Saturday with one of the best offenses in the country.
The Razorbacks ranked 13th nationally in total offense (492.5 yards/game) and 36th in scoring offense (33.8 points/game).
Thanks to the aforementioned final two drives, which covered 84 and 85 yards, Arkansas ended up with 428 yards of offense against Liberty, but mustered only 19 points — and three of those came on a 50-yard Cam Little field goal made possible by a penalty and two came on a safety.
“They were running high right at KJ making us hand the football off,” Pittman said. “We weren’t throwing the ball very good, so that wasn’t really an option. It was more run-run and run to pass. They were running high on him and had another guy outside. Basically, what we needed to do was cut the movement, the twists, off away from that and we couldn’t do it. We were cutting them free at times, as well.”
Statistically speaking, the Flames have a top-30 defense and the 428 yards were the most they’ve given up all year, but it was a massively disappointing performance by an Arkansas offense on track to be the most effective — in terms of yards per game — in school history.
When they were shutout last season, the Razorbacks were playing a historically dominant Georgia defense on the road. A similar thing could be said the year before that, when they managed just a field goal at home against Alabama. Both of those teams went on to win a national championship.
Liberty, while ranked No. 23 in the AP Poll, is set to join Conference USA next season and doesn’t have near the same talent as those two defenses. Given the circumstances, the boo birds that rained down at times Saturday were justified.
Arkansas Football Stats
|STAT||vs. Liberty||Season, including Liberty (NCAA rank)|
|Total Yards||428||485.3 (13th)|
|Passing Yards||284||252.0 (53rd)|
|Rushing Yards||144||233.3 (10th)|
|Completion %||62.2% (23 of 37)||63.7% (47th)|
Jefferson: 66.7% (t-32nd)
|Sacks Allowed||4||2.00 (t-64th)|
|Passer Rating||133.66||157.38 (16th)|
Jefferson: 164.19 (11th)
|Third Down %||25% (4 of 16)||47.1% (19th)|
Hear what Sam Pittman had to say after the ugly performance:
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