On a night of big plays on both sides, perhaps a fourth-quarter one from Arkansas sophomore wide receiver and punt returner Bryce Stephens turned out to be the biggest.
Stephens (6-0, 176, 4.3) caught a booming 57-yard punt from Missouri State’s Grant Burkett with 9:16 left and then dashed his way through traffic en route to an 82-yard touchdown.
The spectacular play gave Arkansas a 31-27 lead – its first of the night – in what turned into a 38-27 escape before an announced crowd of 74,133 at Reynold Razorback Stadium.
“Man, I was on the sideline and I just knew we needed a momentum play, so I had to make one,” Stephens said. “We talked about it on the sideline before that and (freshman wide receiver) Sam (Mbake) told me to look at his side when I’m back there, so I did what I did.
“I mean it was great blocks all around, so I just appreciate my teammates for doing that. Hit the hole and went outside…It was a blackout moment. My voice is gone a little bit.”
It was the first Arkansas punt return for a touchdown since last season when Nathan Parodi – who wore 14 as Stephens does now – took one 80 yards to the house in a rout of UAPB in Little Rock.
That play came less than three minutes after Rocket Sanders had taken a shovel pass 73 yards for a touchdown after the Razorbacks had fallen behind 27-17 with 12:04 remaining.
“Any time you can make a huge play like that and shift the momentum, it can just take the life out of the other team,” Sanders said of Stephens. “Especially when the game is that close. It was a game-changing play. The momentum fully switched to our side.”
Senior safety Simeon Blair lauded the play and Stephens’ speed.
“Man, it was phenomenal,” Blair said. “I have to cover Bryce a lot in practice, so I know he’s super fast. We talked about it all week, that we have to make sure e block their gunners and Sam Mbake, a freshman, he did a wonderful job at blocking their gunners.
“And then Bryce was able to get out of the gate. That was just very exciting. It was a big momentum shift. It helped us. It gave us a little bit more energy to go out there and play even that much harder.”
Arkanas quarterback KJ Jefferson was quick to give Stephens, his blockers and special teams coordinator Scott Fountain credit.
“Like he said, we needed a momentum play and Bryce delivered,” Jefferson said. “Shoutout to the special teams. Coach Fountain, the guys on special teams, they put together a great plan this week. Just having a guy like Bryce back there, you can trust him and knowing that he’s due for a big play any given moment. We needed that tonight and he delivered.”
Rocket Sanders agreed with that sentiment.
“Yeah definitely,” Sanders said. “ And I feel like with Coach Fountain he takes special teams serious and I feel like that’s something we needed to get us rolling.”
The Arkansas defense has eight sacks, including ones by Drew Sanders and Jordan Domineck before Stephens’ return.
“It really gave us a breath of fresh air,” Domineck said. “… “Sitting there on the sideline, we saw it happen in real time and we’re just a like … You know how you’re sitting there, and then your heart starts racing and going faster and faster all of a sudden as the play develops. That was really a high for us. We just wanted to be able to ride that momentum.”
Stephens returned two punts for touchdowns as a sophomore at Oklahoma City (Oklahoma.) John Marshall and had showed his elusiveness on two earlier returns Saturday night.
Stephens noted the Razorbacks saw something on film they believed they could take advantage of on punt returns.
“Yeah, before the game it was a big talk,” Stephens said. “So I went in there knowing I could get something every return, so I did.”
His first return went 34 yards to the Missouri State 44, only to have holding called and Arkansas losing 39 yards and instead starting at its own 27.
Stephens returned Burkett’s second punt – a 51-yard boot – for 10 yards only to have that wiped out by yet another holding call.
“Man, he can run full-speed and stop on a dime without seeming to change any speed,” Blair said. “He can make one cut and go the other way, and he would still be a top speed.
“I feel like he has an elite speed, and we’ve been waiting on him to get a punt return like that because we know he has the speed, he has the vision. But we actually did a great job of blocking it up on special teams tonight.”
The return happen with former Arkansas star Joe Adams at the game while being inducted into the Razorback Hall of Honor.
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman knows Adams returned a nation’s best four punt returns for touchdowns in 2011.
“He (Adams)was electric when he played here,” Pittman said. “Good for him, congratulations to him and all the others who were inducted. I’m not sure if there was any correlation. Ask him. He may think there is. That was awesome. I’m sure it was awesome for him to see as well.”
Photo by John D. James