Facing fourth-and-1 from his own 40 late in the second quarter Saturday, Arkansas running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders was tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
It was a key sequence as Texas A&M won the Southwest Classic 34-22 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. It was also a recurring theme for the Razorbacks, who could barely get anything going on offense.
Arkansas was held to 174 yards — including 50 after halftime — in one of its worst offensive outings in the last two decades. Texas A&M finished with 15 tackles for loss for the second consecutive week, seven of which were sacks of quarterback KJ Jefferson. The Razorbacks lost 57 yards.
Sam Pittman, Arkansas' fourth-year coach, called Texas A&M a "very prepared" team.
"They ran the ball well, threw it well, played great defense and put a lot of pressure on us," Pittman said. "Give them credit; they were very physical."
The Aggies (3-1, 2-0 SEC) won for the 11th time in 12 games since the series became a matchup of SEC teams, and improved to 8-4 against the Razorbacks on the neutral field in the Dallas suburb.
Texas A&M has won three in a row since a 48-33 loss at Miami on Sept. 9.
Arkansas (2-3, 0-2) lost its third consecutive game. The Razorbacks are in the midst of a four-game stretch away from home that continues next Saturday at No. 20 Ole Miss and ends the following week at 12th-ranked Alabama.
Sanders’ 1-yard loss on fourth down led to a quick touchdown drive that was capped by a 2-yard pass from quarterback Max Johnson to fullback Earnest Crownover with 13 seconds remaining to give the Aggies a 17-6 halftime lead.
The Razorbacks were prepared to punt with 2:54 remaining in the second quarter, but Texas A&M was flagged for an offside penalty that set up a fourth-and-inches decision for Pittman. Following a timeout, Sanders took a handoff in the shotgun formation and was stopped by defensive tackle McKinnley Jackson.
"It was six inches," Pittman said. "Sometimes you make decisions on how everything's kind of feeling during the game and things of that nature. We hadn't stopped them — they had missed a field goal, but we hadn't stopped them.
"We had three timeouts left. I thought if we made the first down right there we could go down and either cut the lead to one or take the lead. We missed the cutoff on the backside and Rocket got hit on it.
"Sitting there at the 40, I just felt very confident about our short yardage. We had a really nice game plan. I thought we'd make it; we just didn't."
The Aggies responded with an 8-play, 39-yard drive that lasted 2 minutes, 36 seconds. Texas A&M converted a pair of third downs on the drive, including third-and-12 when Max Johnson threw 15 yards to his brother Jake Johnson.
Max Johnson threw the touchdown pass to Crownover one play following a 6-yard run by Le’Veon Moss on third-and-2.
"Arkansas moved the football and had a good plan coming in and we were making adjustments," Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said. "But when it got to the red zone, we were able to toughen up and hold them to field goals. I thought the difference in the first half was they had two field goals and we had two touchdowns.”
The Razorbacks and the Aggies traded pick-6 interception returns and field goals in the third quarter that ended with Texas A&M leading 27-16.
Ainias Smith erased any doubt of a comeback with an 82-yard punt return touchdown that gave the Aggies a 34-16 lead with 7:40 remaining. Smith, who suffered a season-ending injury against the Razorbacks last season, had a 43-yard return later in the quarter.
"That was huge for us and got the game back in our hands," Fisher said on SEC Network of Smith's touchdown.
Arkansas cornerback Lorando “Snaxx” Johnson intercepted Max Johnson on a quick pass on the first offensive play of the second half and returned it 20 yards for a score to cut Texas A&M’s lead to 17-13. It was the Razorbacks’ third touchdown on an interception return in five games.
Randy Bond kicked a 34-yard field goal on the Aggies’ next drive and Arkansas’ Cam Little answered with a 50-yard field goal. Little’s kick followed Texas A&M’s second turnover of the quarter when Max Johnson fumbled on a big hit by linebacker Jordan Crook, and linebacker Brad Spence recovered at the Aggies’ 35.
It appeared Arkansas might tie the game when Jefferson threw deep to Andrew Armstrong on third down following Spence's fumble recovery, but Armstrong could not come up with a sliding catch in the end zone as Tyreek Chappell applied coverage.
Trailing 20-16, Arkansas forced Texas A&M’s first punt on the ensuing drive, but the Aggies got the ball right back. Jefferson was hit by Evan Stewart as he let go of a first-down pass. Chris Russell caught the ball off the deflection and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown.
The Razorbacks had negative yardage on each of their next two drives as the Aggies pulled away.
Both teams scored on their first two possessions. Little kicked a 52-yard field goal to end a 15-play opening drive that gave Arkansas a 3-0 lead.
Stewart caught a 32-yard touchdown from Max Johnson with 2:36 remaining in the first quarter and Texas A&M never trailed again.
Leading an offense coordinated by former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino, Johnson completed 17 of 28 passes for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns. He started his first game of the season after Connor Weigman was lost a season-ending foot injury last week when Johnson came off the bench to lead two scoring drives in a 27-10 win over Auburn.
"I think he did a great job in the first half," Fisher said. "We had a couple of mistakes in the second, then he got his composure back and took us down for a big field-goal drive and a good drive at the end. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but he did a good job."
Little was good from 25 yards to cut the Aggies’ lead to 7-6 early in the second quarter. Bond made a 42-yard field goal to give Texas A&M a 10-6 lead with 10:26 left before halftime, and Bond had a 49-yard attempt hit the left upright later in the quarter. Bond also missed a 48-yard attempt wide right early in the fourth quarter.
Little, who made three field goals for the second consecutive week, became the first Arkansas kicker since Steve Little (no relation) in 1976 to make multiple kicks of 50-plus yards in the same game. He has made 7 of 8 attempts this season.
Jefferson threw a 48-yard touchdown to Armstrong with 3:53 remaining. A two-point conversion attempt failed.
Jefferson broke the program record for touchdown responsibility on the throw. His 78th career touchdown passed former quarterback Matt Jones, who accounted for 77 from 2001-04.
Armstrong’s touchdown followed a recovery by linebacker Antonio Grier at the Arkansas 36 on Max Johnson’s second fumble. All 16 of the Razorbacks’ second-half points followed Texas A&M turnovers.
Arkansas had 110 yards of offense before the 64-yard scoring drive late and finished with its 10th-worst offensive performance in an SEC game.
The Razorbacks' 174 yards on offense were the third fewest in the past 20 years. Alabama held the Razorbacks to 137 yards in 2012, and Arkansas gained 162 at Georgia in 2021. Both of those games resulted in shutouts by teams that won the national championship.
Jefferson completed 9 of 17 passes for 132 yards. The Razorbacks rushed 39 times for 42 yards, led by Sanders’ 11 carries for 34 yards in his first game back from a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup since the season opener against Western Carolina on Sept. 2.
"We didn’t allow [Jefferson] to get out," Fisher said. "KJ is so dangerous when he rushes. We had integrity in the rush lanes and got him on the ground in the pocket."
The Aggies ran 39 times for 204 yards, led by Moss' 107 yards on 17 attempts. Texas A&M drove to the Arkansas 1 in the game's final moments, but failed to score three times at the goal line.
There was a scary moment late in the fourth quarter when Arkansas defensive lineman John Morgan was carted off the field following Smith’s second long punt return. Morgan has soreness in his neck, Pittman said, but is OK.
Pittman said Arkansas freshman tight end Luke Hasz suffered a broken clavicle in the first quarter. Hasz is the John Mackey Award's reigning national player of the week at his position and was injured on a 14-yard reception during the Razorbacks' first drive.
"He's so valuable to us," Pittman said of Hasz, who had 194 yards and three touchdowns combined against BYU and LSU. "You go back to LSU [6 catches, 116 yards, 2 touchdowns] and take him out of it, and what's it look like?
"We've got other guys that need to step up and have their opportunities, but losing him was a big blow to us offensively."
Arkansas played the second half without starting cornerback Dwight McGlothern, who Pittman said suffered a concussion on the Aggies' final drive before halftime.