As Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman sat in his postgame press conference following a 42-27 win over Ole Miss, he featured a bright smile on his face.
Pittman said he was just smiling at his wife, Jamie, and that he was “usually gloom and doom” after the way the last two weeks went for his team.
After missing his starting quarterback last week, Pittman’s offense looked much better with KJ Jefferson at the helm in Saturday’s win over the Rebels.
Jefferson missed last week’s 13-10 loss to LSU due to a shoulder injury he’s been nursing. He was also “banged up” during the Hogs’ 21-19 loss to Liberty the week prior.
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 not even a minute into the second quarter.
“Man, it’s nice to have KJ back,” head coach Sam Pittman said. “We weren’t too clean on the first two drives, first two scoring drives, but he made us clean because of his athleticism.”
The quarterback from Sardis, Mississippi, finished the game 17-22 with 168 yards passing and the three scores. He mentioned after the game that he’s close to being back to 100% healthy, but nobody is 100% when playing in the SEC.
“It felt good just being 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 around those guys and being able to be out there is a huge upside.”
After losing a 52-51 thriller on a failed two-point conversion at the end of regulation against Ole Miss last season, Jefferson said he had a chip on his shoulder to get back at the Rebels this year.
“I took it as a challenge, knowing that I didn’t play last week,” Jefferson said. “I had to come in and make a statement tonight. Also just being Ole Miss, I’m from Mississippi… Last year, they kind of got me last year, so this year was a huge challenge for me, just being able to go out there and play for my teammates and myself, as well.”
His presence on the field not only made the Arkansas offense — which had averaged less than 14 points per game in the two games he hasn’t played — run like a well-oiled machine, but he gave other players the confidence they needed to have a great showing.
Running back Rocket Sanders rushed for 232 yards — the fifth highest single game total in program history — and three scores 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 put the team up 42-6 just two plays into the third quarter.
“Yeah, definitely with me hitting (an extra burst) and having confidence in myself and with KJ telling me to hit it as well,” Sanders said. “I feel like that helped.”
The Razorbacks ran for 335 yards as a team, which was the highest total they’ve had all season. It was a big step up from 144 yards on the ground against Liberty and 133 yards against LSU.
Pittman credited the success in the ground game to his QB1.
“Well, the biggest improvement is KJ Jefferson, to be perfectly honest with you,” Pittman said. “When you have a guy behind you like that, it builds confidence in you when you have a big runner that can physically run over people…When you have a guy back there that can break tackles and make things happen, you play a little bit better, to be honest with you.”
Pittman said that Jefferson had no medication throughout the week and the staff felt like if they could get Jefferson back with the way the defense had been playing, they could do what they did against the Rebels.
When the offense let off the gas in the second half and began to try and run the clock out, it allowed for Ole Miss to make the game look closer in the final score than it actually was. The Razorbacks featured 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 to the house to start the second half, the game was out of hand, and a few scores by the Rebels down the stretch were too little, too late.
“Our defense bent, a lot,” Pittman said. “Heck, they had a lot of yards, but a lot of it was after we were up 42-6. But they didn’t break. Obviously, when you get up 42-6, the defense has played really well.”
The win over Ole Miss put the Hogs at 6-5 on the season and secured bowl eligibility for Arkansas for the third straight season. Pittman and his team broke out an old friend after the game: Larry the Bowling Ball.
“Yeah, we got a new carrying case for him,” Pittman said. “I think it’s an 80s vintage. Pat Dougherty brought him in, in the carrying case. We kind of shined him up a little bit. By the way, we’ve had him available for a couple of weeks. He looked hungry when he got out of there. But he was shined up, looked good and we did bring him out.”
Pittman and his team will have one more chance to make their resume look even better when they face the Missouri Tigers in Columbia on Friday. The game will kickoff at 2:30 p.m. CT and will be broadcast on CBS.