Rocket Sanders’ Two Homecomings in One Never Felt Sweeter + More from Florida Win

Rocket Sanders, Arkansas football, Arkansas vs Florida
photo credit: Tye Richardson/ESPN Arkansas

Rocket Sanders had plenty of motivation in what was essentially a two-in-one homecoming for Arkansas football on Saturday.

On top of returning from injury and being back in his home state, it was the first time his son has been able to come to a game and the junior made sure to put on a show. Sanders rushed for 103 yards on 18 carries in the Razorbacks’ 39-36 overtime win over Florida.

It was the first 100-yard rushing game of the year by any Arkansas player and the performance more than doubled his season rushing total, which was just 91 yards through the team’s first eight games.

“I know a lot of his family and friends got to see him play,” quarterback KJ Jefferson said. “I saw his son out there. He got to hold his son so that was a big deal for him. I know coming in his mind was more focused than ever just knowing he’s coming back to Florida and he wanted to have the best outing that he could and that’s what he did.”

To say the season hasn’t been what anyone expected for Sanders would be an understatement. Coming off an All-SEC sophomore campaign in which he had the fourth-best single-season rushing total in Arkansas football history (1,443 yards), he was a unanimous preseason All-SEC pick and viewed as a potential darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate.

However, he suffered a knee injury in the season opener against FCS Western Carolina — a game in which he managed only 42 yards on 15 carries — and missed the next three games. Even when he returned, Sanders didn’t look fully healthy, rushing for 49 yards on 19 carries against Texas A&M and Ole Miss.

Sanders was a surprise scratch against Alabama and also missed the Mississippi State game as he rehabbed his knee in Dallas. He returned to the practice field this week and did well enough that ESPN2 reported before the game that he’d get “at least” 20 touches against the Gators.

“Definitely, I feel 100%,” Sanders said. “I would definitely say with the process of it, it was a mind thing as well. Of course I was hurt, but it was a mind thing just trusting and stuff.”

Despite traveling for rehab and not dressing out on gameday, Sanders was still around the team as much as possible and was on the sideline two weeks ago during the ugly 7-3 loss to Mississippi State.

One of six elected team captains, it was a welcome sight for the Razorbacks to have that leadership on the field Saturday — a second “homecoming,” if you will.

“It was great having him back,” Jefferson said. “He knocked the rust off a little bit this game. … I’m proud of him and the way he’s handled everything going into this week. When he was out, he still was a leader and making sure those guys were looking up to him.”

With 103 yards in the game, Sanders surpassed Chrys Chukwuma, Rakeem Boyd and Bill Burnett on the UA’s all-time rushing list and now ranks 13th with 2,215 career rushing yards. He needs only 193 more to crack the top 10, which would mean passing Oscar Malone (2,320), Jonathan Williams (2,321) and Madre Hill (2,407).

(READ NEXT: Pittman’s Subtle Jab at Enos Underlines How Bad Things Really Were Before Course Correction vs Gators)

Arkansas Football Injury Report

The Razorbacks entered the Arkansas vs Florida game as healthy as they’ve been all year, but saw three offensive starters and a defensive backup go down with injuries Saturday afternoon.

Tight end Ty Washington caught two passes for 37 yards within the game’s first three plays before getting hurt on the second of those receptions. He didn’t reveal any specifics, but Pittman indicated it was likely a season-ending injury.

That makes him Arkansas’ second tight end to suffer a similar fate this season, as Luke Hasz broke his clavicle against Texas A&M — also on the third play of the game. Both of them were valuable weapons for the Razorbacks, combining for 27 receptions, 423 yards and five touchdowns through nine games.

Arkansas lost leading receiver Andrew Armstrong early in the fourth quarter, as well, when his head hit the turf hard trying to reel in a pass from Isaac TeSlaa. It was a scary injury, but he was able to walk to the locker room and Pittman said he should be fine.

That’s also the case for right tackle Patrick Kutas, who went down with an apparent left leg injury midway through the second quarter. Pittman didn’t have an update on defensive tackle Anthony Booker Jr., though, other than the fact he suffered some sort of lower leg injury late in the third quarter.

It wasn’t because of an injury, but the Razorbacks didn’t have running back Rashod Dubinion available, either. He didn’t travel with the team because he was attending his grandmother’s funeral.

Winning in Gainesville

Even with four of the last five Arkansas vs Florida matchups being played in Gainesville, Fla., Saturday was just the sixth time the Razorbacks have ever traveled to The Swamp. Unlike the previous five times, though, they returned to Arkansas with a victory.

Becoming the first team in school history to beat the Gators on the road was a major point of emphasis for the Razorbacks leading up to the game.

“The season we’ve been having has been pretty frustrating,” Jefferson said. “To come in and be the first team in history (to win at Florida), we can hang our hats on that.”

Now, you may be wondering why four of the last five games between the two schools have been in Gainesville. Best of Arkansas Sports has covered this in the past, but let us explain again:

First of all, the 2009 and 2023 games in Gainesville and the 2016 game in Fayetteville were already scheduled as part of the regular rotation of cross-division games.

The 2013 game was added when the SEC used a temporary schedule upon the entry of Texas A&M and Missouri to the league, similar to what it’s doing next year. The 2020 game was added when the conference opted to go to 10-game, SEC-only slates in response to the pandemic. The SEC just so happened to have Arkansas travel to Florida in both of those years.

Moving forward, the SEC is expected to adopt either an 8-game conference schedule with one permanent opponent or a 9-game conference schedule with three permanent opponents. Either way, the Razorbacks will likely travel to Gainesville once every four years.

Another Defensive Touchdown

It would be almost impossible to draw up a better start than what Arkansas experienced Saturday.

After the offense drove right down the field for a touchdown on the game’s opening possession, freshman Jaylon Braxton ripped the ball out of Ricky Pearsall’s arms on Florida’s first offensive play of the day and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown that made it 14-0.

“I didn’t know he had it at first,” linebacker Chris Paul Jr. said. “I was fixing to run to the sideline and then he started taking off down the sideline. But just seeing a young guy like that make impact plays so early in his career versus a good team like Florida, it was just so phenomenal.”

The Razorbacks have now scored four defensive touchdowns this year, as they had three interceptions returned for scores within the first three games of the season. That’s their most since 2016.

Throw in Isaiah Sategna’s punt return for a score against BYU and Arkansas has five non-offensive touchdowns this year — its most since 2011.

Arkansas vs Florida Highlights

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Arkansas vs Florida Postgame Interviews

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