By Jason Pattyson
The Arkansas Razorbacks sent a clear message to the Florida Gators and the Razorback fan base Saturday afternoon: do not count us out just yet. The Hogs capitalized on defensive pressure all day and timely execution on offense for a 39-36 win, their first ever in The Swamp.
Head Coach Sam Pittman loved how the defense started the game and got the team off to a fast start.
“How about the first drive? That was incredible — ‘boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.’ And then Jaylon (Braxton) ripped the ball out, and it’s like, I don’t know what it was, 12:30 or something left in the first quarter, and we’re up 14 to nothing. We hadn’t taken much time. And then they outplayed us in special teams a little bit, had us in a short field, went right down, and scored a couple of times. I don’t know that we could’ve scripted that any better.”
The Razorback defensive front seven was in the Gator backfield all afternoon, and Wisconsin transfer junior quarterback Graham Mertz had a hard time finding rhythm in the pocket. Mertz was hurried four times out of the pocket, sacked three times, and had a lot of green grass marks on the back of his jersey.
The front seven allowed the secondary to come up and make plays from wire to wire. For the first time this season, the top four tackles leaders were all secondary players. That meant the guys in the trenches were eating up blockers and paving the way for guys in the backfield to come up and make plays.
Six linebackers were in action and recorded at least one tackle. Jordan Crook, Mani Powell, and Alex Sanford all recorded a tackle and gave starters Chris “Pooh” Paul Jr. and Jaheim Thomas needed breaks without giving up the big play. Paul said this was something the defense had been looking forward to all week.
“Phenomenal. We talked about this all week, and we knew coming into this game, any team that’s traveled down here for the University of Arkansas has never won in The Swamp,” Paul said. “We took pride in that in our preparation this week. Coming down here, we executed the plan.”
Anthony “Tank” Booker Jr. had his best game as a Razorback, recording four solo tackles, associated in three, and had one tackle for loss. The defense allowed just 112 rushing yards to a team that averaged 122 running YPG, ten under their season average. Mertz had been sacked an average of twice a game, and he was dropped in the backfield three times today.
The biggest factor that you won’t see in the stat column was that Mertz’s timing was off due to the pressure up front. The Florida offense has been up and down all year, but when they were on, they could do some damage. Arkansas limited the explosive and chunk plays and allowed four plays over 20 yards, which was predicated on the pressure in the trenches.
This is momentum the team can use moving forward in their push to reach a bowl after such a dismal start of the season, and no one over the last six weeks thought this could be possible.
“I think it’s going to bring momentum to the team, offensive and defensively, ” Paul said. “It’s going to pride us to work harder, pride us to keep going back and taking that coaching. Like I said earlier, taking that coaching and just going back out and applying what we were taught.”
The controversy at the end of the game was something Pittman touched on post-game, and the game shouldn’t have ever gone to overtime.
“Ok, to have a 10-second run-off, the ball has to be ready. With all this commotion, they never, in their words, put it ready for play. To be honest with you, my opinion, now I’ll have to get a different — the field goal should’ve never — someone took care of us on it because the field goal, in my opinion, should have never been kicked. But that was the explanation. The officials were good and all of that, but they said that the ball was not ever ready for play. Therefore, they had to have 18-20 guys on the field.”
The defense will try to carry this momentum back to Fayetteville next Saturday when Hugh Freeze and Auburn come to town; kickoff is set for 3 p.m. and will broadcast on the SEC Network.