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RECAP: Despite Late Game Adversity, Arkansas Wins the Liberty Bowl, 55-53

NCAA Football: Liberty Bowl-Arkansas at Kansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Razorbacks made the trip to Memphis today with less than 50 scholarship players. In the past during the covid year, that was enough to cancel games. Nevertheless, Sam Pittman and Arkansas decided to play despite the lack of depth. Depth was not the only worry. Talking heads on social media questioned whether or not the Hogs had enough “want to” after a disappointing 6-6 finish to the season in addition to facing a Kansas team that has not been to a bowl since 2009. Arkansas, at least at the beginning of the game, proved the latter wrong.

The season-long woes of not starting fast for the Hogs failed tocarry over to the postseason as Arkansas completely dominated Kansas in the first half. Kansas deferred the opening coin flip, giving Arkansas the ball. The first drive ended in a field goal, which is only the 2nd time this year the Razorbacks have scored on their first possession.

Next up was Arkansas’s defense. Arkansas was without 4 starters against Kansas, including cornerstone players Drew Sanders (opted out for the NFL Draft) and Bumper Pool (injury). Without a 3rd of their starters and key contributors from the bench, growing pains were expected. The defense gave up a 6-play, 75-yard touchdown drive highlighted by two huge throws by Jalen Daniels on busted coverages, including the play that scored.

But that was apparently enough time for the aforementioned “growing pains” to subside. After the offense was forced to punt, the defense forced a punt, intercepted the Jayhawks on back-to-back possessions, and forced another punt before Kansas would score again with 1:18 to go.

Arkansas in the meantime used the early success to grow a commanding lead. On a 2-play, 68-yard drive, the hogs scored on a 59-yard strike to Matt Landers. On the subsequent kickoff, Jake Bates kicked the ball much shorter than usual forcing the Jayhawks’ returner Sevion Morrison to sprint towards the ball to catch it. Morrison arrived late to the ball, muffing it, and turning the ball over to the Hogs. On the next play, Jefferson hit Ty Washington for a 17-yard touchdown pass.

After Arkansas’s first interception, the offense scored on two of the next 3 drives. On the first drive, they marched down the field on an 11-play for 73 yards and a 3-yard score for KJ Jefferson. Their next scoring drive consisted of 8 plays for 78 yards and a 20-yard rush for AJ Green. The Hogs marched down the field again on their last drive of the half, but Jefferson threw an interception after his intended receiver (Isaiah Sentegna) was hit a little before the ball arrived.

All of this success comes without Tykese Crawford and RahiemSanders who both left early in the first with injuries. Hogs go into halftime up 31-13

Arkansas started the 2nd half strong, forcing Kansas to punt and producing a 10-play, 80-yard drive for a 2-yard touchdown by Rashod Dubinion. The Hogs seemed to back off after they went up by 25 points. The play calling on both offense and defense became conservative; the players’ intensity seemed to dissipate.

On a 5-play, 86-yard drive, Kansas scored to cut the lead to 18, but would not put up much else in the 3rd quarter. The Jayhawks and Razorbacks traded punts until the final seconds of the quarter when Kansas kicked a field goal cutting the lead to 15. The two, again, traded punts until Kansas turned the ball over on downs with 3:52 left on the clock.

The hogs took over on their own 25-yard line and began probably their best-looking drive of the second half, that is until everything collapsed. Under 3 minutes left in the game, Arkansas called a reverse to Matt Landers for a 15-yard gain but the ball came loose and Kansas recovered. When the replay played, it looked like Landers’ elbow and rear-end were on the ground before the ball came out, but officials still called it a fumble.

Kansas scored 7 plays later on a 10-yard pass to Douglas Emilien, cutting the lead to 8. Kansas had to kick an onside kick for any chance at a win and kicked it nearly perfect. The Jayhawks recovered the ball and, in 4 plays scored another touchdown with 41 seconds to go in the game. Daniels converted the Jayhawks’ 2-point conversion with a pass to Lawrence Arnold to tie the game. The Hogs played the clock out and went to overtime.

First overtime

Kansas won the toss and elected to go first in the overtime period. Daniels hit Luke Grimm for a 17-yard strike to start. After 4 more plays, the Jayhawks punch it in for their first lead since the 1st quarter. 45-38 Jayhawks

Arkansas answers with a 19-yard strike to Matt Landers and then a 6-yard rush for a touchdown by Dubinion. 45-45 all.

Second overtime

Starting in the 2nd overtime period, each team must go for a two-point conversion if a touchdown is scored. The Hogs began the 2nd overtime with a 5-yard pass to AJ Green and then a 20-yard touchdown rush by Jefferson. The Hogs converted the 2-point conversion with a pass to Jaedon Wilson. 53-45 Hogs.

Kansas put themselves in a bind with a holding penalty on second down, pushing them back to the 32-yard line. Daniels responded with an 11-yard and 19-yard pass to move the ball to the 2-yard line. Daniels punched it in for another touchdown. On the 2-point try, Jalen Daniels was stopped short of the goal line, but an extremely weak targeting call on outstanding freshman Quincy McAdoo gave the Jayhawks another try. This time they convert on a pass to tight end Jared Casey. 53-53 all.

Third overtime

Once the game reached the 3rd overtime, both teams began to attempt only 2-point conversions. Arkansas was given the first shot. Jefferson threw a beautiful touch pass on a wheel route to Dubinion to convert. 55-53 Hogs.

Kansas tried some trickery to convert their try. A reverse pass with their second-string quarterback was overthrown through the back of the end zone, ending the Jayhawks’ comeback attempt. The Hogs win 55-53.

Statistically, Arkansas’s offense was really good, passing for 287 yards and rushing for nearly 400 yards! Arkansas averaged 9.9 yards per pass and an insane 7.6 yards per rush without Rocket Sanders! The offense took care of the ball relatively well. The one interception was near the end of the 1st half and was of little consequence other than a missed opportunity to score, and we’ve already went over the “fumble”.

The defense, however, left little to be desired. Arkansas allowed 603 yards of offense, including an absolutely unacceptable 544 yards passing. The Hogs did well in the rushing game holding the Jayhawks to just 59 yards on 34 attempts. To be fair, 198 of Kansas’ yards came after Landers’ fumble. Even with all the passing yards, Kansas still had a smaller yards per pass average than Arkansas at 9.7. Arkansas also did well rushing the passer against Kansas who allows less than one sack per game on average. The Razorbacks dropped Daniels behind the line of scrimmage 3 times and had 7 TFLs. The defense also picked Daniels off twice.

KJ Jefferson was the MVP of the Liberty Bowl and finished 19/29 for 287 yards passing and two TDs, and 130 rushing yards—averaging nearly 10 yards a rush—for two more TDs. In second was Rashod Dubinion with 112 yards rushing and 2 TDs. AJ Green was close behind with 99 yards and 1 TD.

Matt Landers led all pass catchers with 121 yards on 3 receptions and 1 TD. Jefferson did a decent job distributing the ball because 9 other players caught a pass and 8 of those were for 10 or more yards. Ty Washington was the only other player to catch a touchdown pass.

Chris Paul Jr. led the team with 12 tackles (7 solo). Dwight McGlothern and Quincey McAdoo followed with 10 (6 solo) and 9 (5 solo), respectively. Both McGlothern and McAdoo logged an interception.

They don’t call them the “Heart Attack Hogs” for nothing! But a win is a win. Sam Pittman and the Razorbacks go into the off-season as bowl champions, with a winning record, and with huge momentum for the second year in a row.