FAYETTEVILLE — Even with temperatures dipping below freezing Saturday night, it would be impossible to draw up a better Senior Day for Arkansas football.
The Razorbacks sent their 22 seniors out in style, crushing No. 14 Ole Miss 42-27 in a game that really wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
A good chunk of those players are technically eligible to return as super seniors in 2023, but for some, it was guaranteed to be their final game inside Reynolds Razorback stadium. Included in that group was team captain and all-time leading tackler Bumper Pool.
Head coach Sam Pittman and his fifth-year linebacker shared a special moment together during the pregame ceremony honoring the seniors. Captured by the SEC Network, which had mic’d up the third-year coach, Pittman was overheard in a quick exchange with Pool, telling him, “I love you… You did more for me than I ever did for you.”
It’s no secret how Pittman feels about the veteran linebacker and his returning super seniors in general. Without the return of sixth-year seniors like Pool and Dalton Wagner this year, and Hayden Henry and Grant Morgan last year, the program would not have undergone the same startling transformation. Each of those contributors could have politely passed on another year of pounding and wear and tear on their bodies and started making money in the “real world” – instead they decided to put give their all for one final season so that the foundation for something greater down the line could be solidified.
Pittman’s emotion was evident when asked about Pool postgame, as well.
“A lot of guys don’t know how beat up Bumper’s been all year,” Pittman said. “He’s hurt and he just continues to keep coming back and playing. We’re limiting him a little bit more. I’m trying to take a little bit of the pounding off of him and things. He’s really toughed out the last probably six weeks that a lot of guys wouldn’t even play, and he’s out there busting his butt.”
Pool made two tackles against the Rebels, bringing his career total to 441 — a record that will likely never be broken.
He has been instrumental in what has been a massive turnaround by the Razorbacks under Pittman. Even though Arkansas has fallen short of preseason expectations, it secured bowl eligibility Saturday and has a chance to finish 7-5 with a win over Missouri in the regular-season finale (a game in which it now appears Pool won’t play).
A victory in the Battle Line Rivalry would make the Razorbacks 16-9 over the last two seasons and give it back-to-back 4-4 SEC records. They had won just four total SEC games the previous four seasons combined, and three of them came in Pittman’s first season.
That is significant for a sixth-year senior like right tackle Dalton Wagner, who suffered through Bret Bielema’s final season and the disastrous two-year Chad Morris era before getting to play for Pittman.
“I remember – and (Bumper) remembers it – when this place, we were getting blown out by North Texas, Western Kentucky, stadium’s empty, and tonight to see it packed out for us to blow out a top-25 opponent — top-15 opponent really — is special,” Wagner said. “It’s the turnaround that you can hang your hat on that. You might have come in 4-8, 2-10, 2-10, 3-7, but you left it a lot better than you found it.”
It took Rocket Sanders barely more than one half of play to double his rushing total from the previous two games combined Saturday night.
The sophomore finished with a whopping 232 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. It was the fifth-best single-season rushing total in school history.
“It definitely feels like a blessing,” Sanders said. “I pray for times like this, of course. I was really mainly focused on the win. That’s the main thing.”
Making the performance even more impressive is that a 68-yard touchdown run less than a minute into the third quarter put him at 221 yards for the game.
“One thing about it is, he was running down the middle and he saw the guy on the right and he kind of dipped on him, then ran away from him, ran to the outside, I thought that was really good,” Pittman said. “(Running backs coach) Jimmy (Smith) must’ve really taught him how to do that you know — I’m teasing. That’s all natural right there.”
At that point, he needed only 100 more yards to tie Darren McFadden’s UA and SEC record and still had about a half to work with. The only problem? That touchdown gave the Razorbacks a 42-6 lead. Sanders’ services weren’t really needed the rest of the night.
He did get a handful of carries in the fourth quarter, but it was mostly Rashod Dubinion and AJ Green the rest of the way. Nevertheless, it was still an incredible night for the wide receiver-turned-running back.
After rushing for 60 and 46 yards, respectively, against Liberty and LSU, Sanders had six carries that went for at least 15 yards and five of those went for 20-plus.
“I just think any running back that carries the ball for 100 or 150 yards, they have to have a break. Most of the time, they’ve got to have one or two that’ll be a 30 or 40-yard pop. Certainly, that’s what he got tonight.”
The performance gives Sanders 1,379 rushing yards this season, which is already fifth on the UA single-season list. He needs just nine yards to surpass Madre Hill’s 1995 total and 199 more to surpass Alex Collins’ 2015 season as the best by an Arkansas player not named Darren McFadden. (A few games ago, Sanders was actually on pace to topple McFadden from his top spot)
Sanders is also knocking on the door of the 2,000-yard club for his career. With just 43 yards next week, he would become the 19th player to reach that milestone in an Arkansas uniform.
Typical Arkansas-Ole Miss Weirdness
Just looking at the box score, it’d be easy to assume Ole Miss had much more than only 27 points. It racked up an incredible 703 yards of offense Saturday night.
According to Sports Reference, that is the fewest points scored by a team with 700-plus yards since at least 2000. The previous low was 31 points on 736 yards by Kent State in a win over Ohio earlier this season.
However, that kind of statistical anomaly has come to be expected in this series. In fact, the team with more yards has actually lost the last three games.
Last year, the Razorbacks had 676 yards in a 52-51 loss. That means the losing team between Arkansas and Ole Miss has averaged 689.5 yards the last two years.
It’s also worth noting that the 703 yards are the third-most Arkansas has ever allowed in a game, behind only 736 yards given up to USC in 2005 and 716 yards given up to Texas A&M in 2005. The Razorbacks lost those games by scores of 70-17 and 58-10, respectively.
A large chunk of that came on the ground, as Ole Miss had a pair of 200-yard rushers. Quinshon Judkins finished with 214, while Zach Evans got to 207. As a team, the Rebels had 463 rushing yards.
It’s just the third time Arkansas has allowed 400-plus rushing yards since 2000 and the other two were a 56-3 loss to Auburn in 2016 (543 yards) and 54-24 loss to Mississippi State in 2019 (460 yards).
Ole Miss ended up finding the end zone three times in the fourth quarter, but managed just a pair of field goals up to that point.
That means the Razorbacks put together a nine-quarter stretch in which they allowed only one touchdown, and even that came on a short field thanks to a turnover on downs in LSU territory last week.
Before the Rebels scored early in the fourth quarter, Arkansas opponents had the ball 26 times (not including end-of-half possessions) and scored one touchdown. The other 25 drives resulted in four field goals, one missed field goal, three turnovers on downs, six true turnovers and 11 punts.
One of those true turnovers was an interception by linebacker Drew Sanders on Saturday. It was the Alabama transfer’s first career pick at the college level.
“Being the low-hole defender, there’s a lot of stuff going on behind you,” Sanders said. “A big part of that play was just kind of reading the quarterback’s eyes and just feeling what was behind me, and he just threw it right to me.”
Matt Landers Stays Hot
He caught only three passes for 38 yards, which was a step back from his production the previous four weeks, but two of Matt Landers’ receptions against Ole Miss were tough grabs in the end zone for touchdowns.
The first of those catches was in traffic, as he got sandwiched immediately after hauling in KJ Jefferson’s pass on a slant route. The second was a perfectly placed ball by Jefferson that Landers caught over his shoulder – a really tough play to make.
“He got rocked on that first one — he got hit,” Pittman said. “Then the second one, you know those are hard…over the top and to your left. Now, it was a great throw by KJ — well both of them — but the one that was outside and over the top, that was only him and nobody else.”
Over the last five games, Landers has 23 receptions for 440 yards and six touchdowns. That’s a significant uptick in production after he caught just 17 passes for 261 yards and no scores in Arkansas’ first six games.
His 701 receiving yards this season rank seventh in the SEC and 24th on the UA single-season list. With two games left, he also has an excellent chance to become just the 18th Arkansas football player to reach the 800-yard mark in a season.
Holding Penalties Wipe Out 3 TDs
The dominant stretch of defense by the Razorbacks mentioned earlier was aided by a pair of holding penalties Saturday night, as the Rebels had two touchdowns wiped off the board.
First, Ole Miss appeared to have a 33-yard touchdown pass from Jaxon Dart to Dayton Wade in the first quarter, but right tackle Micah Pettus drew a flag. It was a fourth-down play and the Rebels were forced to punt instead.
In the second quarter, Dart hit Jordan Watkins for a 15-yard touchdown, only for it to be wiped out by a holding penalty on left tackle and Conway native Jayden Williams. Ole Miss ultimately had to settle for a field goal, meaning it got just 3 points from the two possessions instead of 14.
“I think it was big,” Pittman said. “The officials did a really nice job, I thought, but I think those were two really big plays in the game.”
The third touchdown erased by a holding penalty was actually at Arkansas’ expense. Rocket Sanders scored on a 50-yard run, but Jadon Haselwood was flagged while blocking downfield.
It ultimately didn’t matter, though, because Sanders needed just two more runs to get in the end zone for a touchdown that stood.
“I don’t think anyone was going to stop him at that point,” Wagner said. “He wasn’t going to be denied. Even a 50-yard run getting negated by holding, he still was going to scratch and claw and find his way into the end zone.”
He ended up getting an extra 10 rushing yards out of the deal and the Razorbacks still got seven points while burning about an extra minute off the clock.
“That was really big because a lot of times you get a run like that, and it gets called back for holding, then you miss a field goal, sacked, you’re not in field goal range, and our kids in two plays blocked it up and came back and scored,” Pittman said. “I thought that was big.”
Larry, the bowling ball Sam Pittman purchased last season to celebrate the Razorbacks reaching bowl eligibility, made his long-awaited 2022 debut Saturday night when Arkansas picked up his sixth victory of the year.
Pittman got him out of his new carrying case, which he described as “80s vintage,” and fifth-year senior defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols gave him a target to roll toward in the locker room during their postgame celebration.
“By the way, we’ve had him available for a couple of weeks,” Pittman said. “He looked hungry when he got out of there. But he was shined up, looked good and we did bring him out.”
That was just part of what was a joyous locker room following the beatdown of Ole Miss.
“So many wins this year in the locker room, I feel like we haven’t truly celebrated,” Pool said. “Coach Pittman, you could tell in his voice when he was giving that, ‘Turn the jukebox on,’ he meant it tonight.”
Arkansas Football Breaks Attendance Record
Despite the aforementioned freezing temperatures and the fact Arkansas had lost five of its last seven games, Saturday’s game had an announced crowd of 71,365.
“It meant the world to see this place lit up one more time, all the fans here regardless of the prior games we’ve had,” Wagner said. “It probably wasn’t the season everyone’s been expecting, but we got bowl eligible tonight. We beat the No. 14 team in the country tonight. And I think the crowd played a big part in that, because we fed off their energy and played with that.”
That gives the Razorbacks an average home attendance of 73,155, which shatters their previous record of 69,581 set in 2016. However, it’s worth noting that all seven games this season were played at Reynolds Razorback Stadium – just the second time in modern history that none of their games were played in Little Rock, with the first being the pandemic-altered 2020 season.
War Memorial Stadium has a much smaller capacity than Razorback Stadium, so games played there greatly reduce the average home attendance.
When considering only games played in Fayetteville, this year’s average attendance ranks third in UA history. The only seasons with larger average crowds were 2006 (73,895) and 2016 (73,347).
Arkansas Football Injury Report
Here’s the latest on various Arkansas football players dealing with injuries…
- QB KJ Jefferson (shoulder): Had a mostly full week of practice and started against Ole Miss, turning in a masterful performance
- OL Dalton Wagner (back): Back in the starting lineup after missing the LSU game
- TE Nathan Bax (undisclosed): After not appearing in the last two games, got back on the field against the Rebels
- DT Taurean Carter (knee): Been out since getting hurt in the Spring Showcase… Pittman said the earliest he might return is the Missouri game
- RB Dominique Johnson (ACL): Out for the year
- QB Kade Renfro (ACL): Out for the year
- CB LaDarrius Bishop (knee): Out for the year
- S Jalen Catalon (shoulder): Out for the year
More on Bumper Pool and the Razorbacks here: