FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas lacked the focus they had in the season opener, but still managed to send the 73,173 fans home with a win over Kent State Saturday in Razorback Stadium.
The Hogs trailed 3-0 before transfer linebacker Antonio Grier Jr. stepped in front of a Mike Alaimo pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown with 1:12 remaining in the first quarter. It was the second week in a row an Arkansas linebacker had a pick-6. Quarterback KJ Jefferson summed up the slow start pretty well when asked.
“It all comes down to focus,” Jefferson said. “That’s the main thing. We have no excuses. We just got to lock in to the details and execute the game plan and come out with an edge and play with passion from the start. I mean, we kind of did that second half, with chip on our shoulder, with an edge to want to go and pull this thing out, you know what I’m saying, and get the victory. But I feel like we got to come out with an edge, with a chip on our shoulder early on in the game to go and set that tempo and set the standard.”
Sam Pittman was quick to credit Kent State, a team that had gotten blown out 56-6 by UCF in its opener, after the game.
“Well, I want to give Kent State a lot of credit,” Pittman said. “To do what happened to them last week and then to come back and play the way they did, I want to give them a lot of credit. They had a nice game plan of trying to control the clock, letting it run down and things of that nature. We had nine drives all day. They were very physical. I thought they out-physicaled us in the first half. But congratulations to them. I told coach after the game the score was much closer than 28-6 I felt like and that he did a wonderful job with his team. They’ll have a good football team if they continue to work through him. He’s a good football coach. We’ve got a lot to get better at. I’m sure you’ll ask me about it.”
Pittman also praised Grier for his interception to start the Arkansas scoring.
“Pretty good way to start isn’t it?,” Pittman said. “He’s still not, I don’t think he’s 100% to be honest with you. But we needed him to play with Pooh (Paul) being out, too, in the first half. So, I think Grier will end up being better against the run and things of that nature, but right now we’re still trying to figure out who that other guy besides Jaheim Thomas is. Pooh has been hurt. He didn’t scrimmage in either one of the scrimmages, then he misses a half here, we think that he could be that guy, but we’ll have to look at the tape and figure out between him and Grier.”
After another Andrew Glass field goal, Arkansas went on an 8-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Jefferson finding wide receiver Andrew Armstrong in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. The Hogs and Jefferson narrowly avoided a disaster there. On third and goal from the one, Arkansas got a delay penalty. After the penalty, Jefferson fielded a low snap, scrambled and found Armstrong wide open for a 14-6 lead with 2:20 remaining in the first half.
“So the snap was kind of low,” Jefferson said. “It caught me by surprise. Low snap, but first, before the play even started I looked at the down-and-distance and it was third down, so I didn’t want to fall on the ball when we are in the red zone. I just grabbed it and rolled out and saw Andrew in the back of the end zone wide open, so I tried to just give him a good, catchable ball and he made the play.
“But originally, it was supposed to be a little, like a little high-low type of route for Andrew and the running back, so that was originally what it was supposed to be, but we made it work. I mean, we ended up still getting to the high-low, so we made it work.”
Armstrong also talked about the play from his view after he saw Jefferson appear to be in trouble.
“Like I said, I’m a reaction player, so I just saw everybody flowing to the left, so I just flew to the right,” Armstrong said. “It just happened for me to become wide open. I threw my hands up so he could see me, he just threw a good pass and I caught it in the back of the end zone.”
The Hogs took a 21-6 lead in the third quarter when running back Rashod Dubinion powered in from the 1-yard line with 5:50 remaining in the third quarter. The drive was a 12-play, 91-yard one that took 6:28 off the clock.
The final touchdown came with 10:16 remaining in the game with Jefferson once again finding Armstrong for a 9-yard strike. Armstrong did an outstanding job keeping his feet inbounds on the play.
“Well, I just got around them,” Armstrong said. “You know, we work it at practice. We work on sideline drills with the wide receiver coaches. Coach (Kenny) Guiton. So when he rolled out, threw it to me on the corner, got both feet down you know, just being aware of where I was on the field and not stepping out of bounds and securing the pass and looking the ball in.”
The Hogs rushed for 172 yards with AJ Green getting the start in place of the injured Raheim “Rocket” Sanders. Green responded with 15 carries for 82 yards to lead the Hogs. Jefferson also had 13 carries for 48 yards and thus ran the ball than maybe Arkansas had planned to start the game. Jefferson was asked if running so much surprised him?
“Not at all,” Pittman said. “I mean I’m willing to do anything for my team, as long as we get the victory. Put my teammates in the best position to win, so I’m willing to do anything. Coach (Dan) Enos call the play, and I mean, it was up to me to just execute. I put my trust in those guys to block, Andrew, the linemen, the running backs to block, and I just execute. It wasn’t a surprise at all.”
Armstrong had four receptions to lead the Hogs as they went for 21 yards and two touchdowns. Isaac TeSlaa and Luke Hasz each added three receptions. TeSlaa’s catches went for 51 yards and Hasz 26. Hasz’s catches came in the second half and helped move the chains.
“Yeah, we had second and 18, he got about 7-8 to get us to the next one,” Pittman said. “It just seemed like he turned up and got a first down on one. He’s a tough guy, he’s blocking better, but he’s a guy we’ve got to continue to target.”
TeSlaa had one catch where he was on the ground with a Kent State defender on top of him and he still caught it.
“Wasn’t that crazy?,” Pittman said. “He catches everything. I kept telling Dan, I kept saying let’s go, let’s go. Because I didn’t want it to get reviewed, but they’re going to review it anyway. It doesn’t matter how fast you snap the ball, but the guy can catch. We didn’t particularly throw it well today, so we’ve got to figure out all that kind of stuff, but he made some TeSlaa catches like he always does. Armstrong made a really nice catch down in our end zone, too.”
The Arkansas defense came up big twice in the second half. Arkansas got the ball to start the second half. They had a fourth-and-1 play at their own 34 and Pittman opted to go for it. Green was stuffed for a 2-yard loss. But the Arkansas defense stiffened and thanks to an intentional grounding call on third down forced a punt.
In the fourth quarter, Kent State put together a from its own 25 to the Arkansas 1-yard line. The Hogs stuffed and prevented a score. Paul and defensive end Landon Jackson both had big plays during the stand.
The Hogs finished with 308 yards of offense to 200 for Kent State. Jaheim Thomas led the defense with 12 tackles. The Hogs had seven sacks led by Thomas and Trajan Jeffcoat with 1.5 each.
Arkansas (2-0) will be at home on Saturday to host BYU (2-0) at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2.