As Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman sat in his post-game press conference following a 42-27 win over Ole Miss, he had a beaming smile on his face.
Pittman said he only smiles at his wife Jamie and is “usually somber and doomed” after the past two weeks have gone by for his team.
After Pittman missed his starting quarterback last week, Pittman’s offense with KJ Jefferson at the helm looked a lot better in Saturday’s win over the Rebels.
Jefferson missed the 13-10 loss to LSU last week due to a shoulder injury he’s been nursing. He was also “beaten up” during the Hogs’ 21-19 loss to Liberty the week before.
He looked healthy and as dominant as ever in the first 16 minutes of the game against the Rebels. He was 9-12 with 110 passing yards, 49 rushing yards and three passing touchdowns less than a minute into the second quarter.
“Man, it’s nice to have KJ back,” said head coach Sam Pittman. “We weren’t too clean on the first two drives, the first two specials, but he cleaned us up because of his athleticism.”
The quarterback from Sardis, Mississippi finished the game 17-22 with 168 yards of pass and the three points. He mentioned after the game that he was almost 100% healthy again, but no one is 100% healthy when playing in the SEC.
“It felt good to be back out there with my teammates and just being able to be out there on the field and actually encourage them and see what’s going on,” Jefferson said. “Just being with these guys and being able to be out there is a huge benefit.”
After losing a 52-51 thriller on a failed two-point conversion at the end of regulation to Ole Miss last season, Jefferson said he has a chip on his shoulder to return to the Rebels this year.
“I took it as a challenge knowing I didn’t play last week,” Jefferson said. “I had to come in tonight and make a statement. I’m just Ole Miss too, I’m from Mississippi… Last year they kind of got me last year so this year was a big challenge for me to just be able to go out there and also play for my teammates and myself.”
His presence on the field not only kept Arkansas’ offense — which averaged under 14 points per game in the two games he didn’t play — run like a well-oiled machine, but he gave other players the needed power Confidence is a great idea.
Running back Rocket Sanders rushed for 232 yards — the fifth-highest single-game total in program history — and three points in the win over the Rebels. It seemed like Sanders had an extra burst on Saturday as he had five rushes for at least 20 yards, including a 68-yard score, to lead the team 42-6 in just two games in the third quarter.
“Yeah, definitely if I hit (an extra burst) and have faith in myself and KJ tells me to hit it too,” Sanders said. “I feel like that helped.”
The Razorbacks rushed for 335 yards as a team, which was the highest total they had all season. It was a big stride of 144 yards on the ground against Liberty and 133 yards against LSU.
Pittman credited the ground game success to his QB1.
“Well, the biggest improvement is KJ Jefferson, to be honest with you,” Pittman said. “When you’ve got a guy like that behind you, it builds confidence in you when you’ve got a big runner who can physically run people over… When you’ve got a guy back there who can break tackles and get things started, you play.” a little better, to be honest.”
Pittman said Jefferson was off medication all week and staff felt if they could get Jefferson back with the way the defense had played, they could do what they did against the rebels.
As the offense ramped up in the second half and attempted to overtake time, Ole Miss allowed the final score to make the game look closer than it actually was. The Razorbacks possessed a bend-don’t-break defense in the first half that allowed the offense to give them a 35-6 lead at the break.
After Sanders’ 68-yard sprint home to start the second half, the game was out of control and a couple of points from the Rebels down the stretch was too little, too late.
“Our defense flexed badly,” Pittman said. “Damn, they had a lot of yards, but a lot of them after we went 42-6. But they didn’t break. Obviously the defense played really well when you’re 42-6.”
The win over Ole Miss put the Hogs 6-5 in the season and secured Arkansas bowl eligibility for the third straight season. Pittman and his team broke out an old friend after the game: Larry the Bowling Ball.
“Yes, we have a new tote bag for him,” Pittman said. “I think it’s an ’80s vintage. Pat Dougherty brought it in the tote bag. We polished it up a bit. By the way, we’ve had it available for a couple of weeks. He looked hungry when he came out of there. But it was shiny, it looked good and we put it out.
Pittman and his team have another chance to make their resume look even better when they play the Missouri Tigers in Columbia on Friday. The game begins at 2:30 pm CT and will be broadcast on CBS.