BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Defending College Football Playoff semifinalist Cincinnati did not go down without a fight, but in the end Arkansas was the one left standing after a season-opening brawl.
The No. 19 Razorbacks downed the No. 23 Bearcats 31-24 Saturday before an announced Reynolds Razorback Stadium crowd of 74,751, the seventh-largest attendance figure in its history.
It doubled as the first season-opening match up between two Top 25 teams in the stadium’s history.
“I was proud of our assistant coaches and really proud of our team to beat a Top-25 team and I think they are,” Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said. “We needed everybody today and I am real proud to be 1-0.”
The Razorback win ended the Bearcats’ 22-game regular season winning streak, having won their final nine games in 2020 and all 13 in 2021.
“Well, I mean, when Cincinnati was put on the schedule, I was saying ‘why’ to be honest with you,” Pittman said. “I’m glad it’s over and we’re 1-0. We are beat up, but that’s the game of football. But we found a way to win.
“Am I tickled to death that we’re 1-0 and we beat Cincinnati? Yes. I don’t want to play them, I don’t want to play them. We’ve already played them once, that’s plenty, and we’ll move on to South Carolina. The schedule is the hardest schedule in football. You’ve just got to try to be 1-0 and then next week, 2-0.
“So to get that one out of the way with a win was really nice. The great thing, I told the kids after the game, we have a lot to clean up, but we are 1-0. That’s our fifth top 25 game we’ve won in however many games we’ve been here, 24 games.”
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell had nine players taken in the 2022 NFL Draft, including quarterback Desmond Ritter – selected fourth overall by the Atlanta Falcons – after the Bearcats lost to Alabama 27-6 to end last season.
“This is an incredible learning experience,” Fickell said. “This is a growing time and opportunity for us and our team as we continue to find out and figure out what works…We didn’t get it done. We didn’t play well on both sides of the ball to get the job done. We were in a tough environment against a really good football team.”
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson was 18 of 26 passing for 223 yards and three touchdowns and ran 18 times for 62 yards and another score.
Tailback Rocket Sanders rushed 20 times for 117 yards and tight end Trey Knox caught 6 passes for 75 yards (42 yards after his catches) and two scores.
“I thought Trey Knox played a heck of a game both catching the ball and running the ball, a lot of guys did,” Pittman said. “We’re beat up in the secondary, we knew it was going to be a physical game.
“We made some first game mistakes that we have to clean up. Those are my fault, I’ve got to do a better job and play closer attention to some things there like the holding penalty.”
Arkansas senior linebacker Bumper Pool led his squad with 13 tackles while and defensive transfers Dwight McGlothern (LSU) and Jordan Domineck (Georgia Tech) both caused huge game-turning turnovers in the win.
“I feel like it’s always good when you can beat a team that was in the College Football Playoff,” Arkansas safety Simeon Blair said. “They’re a great team. They lost a lot of talent, but they also still have a lot of talent on their team. I feel that’s just an energy booster for ourselves to know that we can play like we always can. We can play at a high level against good teams of that magnitude.”
Domineck’s strip sack and fumble recovery occurred with just over 10 minutes left in the game and Arkansas clinging to a 24-17 lead after taking a 14-0 advantage into intermission.
Cincinnati had 10 penalties for 65 yards and Arkansas 7 for 63 and the Razorbacks lost safety Jalen Catalon and fellow defensive back Myles Slusher to injury during the contest.
“Well, we got probably about what we thought — a very physical Cincinnati team and a lot of first-game mistakes by both teams,” Pittman said. “We certainly had ours.”
The Razorbacks rolled up a balanced 447 yards of total offense with 224 rushing and 223 passing.
“I didn’t think he was going to run the ball as much as he did,” Fickell said of the 18 times. “I thought they were going to have him slinging the ball more this year. He is a really good football player.”
Pittman thought Jefferson had an up and down game.
“KJ threw some nice balls and he threw some bad ones you know,” Pittman said. “I mean a quarterback’s going to do that. The team just kept coming on. When the passing wasn’t working it seemed like the running was, except for those few three and outs that we had.”
Pittman did note that Jefferson came up big when needed, including leading his team on a 5:49 drive to run out clock after Cincinnati cut it to 7.
That included Jefferson covering a 3rd-and-9 with a 40-yard scamper.
“I think that’s just what he does,” Pittman said. “…They had him dead to rights and he pshhew! first down. It seems to me like when the game gets a little tighter, a little closer, a little where he’s got to take over the game he has that knack to do it.”
The Bearcats had 436 yards total offense, which was just seven less than Arkansas.
Ben Bryant was 26-of-43 for 325 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
That interception was on the opening posssion of the game with McGlothern returning it 51 yards to the 29 and Arkansas quickly scoring after it.
“I thought we were moving the ball well until that point,” Bryant said. “The corner made a really good play. He kind of baited me into that one. I thought we bounced back from that one to start the game with a pick.
Cincinnati players lost their helmets several times during the game.
“It’s an issue that we have to figure out,” Fickell said. “We lost Ben for a play there. In a critical game, it’s a factor.”
Arkansas will return to action next Saturday with an 11 a.m. game against SEC foe South Carolina.