By DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Florida did a wonderful thing during its SEC football game with Arkansas by honoring first responders and military, but it turned out to be the Razorbacks who put the finishing touches on a true Black Saturday in The Swamp.
KJ Jefferson’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Tyrone Broden on the Razorbacks’ first possession of overtime provided the game-winning points as Arkansas downed Florida 39-36 for its first ever gridiron win in six tries in Gainesville.
It was the second straight loss for the Gators (5-3, 3-3) while the Razorbacks (3-6, 1-5) ended this season’s six-game losing streak with a surprising road victory in new Arkansas interim offensive coordinator Kenny Guiton’s play-calling debut.
Florida wore black uniforms for the first time in program history, used black towels and Gatorade bottles and urged the sellout crowd of 89,782 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to wear black on Saluting Those Who Serve Day.
“I have total respect for (Arkansas head coach) Sam (Pittman) as a coach and his team played well today,” Florida head coach Billy Napier said. “You could tell the change worked for them on offense and they did a good job moving the ball and keeping us off balance.
“And look, we contributed to some of that, but it was a heck of a football game. I am hurt for our kids because I know how hard they worked and how hard they played and competed in the game.”
Arkansas held Florida, coming off a 43-20 loss to Georgia in Jacksonville, to a field goal on the first possession of overtime.
The Razorbacks then quickly grabbed a win inside of a stadium dubbed The Swamp, one that plays the late Tom Petty’s hit “I Won’t Back Down” to start the fourth quarter.
After a holding penalty on current Arkansas and former Florida offensive lineman Josh Braun made it 1st and 20 from the 35, Jefferson ran up the middle for 20 yards, tailback Rocket Sanders ripped off a 11-yard dash and then Jefferson hit Broden to abruptly end the game.
“There are going to be a ton of lessons to be learned and there is no doubt there was a ton of situational football in there,” Napier said. “At times we did a ton of things really well, but 39-36 in overtime, they stopped us and they got the touchdown.
“Ultimately I think we can coach better and we can play better, but it is the same old recipe for winning. We know what it looks like, we have just got to do it better.”
Florida, which fell down to 14-0 just two possessions into the contest, had a chance to win the game late but Trey Smack’s 44-yard field goal attempt was wide right with three seconds left in regulation.
That came after it appeared the referees incorrectly did not allow Arkansas to substitute after a timeout-less Florida got a first down.
That would have allowed the final eight seconds to run off the clock in regulation, but Smack’s miss made that a moot point.
“There’s no question that there was some confusion there, and we’re fortunate,” Napier said. “We’re fortunate that we got away with that.
“…We are going to look back at this thing and I think we are going to see that we made some mistakes today. I also think Arkansas made some plays.”
Two of those were Jefferson’s 25-yard touchdown run to put Arkansas up 30-26 with 4:26 left and Arkansas kicker Cam Little tying the game up 33-33 on a 49-yard field goal with 44 seconds remaining.
In between, Florida’s Trevor Etienne covered 67 yards on the final two snaps of his team’s 3-play, 72-yard scoring drive with a 41-yard catch and a 26-yard scoring run to give the hosts a 33-30 lead with 3:02 left.
Little, who made four field goals on Saturday and is now 16 of 18 this season, also had successful makes of 37, 41 and 22 while also missing a 50-yard attempt.
Guiton took over for fired offensive coordinator Dan Enos and the Razorbacks rolled up 481 yards total offense with 255 coming through the air and a season-high 226 yards via the ground.
Arkansas had 6 penalties for 45 yard and lost one of its three fumbles, but its offense was a totally different unit than the one that had just 200 yards total offense in a 7-3 loss to Mississippi State in Enos’ last game.
“Yeah, I think there was no question they did a good job, especially early, the tempo being the main difference,” Napier said. “There were wrinkles. The pace with which they played on the earned 1st downs in particular was a factor, and then they did a good job spreading the field.
“The quarterback’s ability to run the ball was a factor. The read game, the empty Q-draw game, and then the GT counter. They did a lot of things well.”
Jefferson was 20 of 31 passing for 255 yards with the aforementioned with two touchdowns and an interception and also rushed 17 times for 92 yards and a score.
“You have got to give the quarterback some credit,” Napier said. “He is tough to tackle. I don’t know many times it felt like we had that guy on the ground and he just kept running. And certainly the running back that came back was effective as well.
Arkansas did indeed benefit from the return of injured tailback and Florida native Rocket Sanders, who rushed 18 times for 103 yards and also had 2 catches for 14 yards against the Gators.
Sanders, a former Rockledge star who rushed for over 1,400 yards last season, had missed the past two games and five overall the season with a knee injury.
He had just 34 carries for 91 yards this season coming into Saturday’s game.
Arkansas wide receiver Andrew Armstong had 3 catches for 103 yards to lead eight different Razorbacks who caught passes against Florida.
The Gators had 394 yards total offense (282 passing, 112 rushing), seven penalties for 64 yards and one costly turnover.
That turnover came on its opening possession when Razorback freshman defensive back Jaylon Braxton ripped the football away from Ricky Pearsall and raced into the end zone from 33 yards out for the 14-0 lead.
“There is going to be a lot of situational football that we can work on, but credit to Arkansas,” Napier said. “I think these kids played really hard in the game, but we have just got to play a little bit cleaner. We have to do a good job of helping them and putting them in a position to win.”
Napier hoped the intent of honoring of those who served didn’t get mitigated by the loss on Saturday.
“You know we had a great crowd today and they were a factor,” Napier said. “We are very thankful for all the people that showed up. There were some good things about today relative to the history being made and and cause behind the uniforms. I hope we don’t lose sight of that, but we are going to keep working. This team will keep working and I think we will look back and say that we can coach a little bit better and play a little bit better.
“I have a ton of respect for Sam as a coach. His team was better than its record and I think that showed up today.”
“…Often times we’ll say to the players that courage is working extremely hard on something and going and giving your best, okay, with no guarantee of the outcome that you want. I think that this game is rewarding for a lot of reasons. It’s a great game for a lot of reasons.”
Photo courtesy of Florida athletics