One of the biggest momentum changing plays of Arkansas’ 52-35 win at BYU in Provo, Utah, on Saturday was one that was not even supposed to happen.
The host Cougars were leading the Razorbacks 21-17 in the second quarter when their offense lined up as if go for out on a 4th and 1 from their own 34. with just over five minutes left.
That decision by head BYU head coach Kalani Sitake resulted in quarterback Jaren Hall’s fumble that Arkansas recovered and the Razorbacks promptly scored the next 14 points to flip the script and go ahead 31-21.
“The execution is on the coaches, but there’s also some responsibility on the players,” Sitake said. Talking about the fumbled snap on fourth down, we were just trying to draw them offside. There was not even a play call in place. But the ball was snapped, which is why Jaren was surprised by it.”
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson, who completed 29 of 40 passes for 367 yards and a career-high 5 touchdowns, turned that turnover into a 4-yard scoring toss to Matt Landers (8 catches, 99 yards, 3 TDs) to give his team a lead it would not relinquish.
The Razorbacks (4-3), who had a whopping 644 yards total offense, would also score on a 15-yard pass from Jefferson to Rashod Dubinion with 40 seconds left in the half to take a 31-21 lead into halftime.
That pass to Dubinion came after a third down play where Jefferson somehow avoided four sack attempts by several Cougar defenders to get a first down on a 36-yard pass to Trey Knox.
“We had a chance to sack [their quarterback], but they turned it into a 40-yard play,” BYU linebacker BenBywater said. “People can say all they want about schemes, but at the end of the day, we have to get off blocks and make tackles. Hats off to KJ Jefferson, but we have to take him down. We had four shots at it. We have to be better.”
Those two scores were part of a stretch where Arkansas scored on 8 straight possessions, capped by Rocket Sanders’ 64-yard touchdown run that combined with Cam Little’s PAT to put the Razorbacks up 52-35 with 14:25 left.
Sanders rushed 15 times for 175 yards and two touchdowns as the visitors had 247 yards on the ground.
It was was a game where there was 1,125 yards of offense and came after BYU (4-3) had lost to Notre Dame 28-20 in a contest played in Las Vegas last week.
“You won’t win a lot of games if you give up 52 points,” Sitake said. “I think what’s frustrating is losing the turnover battle (3-1), because that’s not our identity. We’re focused on taking care of the football, and I didn’t feel like we did well enough at that today. There were quite a few mistakes on the coaches and myself, as well as the players. So, we’ll fix those.”
BYU did score on its first two possessions of the second half, but couldn’t stop Arkansas and get a lead.
“We had some moments in the second half, but just couldn’t generate enough momentum in the end,” Sitake said. “I think (Arkansas head coach)Sam Pittman is a great coach, and he had his guys ready. They’re a physical team, but we didn’t help ourselves in some ways, and that’s my responsibility.
“We believe in the players and believe in what we’re doing, and the effort we’re giving, but there are some things we definitely could do differently and better.”
Arkansas – who ended a three-game losing streak – converted 12 of its 15 third down conversion opportunities, something that Sitake obviously was not pleased happened.
“I’m really focused on third downs,” Sitake said. “That’s the biggest issue for me. Third downs are the only down, when it comes to defense. So, you have to get off the field. Arkansas converted 12-of-15 third downs, and that’s not good defense.
“The other area of concern is fundamental tackling and mistakes on the field. We had some guys not doing their 1/11th, and that’s on the coaches to make sure they get that done and execute their assignment.”
Bywater echoed the sentiments of his head coach.
“There’s a lot of things we can learn from a game like this,” Bywater said. “Anytime a team puts 52 points up, it’s not good enough defense. On Monday, we’ll be looking at the film, and it will be a tough few days with some honest conversations with ourselves and the coaches. We all need to step up.
“…We left some plays out on the field and missed opportunities. Fortunately, football is week-to-week, and we have a chance to get out again next week at Liberty and prove ourselves.”
Sitake was asked about taking over as the defensive coordinator in addition to being the head coach.
“We’ve done that before in this program,” Sitake said. “This is my seventh season, and there have been times where we had to do that, but I don’t think I’m ready to answer that question. It’s an option, though. We have a lot of different options out there. I like our guys, and I think the effort they give us is fantastic. We just need to be focused on getting things done.
Bywater said his team will rebound.
“I would not say we’re losing faith,” Bywater said. “We recognize with our three losses that some opportunities are off the table, but we’re playing for our brothers, family and BYU. We understand that we need to play to a certain standard. If you’re not getting the job done, somebody else will.”
BYU piled up 471 yards total offense (356 passing, 115 rushing) of its own in a game that wide receiver Cody Epps said was a fun one to play in.
“It’s tough, but at the same time, it’s pretty fun from an offensive perspective,” Epps said. “When we get on the field, we’re trying to make big plays and score. So, it’s fun and competitive. It’s the stuff you dream for as a receiver, with your coaches and team looking for you to make a big play.”
Epps believes BYU, who was ranked 16th nationally two weeks ago, will bounce against Liberty, who visits Arkansas on Nov. 5.
“Football life is all about adversity,” Epps said. “It’s about perspective. Coach Kalani talks about faith, and to not just hope but have faith. It’s all about how we view what we can do. Every game is a practice for the next game. Now we can focus on the things we didn’t do as well today, as we prepare for next week.”