Haselwood’s admission adds fire to post-clunker KJ Jefferson speculation | Tech US News

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KJ Jefferson, Arkansas football
Photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas football needed one more win to get the ball rolling, and on Saturday afternoon, it put on arguably the worst offense of the Sam Pittman/Kendal Briles era.

The Razorbacks struggled to simply gain positive yards most of the game and finally got hot in the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t enough to overcome their early deficit and they lost a disappointing 21-19 loss to No. 23 Liberty inside the Reynolds Razorbacks. Stadium.

He shouldn’t take all the blame, as he was instrumental in the late-game hitting, but pitcher KJ Jefferson didn’t look like himself, and the offense struggled as a result.

“It just seemed like we were definitely out of sync for whatever reason,” head coach Sam Pittman said. “Maybe because KJ didn’t throw the ball a lot this week, I don’t know, but we weren’t in rhythm. He seemed to be out of rhythm.”

Pittman admitted his star pitcher was “beaten up this week” and was limited in practice despite participating every day. Jefferson missed a game earlier this season with a suspected concussion, but was also dealing with a nagging shoulder injury before the Texas A&M game.

Rumors of his availability circulated on social media and message boards in the hours leading up to the game. It was seemingly subdued when Jefferson came in for pregame warmups, but his play suggested there might be something to the speculation — especially given what wide receiver Jadon Haselwood told reporters afterward.

“Obviously this week, Malik (Hornsby) was getting most of the snaps and throwing them to us and stuff like that,” Haselwood said. “But I think … we just weren’t aligned. I mean, I didn’t know who was starting to get into the game like all of you.”

Arkansas went three-and-out on three of its first four possessions and went scoreless on its first seven drives, with five fumbles, a turnover on downs and an interception.

Things got so bad at one point that Pittman actually asked offensive coordinator Kendal Briles if he thought they should mix things up at quarterback. In the end, though, they decided that Jefferson — though not 100 percent — was a better option than backup Malik Hornsby and Cade Fortin.

“He told me what I needed to hear, that KJ is our guy and he’s going to get here eventually, and he is our guy,” Pittman said. “That was—in my opinion that was the right thing to do to leave him there.”

It turned out to be the right call, as Jefferson eventually rallied to lead the Razorbacks on back-to-back touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, but his quarterback was stopped just short of the goal line, which would have been the best. tying the score at two points with 1:11 remaining.

He ended up completing 23 of 37 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns with an unusual two interceptions, and added 36 yards on 16 carries — a total of 68 yards on 12 attempts with no sacks.

“Obviously he didn’t play as well as he has,” Pittman said. “I will say this, he wanted to win. I mean, he ended up kicking his ass and making plays to get us to overtime. He just didn’t throw the ball as well as he normally does.”

Jefferson hangs on too long

Speaking of those games that hurt KJ Jefferson’s rushing total, Arkansas gave up a season-high four hits against Liberty.

This number is certainly astounding. Although the Flames entered the game averaging 3.75 sacks, which was tied for second nationally, the Razorbacks allowed just 1.75 per game and had the sixth-best pass blocking rating (84.2) in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus.

However, these sacks are difficult to place on offense. The unit routinely gave Jefferson plenty of time in the pocket, only to hold the ball too long. He did manage to get away a few times, but Liberty did what many teams have tried to do and actually put him down.

“I didn’t think we protected that bad, even though we gave up four sacks,” Pittman said. “Either he didn’t see the open guy or we just weren’t open because I didn’t think our protection was that bad. He used to be back there quite a while, most of the time.’

Liberty Bottles Up Run game

In the week leading up to the game, Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze told reporters that Arkansas has the best offensive line he’s seen since taking over the program in 2019.

While the Razorbacks were mostly justified in the passing game, the Razorbacks were completely overwhelmed in the running game, especially early on.

Six of their first seven carries failed to gain yards, and it wasn’t until the final play of the first quarter, AJ Green’s 19-yard run, that their rushing total climbed above zero. The start was even worse, as Sam Pittman said Liberty’s defense didn’t surprise them because it used a similar game plan against Wake Forest earlier in the season.

“They were basically turning away from their backs,” Pittman said. “They tried to take away our stretch game, which we expected to come into the game and we obviously blocked it a lot better in practice than we did tonight. But it wasn’t a plan we didn’t know they had. They were curling inward and curling both away from the back and hitting that side as well.’

Green’s run seemed to open things up briefly in the running game, as he also picked up 14 yards on the first play of the second quarter. On Arkansas’ next drive, Rocket Sanders — the SEC’s leading rusher — racked up 50 yards on three straight drives after his first nine attempts resulted in minus-5 yards.

The adjustments helped some, but there were still a few instances where a running back was met in the backfield and dropped for a loss.

“We were turning our backs a little bit,” Pittman said. “We jumped back a little bit. We went to gap schemes. It was a bit of feast or famine, to be perfectly honest with you.’

When the dust settled, the Flames had an incredible 14 tackles for loss, which included four sacks. It was their most TFLs since becoming an FBS program in 2018 and the most Arkansas has ever allowed under Pittman, easily eclipsing the 10 received by Alabama in 2020 and 2021.

In fact, it was the most tackles for loss Arkansas has allowed since Oklahoma had 14 in the 2002 Cotton Bowl following the 2001 season, more than two decades ago.

“It felt like we were behind a turnover with the ball carrier, and we needed to be ahead of him,” Pittman said. “They penetrated that early in the game and we couldn’t get the ball to the rim.

“We went back inside and … they were squirming inside, too. They seemed to have a pretty good call for what we were trying to run and we couldn’t match their speed. That’s how it seemed to me without watching the video.”

Throwing sticks

Between sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage, Arkansas found itself behind the chains quite a bit on Saturday.

In fact, the average distance required on the Razorbacks’ 16 third-down plays was 10.1 yards, resulting in just four conversions. At 25 percent, it was their worst third-down conversion rate since going just 3-of-16 (18.8%) at LSU last year.

“We tried to run the ball like we do, or we tried to throw the ball and try to run it on second down,” Pittman said. “But today, instead of a lot of incompletions, it was sacks, or instead of second-and-6, it was second-and-12 because of negative plays.”

Perhaps most frustrating for the 70,000-plus fans in attendance was the fact that Arkansas routinely threw away the bat on those plays. Jefferson passed the ball on 13 of those third downs, and only five were to receivers behind the line for a gain.

“I think they were giving us those bottom throws,” Pittman said. “I think he threw one deep early in the second half and the safety picked it up. Maybe he was a little shy trying to throw a deep ball.”

Jadon Haselwood and Rocket Sanders made good plays after the catch to still get enough yards for a first down and Arkansas converted 4 of 6 fourth downs, but most of those came between the Razorbacks’ last two drives.

Adding context to Arkansas’ offensive performance

Coming off 93-point, 1,164-yard sweeps against BYU and Auburn, Arkansas enters Saturday with one of the nation’s best passing offenses.

The Razorbacks ranked 13th in total offense (492.5 yards/game) and 36th in scoring offense (33.8 points/game).

Thanks to the aforementioned last two punts of 84 and 85 yards, Arkansas finished with 428 yards of offense against Liberty, but scored just 19 points — and three of those came on Cam Little’s 50-yard field goal. allowed a penalty and two came to the guard.

“They were high right in front of KJ, which made us give the ball away,” Pittman said. “We didn’t throw the ball very well, so that wasn’t really an option. It was more run-run and run-by. They were swarming over him, and there was another guy outside. We basically had to cut the movement, the twists, away from it and we couldn’t do that. Sometimes we also cut them freely.”

Statistically speaking, the Flames have the best defense between 30 and 428 yards was the most they gave up all year, but it was a huge disappointment for the Arkansas quarterback who was on his way to becoming the most efficient — in terms of yards per play — in school history.

When they were shut out last season, the Razorbacks played a historically dominant Georgia defense on the road. The same could be said the year before, when they only managed a field goal at home against Alabama. Both teams went on to win the national championship.

The Liberty, though ranked 23rd in the AP poll, are slated to join Conference USA next season and don’t have nearly the same talent as those two defenses. Given the circumstances, the whistles that rained down at times on Saturday were justified.

Hear what Sam Pittman had to say after the ugly performance:

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More Arkansas football coverage from BoAS…

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