MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Arkansas had a big lead and then lost it only to take a 55-53 three-overtime win over Kansas in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl Wednesday evening.
Sam Pittman was obviously very pleased with his team finding a way to win. They had to overcome adversity after losing two key players to injuries in the first quarter and then Quincey McAdoo to a questionable targeting call in the second overtime.
“I mean, what a game, what a crowd,” Pittman said. “Those are what bowls are about. Kansas brought a lot of people here, a lot of fans as well. I’m proud of our football team. Very proud. We had a lot of challenges going into the game. Then Ty’Kieast Crawford got hurt early. Then Rocket Sanders got hurt early. We found a way to win. Kansas has got a really good football team. I think Coach (Lance) Leipold is exceptional. They played very, very hard. We heard all week how they wanted to be here and they did, but we did too. I’m really proud to be eligible our first three years for a bowl and win the first two we played in.
‘I’m just proud we ended up having a winning season. That’s not our goal but losing season’s sure as hell ain’t our goal either. I’m proud of these kids. Some of them waited their turn. I could go down the line. I’m sure y’all will ask me about them. But I mean, E’Marion Harris and we rush for 400 yards? E’Marion Harris played most of the game (at right guard) as a freshman. I could go on and on. Make sure you ask me. I’m proud of our football team. I’m proud to be the head coach at the University of Arkansas.”
Harris is a true freshman from Joe T. Robinson and is the son of former Razorback Elliott Harris. When Crawford went down on the first series, Harris entered the game for him. The Razorbacks had a 38-23 lead with just under three minutes remaining and Kansas out of timeouts. The Hogs had the ball at the Kansas 20 and it appeared the game was over. However, the officials ruled Matt Landers fumbled on a reverse and then Kansas rallied to score 15 points in the final 2:43 and force overtime.
“I’m exhausted,” Pittman said. “I never played a snap and I’m just beat up. Now they had some turnovers early and we had late. Bottom line is if we hang on to the ball on that reverse, the game is over at 15. But they did some nice things going down.”
Pittman talked about losing momentum and then the overtime decisions.
“Usually when this happens and a team comes back and they tie it at the end of the game, usually the momentum is so severe that the team that was ahead all the time loses,” Pittman said. “We gathered our team. I think we thought we could win the whole entire time. And at that point it looked bleak to be perfectly honest with you. They went right down and scored, got their extra point. We did. Ours was fairly easy. Our first overtime was KJ (Jefferson) and it was fairly easy.
“Then the second one we went up and we all thought up 8 at that point and looking pretty good for the Hogs. The last on the two-point conversion it was my choice and I decided hopefully to put some pressure on them if we made our two-point instead of going on defense. Fortunately we made it. I don’t know if it put pressure on them or not. It would have us if they would have made theirs first. So what a game, what a crowd. Champions two bowls in a row now. I’m proud of that. A lot of teams in the SEC in the past have not played well in these games when they lose players. They haven’t played very good and we did. I’m proud to be a winner tonight.”
The heroes were plenty for Arkansas. Jefferson completed 19 of 29 passes for 287 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He rushed 14 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns.
“I think what he did better than anything tonight was he led the football team,” Pittman said. “He was very vocal. I think when you’re playing well, it’s easier to be vocal as well. I think it’s easier to because you’re feeling better and this, that and the other. I thought he was in charge of the football game. We had the one unfortunate (turnover) right before half because that would have put us up 20-something (points) at that point. We had made a really nice drive to get down there and the guy just out-fought us for the ball, I think. I’d have to look at it. His leadership was outstanding and his toughness was outstanding.”
In the absence of Sanders, Rashod Dubinion, another true freshman, rushed 20 times for 112 yards and two touchdown while also catching three passes for 19 yards. AJ Green had 13 carries for 99 yards and one touchdown. He caught four passes for 30 yards. In his final game at Arkansas, Matt Landers caught three passes for 121 yards and a touchdown with a 15-yard run as well.
Pittman talked about a large group of freshmen stepping up for the Hogs including Dubinion, Harris and others.
“I loved it,” Pittman said. “R-Dub’s a good player. We knew it. He just happened to be behind a couple good players as well. We talked about it after the game about how disappointing it is when you don’t play. And you’re sitting there and you’re working and you’re going, ‘Well, maybe I’ll get in,’ and you don’t. ‘Maybe I’ll get in.’ You don’t.
“But then the feeling when you do get to play and you have success really override all those disappointments. It really does because now you’ve proven you can play. You’ve proven it in a game. Jaedon (Wilson) was that way tonight, Bryce (Stephens), a lot of them. Now I’m not happy we lost Rocket early and Ty’Kieast. But I am happy that E’Marion Harris was ready to play and R-Dub was ready to play.”
True freshman tight end Tyrus Washington made his first catch at Arkansas and it was a 17-yard touchdown from Jefferson.
“Yeah, he was wide open (laughs),” Pittman said. “Those are the hardest ones to catch at times. But great designed play, and he was wide open. To see his face was priceless.”
Pittman also praised Isaiah Sategna and Sam Mbake for the job they did at wide receiver. Both are true freshmen. Wilson had two receptions for 47 yards, Stephens one for 17 and Sategna a two-yard grab. The Hogs were missing Ketron Jackson and Jadon Haselwood at wide receiver and Trey Knox at tight end.
Due to opt outs, players entering the transfer portal and injuries, the Hogs only had around 54 healthy scholarship players. While a lot of SEC teams are losing bowls the Hogs found a way to win.
“There’s been some really great wins since we’ve been able to be here,” Pittman said. “We’ve beaten six top-25 teams and won a couple of bowls and been eligible and all that kind of stuff. This one was as gratifying as any of them because we had a lot of guys that didn’t play. We were down numbers. But the ones we had out there wanted to win, and they practiced hard. This is as much of a gratifying as a head coach as I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Arkansas finishes 7-6 and lost four games by a combined nine points.