Out With A Bang
A grin came to Arkansas coach Sam Pittman’s face toward the end of a response about wide receiver Matt Landers’ two-touchdown game against 14th-ranked Ole Miss.
By Scottie Bordelon
A grin came to Arkansas coach Sam Pittman’s face toward the end of a response about wide receiver Matt Landers’ two-touchdown game against 14th-ranked Ole Miss. Although he spoke with great pride about the Toledo transfer’s tone-setting plays in the Razorbacks’ 42-27 victory over the Rebels, as well as his growth in the back-half of the season, the expression on his face did not have anything to do with Landers. Directly in front of him and toward the back of the interview room in Reynolds Razorback Stadium sat Pittman’s Razorbacks’ win that made them bowl eligible. And the party started early for Arkansas, which, in the return of starting quarterback KJ Jefferson, climbed out of an offensive rut and put together an impressive first half of complementary football. Prior to halftime, the Razorbacks were as dominant against quality competition as in any other game under Pittman. They jumped to a 14-0 lead less than 12 minutes into the game thanks to touchdown grabs of 8 and 23 yards by Landers. At halftime, Arkansas led 35-6. Then, two plays into the second half, the Razorbacks took a 42-6 lead on running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders’ 68-yard touchdown run. After not capitalizing on opportunities at home in back-to-back games against Liberty and LSU, Arkansas looked to be taking out its frustrations on Ole Miss. The game was never in doubt, and the Rebels added three fourth-quarter touchdowns to make the final score look somewhat respectable. “I think it’s big,” Pittman said of hitting the six-win mark. “You know, I’ve caught some heck because I said one of our goals was to go bowling, and one of our goals is to go to a bowl. You can go to the Fiesta, the Liberty, the Cotton — I mean, there’s a lot of bowls. I didn’t say what bowl. “I just said we wanted to go to a bowl. Obviously, we want to go to the best possible bowl we can go to, and the more wins the better possibility of bowls you get.” Reaching bowl eligibility meant the return of Larry the bowling ball, introduced following the Razorbacks’ sixth win last season, 31-28 win over Mississippi State. Pittman said the bowling ball was pulled from a new 1980s vintage carrying case. Pat Doherty, Arkansas’ director of football operations, brought the bowling ball in and, just like last season, it was rolled in celebratory fashion in the post-game locker room. Defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols, a former Springdale High standout, provided Pittman a target for the roll. “It was great. I mean, honestly, so many wins this year in the locker room, I feel like we haven’t truly celebrated,” Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool said. “We went out there and played phenomenal, especially in the first half. “And for everyone to feel like we were victorious in that locker room on a Senior Night, Coach Pittman was, you know, you could tell in his voice when he was giving that, ‘ Turn the jukebox on,’ he meant it tonight.” Jefferson finished the game 17-of-22 passing for 168 yards and 3 touchdowns, and with 47 rushing yards on 8 carries. Though he was sharper through the air and in making something out of nothing in the run game, he was not even the story of the night on the offensive side. Sanders, the sophomore phenom, stole the show. After totaling 106 rushing yards on 29 carries against Liberty and LSU, he went for a career-high 232 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Rebels. In doing so, he joined Darren McFadden (2007 at LSU) as the only Arkansas running back in the last 25 years to total 200-plus yards and 3 touchdowns against a ranked opponent. He will enter the final game of the regular season at Missouri with 1,379 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. His big day spearheaded a season-high 335yard effort by the Razorbacks. The team’s previous single-game high was 295 yards against South Carolina in Week 2. “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. I just feel like we had a great week this week.” Sanders had touchdown runs of 20, 8 and 68 yards. Before re-entering the game in the fourth quarter as a result of the Rebels applying a touch of late game pressure, his scores came in the span of four carries. He tallied six runs of 15-plus yards. Sanders averaged 9.8 yards per carry. To put his historic season into perspective, 9.8 yards per rush is Sanders’ third-highest mark of the season behind BYU (11.7) and Auburn (10.7). “I was proud of him,” Jefferson said. “Early on, I just told him, ‘Just trust yourself. It’s going to happen.’ It just happened. He trusted himself, and the O-line created lanes for him. He hit the hole and just played ball from that point. “Extremely proud of his patience, just running the ball and also just believing in himself and keeping his confidence throughout the game.” Pittman said the return of Jefferson opened every aspect of the offense that had been bottled up in recent weeks. Right tackle Dalton Wagner, who missed the LSU game with a back injury, concurred. The Razorbacks’ 335 rushing yards are their third most in a game under offensive coordinator Kendal Briles. Arkansas also ran for 350 yards against the Rebels in a 5251 loss last season. “I was elated for him tonight,” Wagner said. “It was so awesome to see him back doing what he needs to be doing. I think that the key decider in it was he trusted us to go get the job done, and you could see it in a lot of his cuts, too. “He knew that we were pressing, pressing, pressing, and he baited, baited, baited, and then cut it at the last second and there would be a hole just as big because he set up the blocks for us. I’m so proud of Rocket.” Defensively, Arkansas’ first-half showing was a continuance of solid play in recent weeks. Before halftime, linebacker Drew Sanders fell on a Rebels fumble and intercepted a pass by Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart. It was the first career interception for Sanders, who smiled big when asked about the play. He is the fifth Arkansas player with a pick this season. He returned the interception 13 yards. Seven plays later Arkansas went ahead 35-6 on Raheim Sanders’ 8-yard score with 5 seconds remaining in the half. “As linebackers, we’re always giving each other heck about catching the ball and whatnot,” Pool said. “But when he jumped up there, he snagged it like he’s never dropped a pass in his life. Just credit to him, day in and day out trying to be the best version of himself. “He’s going to be a phenomenal player at the next level. I’m just happy that we’ve had the opportunity to have him on our team.” Drew Sanders led Arkansas with 10 tackles, and defensive back Myles Slusher — suspended a week earlier — added 8 tackles and 1 stop for lost yardage. Cornerback Dwight McGlothern also broke up a Dart pass and recovered a fumble he caused in the second half. Defensive end Zach Williams and freshman cornerback Quincey McAdoo each had a sack in the game. If there was a blemish for the Razorbacks, it was their second-half defense. Arkansas was in cruise control for much of the final three quarters, and Ole Miss totaled 703 yards of offense and 463 rushing yards. The 703 yards are the third most allowed by Arkansas in a single game. “Our defense bent a lot,” Pittman said. “Heck, they had a lot of yards, but a lot of it was after we were up 42-6. But they didn’t break. Obviously, when you get up 42-6, the defense has played really well.” Wagner, who has been on campus with the Razorbacks since January 2017, said everything about the Senior Night game was special. “I remember when…we were getting blown out by North Texas, Western Kentucky and the stadium is empty,” Wagner said. “To see it packed out for us to blow out a top-25 opponent — top-15 opponent, really — is special. “It’s the turnaround that you can hang your hat on that.”