LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — On the heels of a three-game losing streak, Arkansas coach Sam Pittman and his players were in dire need of a confidence boost.
The Razorbacks got that, at the expense of an in-state opponent.
Sophomore quarterback K.J. Jefferson threw for a career-high four touchdowns, all coming before halftime, as Arkansas scored the first 45 points and defeated Arkansas-Pine Bluff 45-3 on Saturday in Little Rock.
The Razorbacks had entered the game having dropped three straight games - all against Southeastern Conference foes - after starting the season 4-0 and being ranked in the Top 10 nationally.
“Honestly, we needed to feel good again, and we went through a rough stretch,” Pittman said. “Again, it’s not an excuse, we went through a rough stretch, that’s the truth, and coming back here (Saturday) to be up 45-0 at the half, that was a big, big deal for us; it really was.
“It was (a big deal) for our coaching staff, to sit in there at halftime and going, ‘We did what we said we were going to do, we did what we needed to do.‘”
The Razorbacks (5-3) scored touchdowns on each of their first two possessions and made big plays in all three phases — offense, defense and special teams — breaking that losing streak in grand style.
It also comes at a good time for Arkansas, which will now enjoy a well-deserved bye week before returning to the field on Nov. 6 against Mississippi State.
“All of our hard work, we’ve been grinding from fall camp to the start of the season to playing SEC games week in and week out, so this bye week is going to get us right; just getting our bodies resting to really get back to work after the bye week,” Jefferson said.
Treylon Burks, a junior wide receiver, caught two of Jefferson’s TD passes and also had a 49-yard sweep around the right side for the Razorbacks’ second touchdown. That was his first career rushing touchdown with Arkansas.
“Coach (offensive coordinator Kendal) Briles just called the play, K.J. executed it, called me in motion, the (offensive) line blocked,” said Burks, who also caught four passes for 89 yards. “It was really good blocks on the outside from (receiver) Warren Thompson and (tight end) Hudson Henry, and they just gave me a lane and I did it.”
In the first half, the Razorbacks rolled up 426 yards of total offense, 232 of those on the ground. For the game, they finished with 504 yards (291 rushing, 213 passing), and tailback Dominique Johnson also had a career-high 91 yards on just six carries.
But the Razorbacks showed out in other areas.
On defense, they held the Golden Lions (1-6) to 223 total yards, recorded three sacks, 11 tackles for loss and intercepted two passes.
Myles Slusher had one of those interceptions, grabbing a pass in the end zone early in the second quarter to stop a potential UAPB scoring threat. That set up a 95-yard drive that ended with an 18-yard TD pass from Jefferson to Burks, extending the Razorbacks’ lead to 24-0.
Arkansas’ defense then forced a punt on the next series. Nathan Parodi fielded the punt at his own 20, reversed his field to the right side and dashed 80 yards into the end zone for a 31-0 lead, the first time since the 2011 season that the Razorbacks returned a punt for a touchdown.
“I think we did a nice job blocking; the guys turned around and got out in front of him,” Pittman said. “I believe Parodi made one miss and then got down the sideline and outran everybody; it was really well-executed. The punter outkicked the coverage and we had a lot of space in there once he kicked it to our sideline, and the kids got in front of (Parodi) and did a really good job of blocking for him.
“The whole team was as excited as I’ve seen in a long time when Parodi scored. It was really neat.”
Jefferson threw his final two touchdown passes inside the final three minutes of the opening half, starting with a 29-yard strike to freshman Ketron Jackson.
Then with exactly a minute to go before intermission, on a fourth-down from the UAPB 39, Jefferson threw it deep, with a streaking Burks catching it on the run near the 10 and taking it in untouched to put the finishing touches on a sterling first half for Arkansas.
“I knew (Burks) was going to run by the guy. ... I wanted to just put the ball up and just let him go make the play,” Jefferson said.
For the game, Jefferson completed 10-of-17 passes for 194 yards, all in the opening half.
Jefferson’s first TD went to tight end Blake Kern for 18 yards on the Razorbacks’ initial possession, as they marched 65 yards in six plays to take a 7-0 lead just 1:22 into the game.
The second half was played with two 12-minute quarters. UAPB got its only points on a 32-yard field goal by Zack Piwniczka with 6:34 remaining.
It was Arkansas’ first appearance at War Memorial Stadium in two years, after COVID-19 wiped out the Razorbacks’ annual trip to Little Rock last season.
Saturday was also the first time Arkansas played host to an in-state opponent since 1944, a win against then-Arkansas A&M (now Arkansas-Monticello). But it won’t be the last time Arkansas plays against an in-state foe, as the Razorbacks plan to play UAPB again in 2024, as well as Arkansas State the following season.
“We had some great chances, but we get another shot at these guys in a couple years, so we’ll learn from (Saturday’s) loss and build from it,” UAPB coach Doc Gamble said.
Though UAPB was severely outmanned against in all likelihood the best opponent it will play all season, the Golden Lions continued to fight and were able to avoid being shut out.
The Razorbacks got a much-needed win and will now try to parlay that after a bye week when they resume SEC play next month, needing one more win to become bowl-eligible.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff visits Texas Southern on Oct. 30.
Arkansas has a bye week then dives back into the SEC, hosting Mississippi State on Nov. 6.
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