Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year four times and has been inducted to the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.
Jefferson's return provides desired results
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) carries the ball during a game against Ole Miss on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas opened and closed its home schedule at Reynolds Razorback Stadium with victories over teams ranked in the current College Football Playoff poll.
Arkansas beat Cincinnati — a playoff team last season that is No. 25 in the latest poll — 31-24 on Sept. 3 to open the season.
On Saturday night, the Razorbacks (6-5, 3-4 SEC) beat No. 14 Ole Miss 42-27 to cap their home schedule.
Arkansas finished 4-3 at home along with victories over South Carolina 44-30 and Missouri State 38-27 and losses to current No. 8-ranked Alabama 49-26, Liberty 21-19 and No. 6 LSU 13-10.
After the Cincinnati game, Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said he believed the Razorbacks — coming off a 9-4 season and with high expectations for 2022 — didn’t properly celebrate.
There was no lack of celebration after beating Ole Miss, which made the Razorbacks bowl eligible.
Pittman brought out “Larry” — a bowling ball a staff member got last year from a local alley that had the name “Larry” inscribed on it and which the Razorbacks celebrated with after beating Mississippi State for bowl eligibility — and rolled it through a group of players in the locker room.
“It was great,” senior linebacker Bumper Pool said of the postgame atmosphere. “I mean, honestly, so many wins this year in the locker room, I feel like we haven’t truly celebrated.”
Pittman also yelled his now famous catch-phrase he first used when Arkansas won 21-14 at Mississippi State in 2020 during his first season as coach to break a 20-game SEC losing streak.
“You could tell in his voice … ‘Turn the jukebox on,’ he meant it,” Pool said.
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson played against Liberty with an injured right shoulder and sat out against LSU to heal.
Jefferson returned to the starting lineup for Ole Miss and completed 17 of 22 passes for 168 yards and 3 touchdowns without an interception and rushed 8 times for 47 yards.
On the season, Jefferson has completed 165 of 244 passes (67.6%) for 2,149 yards and 20 touchdowns with 3 interceptions.
“I think that having [to sit out] last week, taking it to rest, it was hard on him,” said senior offensive tackle Dalton Wagner, who also missed the LSU game because of a back injury. “Obviously nobody wants to take a week off and try to heal up from an injury.
“But he came back and responded the right way, and having him back there in the saddle, I haven’t seen him more confident this year than he was [Saturday night]. It was awesome to be able to block for him.”
After Arkansas wasn’t able to convert an Ole Miss turnover into points on the first offensive series of the game, Jefferson directed touchdown drives on the Razorbacks’ next three possessions that ended with two scoring passes to Matt Landers and one to Ketron Jackson.
“Man, it’s nice to have KJ back,” Pittman said. “We weren’t too clean on the first two scoring drives, but he made us clean because of his athleticism.”
Arkansas led 35-6 at halftime and 42-6 after Raheim Sanders opened the third quarter with a 68-yard touchdown run.
The Razorbacks are 15-7 the last two seasons when Jefferson plays.
“KJ bails us out on a lot of bad situations,” Wagner said. “It’s hard to tell sometimes, but he bails us out of a lot of bad situations.
“Things that we don’t block up maybe the best, he’s able to get out of it through either his read or just his athletic ability to make a play.
“I think you saw it a lot, and having his pocket presence and his natural ability to read defenses makes our job so much easier.”
The victory over Ole Miss had extra significance for Jefferson because he’s from Sardis, Miss. He accounted for six touchdowns against the Rebels last season, but Ole Miss won 52-51 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium when the Razorbacks couldn’t convert a two-point conversion attempt on the game’s final play.
“The win feels good because it’s senior night and I got a chance to send those guys out the right way,” said Jefferson, a redshirt junior. “And just being able to be back and actually be a part of it and to see those guys’ faces light up at the end.”
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