FAYETTEVILLE — It took the Arkansas football team a while to wake up Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The Razorbacks found themselves in a fight with 37.5-point underdog Kent State well into the second half before pulling away for a 28-6 victory in front of an announced crowd of 73,173.
Arkansas improved to 2-0, but not without red flags heading into its first game against a Power 5 opponent, BYU of the Big 12, next Saturday night.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Arkansas coach Sam Pittman told SEC Network after the game. “[First-year Kent State coach Kenni Burns] had them prepared better than I had ours prepared. They played better than we did today and we were fortunate to win.”
The Razorbacks struggled for a while offensively against a defense that allowed 723 yards the week before at Central Florida. Even with the return of veteran left guard Brady Latham, Arkansas’ offensive line had difficulty creating lanes for a running game that was without All-SEC back Raheim Sanders.
Quarterback KJ Jefferson put the offense on his back with a dual-threat performance that included 136 passing yards and 48 rushing yards, and numerous timely plays. Jefferson threw a pair of touchdown passes to Andrew Armstrong.
“We had to run him today because if we didn’t, we would have been in big trouble,” Pittman said. “We had to run him to win. The plan was not to do that, so we’ve got to do better up front, better at wideout and…our backs have got to run better. That all goes back to me and I’ve got to get it fixed.”
Rashod Dubinion’s 1-yard touchdown run with 5:50 remaining in the third quarter gave the Razorbacks their first multi-score lead at 21-6. It capped a 12-play, 91-yard drive that nearly doubled Arkansas’ offensive production to that point.
The Razorbacks had only gained 112 yards on 26 offensive snaps when the drive began at their own 9-yard line.
Jefferson completed 4 of 4 passes for 55 yards and also rushed 4 times for 27 yards on the drive, including an 18-yard scramble on third-and-2 from the Arkansas 30.
Jefferson hit Jaedon Wilson for 31 yards down the right sideline on the next play, and completed consecutive passes of 3 and 12 yards to Isaac TeSlaa later in the drive to set up first-and-goal at the Kent State 5.
Dubinion scored out of a three-back look two plays later.
Arkansas went ahead 28-6 on Jefferson’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Armstrong to end a 15-play, 73-yard drive with 10:16 remaining. The drive lasted 7 minutes, 54 seconds.
A 3-yard quarterback keeper by Jefferson on fourth-and-2 from the Kent State 44 kept the drive alive. He converted third-and-8 moments later with a 10-yard pass to tight end Luke Hasz, and the Golden Flashes were flagged for pass interference on a deep pass to TeSlaa to set up a first down at the 12.
Kent State quarterback Michael Alaimo hit Trell Harris for a 31-yard gain to the Arkansas 2 on the ensuing drive, but the Golden Flashes failed to score on three snaps from the 1. Gavin Garcia’s fourth-down run resulted in a 4-yard loss as defensive ends Landon Jackson and Trajan Jeffcoat crashed through the offensive line.
The Razorbacks’ defensive front created havoc for the Golden Flashes and finished with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Kent State was held to 200 total yards — including 26 rushing yards on 36 attempts — and without a touchdown for the second consecutive game.
“We did a lot of things that were better today,” Burns said. “[We] didn’t win. Obviously we want to win the games — that’s why we play — but I’m encouraged with how we played. They had a tough week of practice and they came out and they responded.”
Arkansas took possession with 6:05 remaining and never gave the ball back to Kent State. The Razorbacks rushed 11 times for 61 yards to run out the clock.
After a slow start, Arkansas finished with 172 rushing yards on 45 attempts. Jefferson completed 13 of 19 passes and the Razorbacks had 308 yards overall.
Arkansas is averaging 343.5 yards through two games.
Coming off of a 43-point victory over Western Carolina to open the season, the Razorbacks appeared to sleepwalk through much of the first half — an uninspired start against a Kent State team that lost its opener 56-6 at UCF.
“We have no excuses,” Jefferson said. “We’ve just got to lock in to the details and execute the game plan, and come out with an edge and play with passion from the start. We kind of did that second half, with a chip on our shoulder, with an edge to want to go and pull this thing out…and get the victory.
“But I feel like we’ve got to come out with an edge, with a chip on our shoulder early on in the game to go and set that tempo and set the standard.”
The Golden Flashes controlled possession early and took a 3-0 lead on Andrew Glass’ 48-yard field goal with 3:24 remaining in the first quarter.
Arkansas’ first two offensive drives resulted in 21 yards, but the Razorbacks took the lead for good with 1:12 left in the first quarter when linebacker Antonio Grier perfectly timed a jump at the line of scrimmage to intercept Alaimo. Grier, a South Florida transfer who was playing his first game at Arkansas, returned the interception 25 yards for a touchdown.
It was the second defensive touchdown in as many games for the Razorbacks, who had an 85-yard interception return by Brad Spence in the opener. Arkansas did not return any interceptions for a touchdown the previous two seasons, and the Razorbacks recorded pick-6 scores in back-to-back games for the first time since 2016.
Glass added a 38-yard field goal with 6:29 left in the second quarter to cut the Razorbacks’ lead to 7-6. Arkansas responded with an 8-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a 5-yard touchdown pass from Jefferson to Armstrong to give Arkansas a 14-6 halftime lead.
The Razorbacks nearly botched the scoring opportunity that was set up after Jefferson hit TeSlaa with a 36-yard deep ball to the Kent State 9.
AJ Green followed with consecutive 4-yard runs and appeared to possibly score on the second carry. Indecision followed on the Arkansas sideline, which led to a delay of game penalty that backed the Razorbacks up from inside the 1 to outside the 5.
On third-and-goal, Jefferson dropped the snap from center Beaux Limmer, but had time to pick up the ball and look upfield. He found Armstrong alone in the back of the end zone.
The Razorbacks’ offensive struggles continued into the third quarter when Dominique Johnson was tackled for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1 from the Arkansas 34.
That set up a short field for Kent State, but Alaimo was sacked for a 15-yard loss by Jackson on third down to knock the Golden Flashes out of Glass’ field-goal range. It was one of four times Alaimo was sacked on third down.
Arkansas scored on its next two drives and never looked back.
“It’ll be a good wake-up call for us,” Pittman said. “We talked all week about not needing a surprise, not needing to be woke up. But we got woke up. We’ll be ready to play next week.”