Arkansas pulls away from Rice, avoids another C-USA letdown
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas narrowly avoided another C-USA letdown in Saturday’s opener.
With memories of North Texas and Western Kentucky still fresh on their minds, the Razorbacks overcame a 10-point deficit by rattling off 31 straight to beat Rice 38-17 inside Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
After sputtering to a three-and-out on five of its first seven possessions of the game and leaning on its defense, Arkansas finally got things going on offense in the second half.
KJ Jefferson made his first career start at home and looked rough through the air, completing just 12 of 21 passes for 128 yards, one touchdown and an interception, but was effective with his legs. He ran for 89 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries.
The Razorbacks also got 102 yards and a score from Trelon Smith, while Treylon Burks and Tyson Morris each finished with 42 yards - with Morris catching the lone touchdown pass.
The defense, meanwhile, intercepted Rice quarterback Wiley Green three times and limited the Owls’ tandem of Green and Luke McCaffrey to just 17 of 35 passing for 227 yards.
It started off pretty ugly, though. After LaDarrius Bishop fumbled the opening kickoff, the Razorbacks had their first three-and-out of the game.
The lone bright spot of the half for Arkansas came when Jefferson used his legs. He scrambled for a 34-yard touchdown to open the scoring and cap a drive that he also kept alive by shedding a would-be tackler and lowering his shoulder to covert a third-down near midfield.
Other than that, not much went right for the Razorbacks. On the very next play, Grant Morgan was ejected for targeting.
Consistently put in bad spots and without one of their captains, Arkansas’ defense bent and gave up a pair of field goal attempts out of a short field.
Rice’s Collin Riccitelli missed a 36-yarder wide right, but then booted a 25-yard field goal to pull the Owls within 7-3 with 11:55 left in the second quarter. The latter of those was set up by a blocked punt that gave Rice the ball just outside of the red zone.
Outside of the touchdown drive created by Jefferson’s mobility, the only possession Arkansas managed to convert a first down ended with an interception when the Mississippi native tried to force a throw to Ketron Jackson Jr. on the sideline.
Sean Fresch stepped in front of the pass to once again give Rice excellent field position, but the defense came up with a three-and-out of its own when Jalen Catalon notched a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
It seemed like the defense was going to make another stand deep in the red zone when Green’s third-down pass fell incomplete. Instead, a late - and questionable - flag came in for pass interference on Bishop.
Given new life, Rice needed just two plays to take the lead, with Jordan Myers punching it in the end zone from 1 yard out. That made it 10-7 Owls with 4:19 left in the half.
Coming out of halftime, the defense got another stop and Rice shanked a 17-yard punt to give the Razorbacks their best field position of the game.
Arkansas couldn’t take advantage of it, though. It turned the ball over on downs with Jefferson went under center and gained only one of two yards needed on a quarterback sneak. Two plays later, Green hit a wide open August Pitri III for a 41-yard touchdown to give the Owls a 17-7 lead early in the third quarter.
Bishop returned the ensuing kickoff 42 yards and it seemed to spark the offense, with Jefferson connecting on his first deep ball of the game. Tyson Morris came down with it for a gain of 31 yards despite appearing to be held on the play.
That started a 6-play, 57-yard drive that culminated with Jefferson’s second touchdown run of the day. He pulled the ball down and ran 5 yards up the middle to pull Arkansas within 17-14 midway through the third.
Rice responded with a nice drive and even got into the red zone, but instead of taking the points and attempting a field goal, opted to go for it on fourth down. Myers couldn’t get to the edge, though, with Bumper Pool and Greg Brooks Jr. forcing him out of bounds for a 1-yard loss and turnover on downs.
Momentum seemed to shift in favor of the Razorbacks at that point. They put together a nice drive with Raheim Sanders accounting for 32 yards on six carries, but it stalled out inside the red zone. Arkansas settled for a 34-yard field goal by Cam Little, the first of his career, to tie up up 17-17 just before the end of the quarter.
The Owls’ next possession ended with Markell Utsey tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage and Jalen Catalon came down with it for an interception. He returned it inside the 10 and a penalty on Rice actually gave the Razorbacks the ball at the 4-yard line.
Arkansas couldn’t move the ball, but was given a fresh set of downs with Miles McCord was hit with a pass interference on a pass intended for Warren Thompson. On the next play, Smith punched it in from 2 yards out to give Arkansas a 24-17 lead with 12:44 remaining.
Trailing for the first time since the second quarter, Rice moved the ball - aided by a face mask penalty - to near midfield, but McCaffrey’s helmet came off on a second-down play and Green had to come in on third-and-9. Montaric Brown stepped in front for Arkansas’ second interception of the game.
Jefferson was sacked on the first play to put them behind the chains, though, and the Razorbacks failed to get a first down for the first time since their opening drive of the half. Luckily for them, Reid Bauer pinned the Owls at the 5-yard line.
Following a punt, Jefferson nearly provided the dagger with a 68-yard touchdown run, but it was wiped out by a holding penalty on Jackson. It would have put him over 100 yards rushing, which hasn’t been done by an Arkansas quarterback since Matt Jones in 2004.
Instead, the Razorbacks were able to run some more time off the clock before Jefferson found Morris in the end zone for a 9-yard score. The Razorbacks’ final touchdown came on a 3-yard run by Dominique Johnson in the final minute.
Arkansas can now shift its focus to former Southwest Conference rival Texas. That game kicks off at 6 p.m. CT Saturday and will be televised on ESPN.