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Fort Smith
Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Arkansas Survives Kansas Comeback to Win the Autozone Liberty Bowl

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After a frigid week in Memphis that included subfreezing temperatures, light snow, and pipe bursts that caused a shortage of water at team and media hotels, the Autozone Liberty Bowl kicked off today on a beautiful sunny day that included a temperature of 54 degrees at kickoff.

The 64th Liberty Bowl game featuring Arkansas and Kansas would be a battle of Kansas who was the surprise of the Big 12 Conference, and the Hogs who had lost 24 players to the transfer portal before the game.

Arkansas took possession of the opening kickoff at the 12 yard line and moved the ball downfield using both the run and pass. Rocket Sanders and Rashod Dubinion carried the ball effectively along with key runs by K.J. Jefferson. After an incomplete pass in the end zone, Cam Little connected on a field goal attempt to give the Razorbacks an early 3-0 lead.

Kansas junior quarterback Jalon Daniels was back in the lineup for the game and immediately went to work connecting on passes against an Arkansas secondary that had its problems in 2022. The Jayhawks moved the ball against the Hogs’ defense seemingly at will. Daniels under backside pressure, connected to Ky Thomas for the touchdown and the Kansas lead. The PAT was successful, and the Jayhawks led 7-3 after first possessions by both teams.

Arkansas went three and out on their next possession. The Kansas answer of a touchdown on their first drive swung the momentum to the Jayhawks. After dodging a fumbled hand off on first down, Kansas threw two incomplete passes, forcing a punt. On an apparent fumble on the punt, the ball was ruled that Arkansas had recovered, avoiding a muffed punt for a turnover. But on the play, Rocket Sanders went off the field with an injury.

On first down, Jefferson hit Matt Landers on a 59-yard touchdown pass to retake the lead, 10-7.

Then lightning struck; on the ensuing kickoff, Kansas fumbled the kickoff and Arkansas recovered on the Jayhawks’ 17 yard line. Jefferson immediately went to the air and hit Washington for a TD strike. The PAT was good, and the Hogs’ lead increased to 17-7.

Arkansas defense began to take control of the game, putting pressure of the Kansas quarterback. Quincy McAdoo stepped in front of a Daniels pass at the Arkansas 10 yard line and returned the interception back to the 30. Arkansas was showing a much more aggressive defensive scheme compared to the soft pass rush and coverage the Razorbacks used throughout the season.

In the absence of Sanders, Dubinion and the Arkansas offense went back to work. Jefferson hit George Wilson for a thirty yard pass completion to the Kansas 42. On 3rd and 4, Jefferson escaped the rush and ran to the Kansas seven yard line. On third and goal from the three, Jefferson kept the ball and ran it to the end zone for an apparent touchdown. The play was reviewed, and confirmed. An explosive first quarter for the Razorbacks ended with the Hogs leading 24-7. Arkansas’s 24 first quarter points broke a Liberty Bowl record.

On Kansas’s first possession of the second quarter, the Hogs intercepted a Jalon Daniels pass to take possession on the Arkansas 30 yard line. The Hogs blitz forced an errant throw by Daniels and was an example of a much more aggressive defensive scheme being used by the Razorbacks in the Liberty Bowl.

After the turnover, Arkansas was unable to sustain their drive and punted for the first time in the game. A flag on the play resulted in five yards being added to the to the Kansas starting point for the next drive.

But the aggressive Arkansas defense sacked Daniels on the first play of the drive. On 3rd and 15, Daniels was sacked by Terry Hampton after getting strong pressure on the Kansas quarterback. Since the first drive for Kansas, the Arkansas defense had completely taken over the game.

On a deep pass attempt to Matt Landers, Arkansas was called for an ineligible player downfield on the pass attempt. With approximately six minutes remaining in the half Jefferson handed off to Dubinion who raced up the middle for a big gain and a first down. The Hogs’ scoring onslaught continued with a big run by A J Green around the right end for another Arkansas touchdown. With five minutes to play in the first half, Arkansas had extended the lead to 31-7.

After a big hit on a Kansas receiver by Quincy McAdoo, Kansas fought their way into the red zone trying to get a score before the half. Daniels hit tight end Mason Fairchild who was wide open for a touchdown. The Jayhawks lined up for a two point conversion attempt. After an Arkansas time out, a Daniels pass was broken up in the end zone and the conversion attempt had failed. But the Kansas score put the Jayhawks back into the football game by narrowing the score to 31-13 with approximately one minute to play in the first half.

Arkansas chose to play aggressively to score before the end of half instead of running out the clock. On third down, K J Jefferson made a spectacular play to avoid a sack and run for 31 yards for a first down. After a penalty for a late hit out of bounds, Jefferson was intercepted in the end zone with 20 seconds remaining in the half. It was the big play for Kansas that they desperately needed to avoid going down 38-13 at the half.

Kansas took a knee to run out the clock, and both teams went to the locker room with Arkansas leading 31-13 and Kansas receiving the second half kickoff.

Kansas came out energized on their first possession of the third quarter. But after moving the ball to the 40 of Arkansas, the Jayhawks appeared to line up to go for a fourth and four. But Kansas instead elected to have Daniels punt the football that would roll into the end zone, and Arkansas would take for its first possession of the second half.

The Hogs’ running game began to take over with big runs by Dubinion and Green. Jefferson hit Wilson on a first down pass to the 20 of Kansas. Dubinion moved the ball to the seven and then to the three on the next play. With 8:44 remaining in the third quarter, Dubinion scored for the Razorbacks to extend the Arkansas lead to 38-13. Arkansas was in control on both sides of the football.

After exchanging punts late in the third, Kansas mounted a drive to the Arkansas six yard line with approximately 3 minutes remaining in the quarter. The Hogs were flagged for pass interference in the end zone and the ball was placed on the two yard line. On the next play, Kansas scored on a hand off and narrowed the lead to 38-20.

Arkansas went back to the ground game, but the Kansas defense stiffened. On third down, Jefferson’s pass to Landers was knocked down and Arkansas was forced to punt.

Daniels and the Kansas offense went back to work and hit a long pass down the Arkansas sideline on first down. Kansas was threatening to score when on first down the Jayhawks attempted a throwback pass across the field that was overthrown and fell incomplete.

Kansas would move the ball to the Arkansas twenty at the end of the fourth quarter. When the two teams began the fourth quarter, it was Arkansas leading 38-20 and Kansas threatening to score.

When time resumed in the fourth quarter, the Arkansas defense stopped Kansas to force a field goal attempt. The field goal was good, and Kansas pulled within 38-23 of Arkansas.

Arkansas took over after the kickoff and Jefferson ran for 11 yards and a first down on the first play. Still playing without Rocket Sanders who would not return from a first quarter ankle sprain, the Arkansas running game continued with Dubinion and Green moving the ball for the Hogs. After a injury timeout for a Kansas player, Arkansas faced a big third down to keep the ball away from a Kansas team that was gaining confidence with each offensive possession.

On a huge third down play, Jefferson kept the ball and then threw the ball downfield for an apparent first down. But offensive pass interference on Arkansas nullified the play and Arkansas was faced with third and long after the call. Jefferson then dumped a pass to Hudson Henry and ended six yards short of the first down, forcing an Arkansas punt.

After downing he punt on the Kansas 21, the Jayhawks took over with momentum on their side. Kansas was dominating the second half and was looking to cut the deficit to a one score game.

But the Razorbacks defense rose to the occasion and forced a three and out possession by Kansas, giving the ball back to Arkansas.

The Hogs running game began to takeover with a slower paced offense to run remaining time off the clock. But on third down, Jefferson was stopped on a quarterback keeper. Arkansas was forced to punt with approximately 8 minutes remaining in the game.

Kansas took over with 7:39 left in the game. On the first play, Daniels hit a receiver down field for 15 yards. The Hogs Chris Paul had a massive hit on a Kansas receiver to force an incompletion.

With a little less than six minutes remaining, Kansas had moved the ball to the Arkansas 37. On first down, Arkansas broke a pass in the end zone. On third down, the Hogs held a Kansas run to force a fourth and four situation for the Jayhawks. At the 3:52 mark, Jackson Woodard deflected a Daniels pass to force an incompletion and give the ball back to the Razorbacks.

Jefferson would hit Landers one more time for a shot down the field to keep the ball and run more time off the clock. K J Jefferson would be named as the games Most Valuable Player after a huge night in the historic bowl game series.

Landers, who also had a monster game for the Hogs, would fumble on a wide receiver reverse. The play was reviewed and the play stood as called. Kansas took over on the Arkansas 47.

Kansas, out of timeouts, frantically attempted to move the ball downfield, but time was against them. After a first down with 1:58 remaining, Arkansas sacked Daniels for a big loss of both yardage and remaining time. Kansas rushed to the line and was called for holding on an incomplete pass attempt.

Daniels would complete a pass to the ten yard line and into the end zone on the next play. With 1:05 remaining in the game, Kansas kicked the extra point and the score became 38-30 with the onside kick to come.

With the entire stadium and television audience expecting an onside kick, Kansas recovered to keep possession.

Kansas had the ball on the Arkansas 49 with 1:05 remaining. Daniels dropped back and completed a pass to the Arkansas 17 yard line.

On second down, the Arkansas rush flushed Daniels from the pocket and forced an incompletion with 46 seconds remaining. On third down, Kansas was called for delay of game and the ball was moved back to the 22 yard line.

With 41 seconds remaining, Daniels threw a touchdown pass to pull Kansas within two points.

Kansas lined up for two to tie the game, and Daniels hit his receiver who was wide open to tie the game with 41 seconds remaining in regulation play.

Arkansas, who had been driving to put the game away, became too aggressive in their play calling on the reverse, resulting in a turnover and giving Kansas the opportunity to tie the game. That will be talked about all winter.

Arkansas took possession on its own seven yard line with 41 seconds remaining. Unable to complete passes down field, time expired. Kansas was called for illegal substitution and Arkansas was given one more play with two seconds on the clock. Green took the hand off and eventually ran out of bounds to end regulation play.

Arkansas won the coin toss and elected to play defense on the first possession of the first overtime period.

On the first play, Daniels hit a big pass to the Arkansas seven yard line. Arkansas held Kansas on a rushing attempt off the left side to set up second and goal. On second down, Kansas ran off the right side for a one yard gain. On third and goal the Jayhawks ran again off the right side to the two yard line. On fourth down, Kansas elected to go for the touchdown. Daniels scrambled and hit is receiver in the corner of the end zone for the go ahead touchdown. The PAT was good, and Arkansas trailed 45-38.

Arkansas would now have their offensive possession and would have to score seven points to force a second overtime period.

Jefferson hit Landers on a bubble screen and the Hogs receiver would ramble to the six yard line. Play was then stopped for an injured Kansas player.

On the next play, Dubinion would carry the ball off the right side for the touchdown. Cam Little drilled the PAT and the game went to a second overtime period. At 45-45, the game was now the highest scoring game in Liberty Bowl history.

Arkansas got possession first in the second overtime where teams must go for two point conversions. Jefferson ran the ball into the end zone to take the lead, 51-45. Jefferson then hit Wilson for the two-point conversion, and the Hogs led 53-45.

Kansas would now have to score eight points to extend the game to a third overtime period.

Daniels tried once more to bring the Jayhawks back, but Kansas was called for a big holding penalty, pushing the Jayhawks further from the Arkansas goal line.

On third down, Daniels scrambled and hit his receiver to take the Jayhawks to the three yard line and a first down. Kansas would score again and face a two-point conversion attempt to tie the game.

But on the attempt, Daniels ran to the goal and was apparently stopped by the defense. But personal foul and possible targeting was called on Arkansas. The play was sent to video review.

Targeting was confirmed, and the ball was move to the one yard line. Kansas had to score to force the third overtime. Daniels would hit his receiver to tie the game at 53-53.

To start the third overtime period, Arkansas would have the first offensive possession. Both teams would now just have one play each for two point conversions to settle the game.

On Arkansas’s attempt, Jefferson hit Dubinion for the two-points and a 55-53 lead.

Then it would be Kansas’s turn to attempt a two-point to continue play. But in one of the biggest ironies of the game, it would be Kansas who would use a reverse wide receiver pass that would be overthrown and end the game. Just as Arkansas almost lost the game on their wide receiver reverse.

The final score was Arkansas 55, Kansas 53.

On a related note, ESPN had named Jefferson as the game’s MVP during the fourth quarter. As the game wore on and Arkansas was in imminent danger of losing, my memory went back to 1971 when Arkansas’s Joe Ferguson was named the Liberty Bowl’s MVP in a loss to Tennessee. In that game, Arkansas was the victim of a series of controversial calls that allowed the Vols the opportunity to stay in and eventually win the game. In fact, then Arkansas assistant coach, Joe Gibbs, who would later on in his career go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a head coach for the World Champion Washington Redskins, would chase the Liberty Bowl officiating crew off the field and into their dressing room after losing the game on the controversial calls.

It is all part of the sour history of Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl. But as this year’s edition played out, I wondered if Arkansas would once again have an MVP quarterback in a losing effort at the Liberty Bowl.

But nevertheless, the Hogs, who were shorthanded, came to play and gave an inspired effort. It will be a positive way to end this season and to look forward to spring practice and the start of next season. Watch for a follow-up from the Liberty Bowl post-game coaches press conference later this week at RNN Sports.

Congratulations to coach Sam Pittman and the Razorbacks on another bowl win! We at RNN Sports can’t wait to bring you Razorbacks football action again next season!

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Jim Best
Jim Best is a man of many talents. His storied career in Arkansas education led him to a new passion, and hidden gifts in sports journalism.
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