PROVO, Utah — Consider this a warning that the following statement may be considered blasphemous by Arkansas football fans. Proceed with caution.
Still here? Okay, brace yourself…
Rocket Sanders is having a Darren McFadden-like season. Yes — he’s been *that* good through the Razorbacks’ first seven games of the season.
The sophomore’s latest masterpiece was a 175-yard, two-touchdown performance in Arkansas’ 52-35 win at BYU, a game head coach Sam Pittman considered a “must-win” riding a three-game losing streak and with an open date on the horizon.
He had to shake off an early fumble and missed about a quarter of play because of it, but still racked up a career-high rushing total including a 64-yard touchdown run that proved to be the final dagger to a pesky Cougars team that was ranked in the AP Poll until dropping out this week.
“He’s carrying the load,” quarterback KJ Jefferson said. “A lot of people going into the season didn’t really know who Rocket was. Now he’s catching everybody’s attention by storm.”
It was the fifth time Sanders has eclipsed the century mark this season and he widened the gap — which was already 114 yards — between himself and everyone else as the SEC’s leading rusher.
His numbers at this point of the year are comparable, if not better, than any running back to come before him at Arkansas. And, yes, that includes the legendary two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up — but more on that later.
Fumble Marred Early Success
To act as though Rocket Sanders played a perfect game Saturday would be disingenuous. After all, he fumbled the first time he touched the ball, spoiling the Razorbacks’ opening drive.
His next seven carries gained 74 yards, but when he lost the ball on a 1-yard run, his hot start was halted by being sent to the bench. It wasn’t a fumble, as he was already ruled down, but Sam Pittman had seen enough.
“I didn’t feel like he was hitting the holes the way he should have and he put the ball on the ground,” Pittman said. “We’ve got to let guys think about it for a minute. We’ve got other backs that can go in there, but he’s a great kid and he rebounded.”
That play happened with about five minutes left in the second quarter. Sanders didn’t get back on the field until there was less than five minutes on the clock in the third, meaning he was relegated to the sideline for about a quarter.
It was a good break, though, because Sanders admitted the time off helped him relax a little bit.
“That sitting helped me as well, because my mind was going and I was thinking a lot,” Sanders said. “I feel like what messed up this game for me, what I did bad, was thinking too much. As a running back, I feel like you should not think as much and just get the ball and go.”
The early fumble also provided Sanders with extra motivation. Much like the Missouri State game, when he fumbled at the 1-yard line early and ended up rushing for his previous career high of 167 yards, he felt like he needed to make it up to his teammates.
“Actually when I did that fumble, I was mad at myself — just like that (Missouri State) game,” Sanders said. “Just like that game, a lot of people came up to me and said, ‘It’s good. Next play, next play.’
“Because this game right here, we knew we’re getting the ball first, so our mindset was to get that first first down and next get a touchdown. I just felt better with them coming to me. I felt like that right there made me go crazy afterwards.”
Rocket Sanders Goes Crazy
Included in the stretch before his benching was an impressive touchdown run that got Arkansas on the board. He broke free and maintained his balance long enough to stumble the last few yards into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown.
Sanders had a few solid runs that helped set up the Razorbacks’ late third-quarter score, but it wasn’t until they got the ball back again that he went “crazy.”
After the defense forced a three-and-out, Sanders caught a 4-yard pass and then raced 64 yards untouched to deliver the knock-out blow early in the fourth quarter.
It was the longest run of the season by Arkansas, topping Malik Hornsby’s 52-yard run last week at Mississippi State, and it was actually a block by third-team tight end Hudson Henry that sprung it.
“Hud was the second puller on that,” Pittman said. “Beaux (Limmer) was one and Hud was two. He got a fantastic block. He was so pumped up. Not as much as I was. No, he was. I was excited about it. He did a great job.”
Even though there was still 14:25 remaining, Sanders got just one more carry as Arkansas chewed up 10 minutes on its final drive that was stopped at the 1. At that point, his work was done. He had 175 yards and two score on only 15 carries.
“Rocket’s mistakes are few and far between, and when he does make a mistake, he takes it very personal,” right tackle Dalton Wagner said. “You could tell he didn’t want to let that happen again, so he put it on his back whenever he had the chance to get open or to run the ball, and he really strained his ass off for that.”
Oh Yeah, About That Comparison…
The performance by Sanders increased his season total to 870 yards and seven touchdowns on 140 carries. He’s averaging 124.3 yards per game and 6.2 yards per carry, plus has 15 receptions for another 189 yards and a score.
Asked to characterize his season after the game, Sam Pittman said his star running back had been “pretty incredible.”
“If you had told me at the beginning of the year, what are we, Game 7, and what’s he have already, close to 900 yards?” Pittman said. “If you had said that, I would have said the offensive line is kicking major butt and he’s running extra hard. But I think he’ll just get better. He’s a conscientious kid and works extremely hard. A good player.”
While their running styles may be different — McFadden seemingly hit at least one home run play a game, while Sanders is more patient and just nickels and dimes a defense 6 or 7 yards at a time — their numbers are quite similar.
During McFadden’s sophomore year in 2006, which is Sanders’ classification, he had 690 yards and seven touchdowns on 124 carries through seven games. Including his limited production in the passing game, McFadden had only 788 yards of offense at that point.
When McFadden was a year older than Sanders is now, his rushing total through seven games was slightly ahead, at 932 yards, but it was on 169 carries. Sanders’ 6.2-yard average is better than McFadden’s 5.5-yard average.
Throw in the receiving yards and Sanders is at 1,059 yards compared to the 1,003 yards McFadden had totaled to this point in his junior season.
Sure, McFadden also did damage as a passer with the wildcat package and later had a 321-yard performance against South Carolina, so it’ll be hard for Sanders to maintain pace, but it’s worth having the conversation.
“I think Rocket’s unbelievable,” linebacker Bumper Pool said. “I think he’s a great running back. Nothing else to say there. I mean, he’s just consistent every week. … He just comes in every day, puts his head down, goes to work, gives us his best. He’s a stud.”
Considering the depth Arkansas has at running back, and how it handled the position last year, many expected there to be a rotation once again in 2022. However, how things have unfolded this season isn’t shocking to Sanders’ teammates.
“He doesn’t surprise us,” cornerback Hudson Clark said. “He goes out every day in practice and tries to run through people, go as hard as he can, so I don’t think it’s a surprise.”
Time to Rethink Calling Rocket Sanders “Plodding”
If Sanders wanted some serious motivation coming into this season, he needn’t have looked any farther than the below breakdown of his game from analyst Brandon Lejeune. While Lejuene said he watched many of Sanders’ SEC games as a freshman, in his film breakdown he decided to key on Sanders vs the two hardest defenses he faced in 2021: Georgia and Alabama.
Of the 2021 season games in which Sanders carried the ball, those games represented his lowest rush totals: only 21 yards on 6 carries (along with a 22-yard reception) vs Georgia, and only 18 yards on 6 carries vs Bama.
Cherry picking the worst of Sanders’ freshman year, Lejeune said the young prospect has “a lot to work on” when it comes to vision, lateral movement, burst and decision-making. “I’m probably a little lower on him than most guys right now,” he said in his summer 2022 video. Lejeune added that the six SEC games he watched from Sanders’ freshman year showed him Rocket is “a plodder. He’s a guy that can get up field a little bit, but he’s not going to make a whole lot of guys miss. Doesn’t have a lot of burst in acceleration.”
Lejeune added he planned to make more videos in the future to help fans better understand the nuances of Sanders’ game. It looks like he needs to get around to doing that in a Rocket-like hurry, because freshman-year Sanders is only a shell of what the super sophomore version has become.
See the whole breakdown here:
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