Hogs finally win with run game, defense

By: Tom Murphy Tom Murphy's Twitter account
Published: Sunday, September 10, 2023
Arkansas running back Rashod Dubinion scores a touchdown during a game against Kent State on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Fayetteville.
( Charlie Kaijo)
Arkansas running back Rashod Dubinion scores a touchdown during a game against Kent State on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas Razorbacks were never in serious danger of being upset Saturday by rebuilding Kent State, despite trailing early and looking sluggish for much of the game.

Then again, the University of Arkansas also never completely short-circuited the Golden Flashes, a 38.5-point underdog, in a 28-6 win before a crowd of 73,173 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Kent State (0-2) rebounded from a 56-6 pounding at Central Florida nine days earlier to give the Razorbacks (2-0) trouble for the entire first half and make the Hogs’ run game work for every yard.

Arkansas shut out the Golden Flashes in the second half and scored the final 21 points of the game, but the Razorbacks had to struggle for basically everything that came their way.

Razorback quarterback KJ Jefferson threw for 136 yards and a pair of touchdown passes to Andrew Armstrong, and Rashod Dubinion scored from the 1 to cap a marathon 12-play, 91-yard drive and highlight the offensive effort.

The Hogs were given life early by Antonio Grier’s 25-yard interception return for a touchdown, and the defense flexed again late with a goal-line stand on four snaps from inside their 2, punctuated by Landon Jackson’s tackle for a 4-yard loss on fourth down from the 1.

After that, Arkansas kept the ball for the final 6:05, chewing up first downs with the kind of punishing ground game the Hogs thought they might exhibit all day.

“The last drive was what we were anticipating would happen the whole day where we’re covering them up and moving them 6, 8, 4, 5, whatever [yards] at a time,” Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said. “It’s frustrating right now for the kids and for the coaches that we’re not running the ball consistently. We’ll continue to work on it.”

Pittman at times has said some of the struggles for the Razorbacks revolved around trying to find personnel outside the starting 22 who can help them win SEC games. At other times, he was blunt about the current state of the Razorbacks.

“We talk about adversity all the time,” Pittman said when asked about the halftime locker room feel. “We’re saying, ‘It doesn’t have to get there. We can just solve problems.’ But when you have a half, an entire half, of problems, it wasn’t a panic, but it was basically they’re gaining 3 [yards] when we hit them. Basically I thought we were getting out-strained, out-wanted to and we talked about that and how we’re going to fix it.”

Later Pittman added, “I’m trying to make something a lot better out of the second half than what I really believe that it was. It was better, but it still wasn’t good. But I think they played harder.”

Kent State Coach Kenni Burns made good use of the extra two days of preparation and had more live tackling in getting ready for its SEC road game.

“I think we tackled, we went against each other and just tried to get the speed of the game and play physical and aggressive, and it paid off, I think, at the beginning of the game for sure,” Burns said.

“We didn’t tackle well the first game and I thought we tackled better today. We swarmed to the ball better. You know, getting 11 hats to the ball. So I think that was the secret sauce.”

Arkansas outgained its visitors 308-200 in total offense, but the Razorbacks had to unleash Jefferson’s dual-threat capabilities much more than they expected.

“We had runs in specifically for KJ, but most of them were short-yardage type situations,” Pittman said. “We were ready for that, just obviously we didn’t want to have to go to that. … We were missing blocks. Any type of movement bothered us.”

The Hogs managed just 172 rushing yards while operating without lead tailback Raheim Sanders, who sat out with a knee injury.

“It all comes down to focus,” Jefferson said. “That’s the main thing. We have no excuses. We’ve just got to lock in to the details and execute the game plan and come out with an edge and play with passion from the start.”

The Arkansas defense racked up seven sacks, limited the Flashes to 26 rushing yards and held them to 4 of 12 third-down conversions.

Linebacker Jaheim Thomas, who had a game-high 12 tackles, and defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat had 1.5 sacks apiece. Jeffcoat, a defensive captain, said the team understood.

“We just took a look at ourselves and we definitely have to play harder,” Jeffcoat said. “We’ve got to grind up and keep going. Everything one day at a time, trust the system.”

Jefferson ran 13 times for 48 yards and was sacked twice, but he said he was happy to be back in full usage after running sparingly in the opener.

“Once I got the first hit, I was like, ‘OK, I’m back now, I feel good. I’m ready now,’ ” Jefferson said. “It felt good just being able to help my teammates get out there and secure the victory. Knowing it’s the first kind of situation that I’m going to have to carry the ball and be the guy to go make a first down and give my team a spark, try to get some momentum for them and make a play of some sort. It felt really good getting back to it and getting it.”

Kent State owned a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession at halftime, but the Razorbacks turned that around in the second half with a 22:20 to 7:40 edge to take the air out of the Golden Flashes.

Arkansas was stopped on a fourth-and-1 at its own 34 on its first possession of the second half. But its defense held and even pushed Kent State out of field-goal range on Jackson’s 15-yard sack on an intentional grounding call.

The Razorbacks drove 91 and 73 yards for touchdowns on their next two possessions to create some separation then stopped the Golden Flashes at the goal line and ran out the clock.


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