‘Pretty frustrating’: Aggies befuddle and throttle Razorbacks

Texas A&M defensive lineman Malick Sylla (92) and linebacker Chris Russell Jr. (24) celebrate after Sylla sacked Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (bottom left) during the fourth quarter Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Razorbacks lost 34-22. More photos at arkansasonline.com/101uatamu/ (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Arkansas Razorbacks did not suffer another one of their patented heartbreaking, one-score Southwest Classic losses to Texas A&M on Saturday.

But they lost again all the same, and the Aggies made it hurt. Texas A&M played strangling defense and pulled away in the second half with defensive and special teams touchdowns en route to a 34-22 rout of the Razorbacks before a crowd of 59,437 at AT&T Stadium.

The Aggies (4-1, 2-0 SEC) held Arkansas to a meager 174 total yards and notched seven sacks and 15 tackles for loss to beat the Razorbacks (2-3, 0-2 SEC) for the 11th time in the past 12 meetings.

The final margin could have been worse, but the Razorbacks put up a goal-line stand from their 1 on the final three plays of the game.

Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman was asked about losing in the physicality department after Texas A&M mashed for 414 total yards to outgain the Hogs by 240 yards.

“Oh, I’m sure when I was a line coach somebody dominated me like that,” Pittman said. “But if it was, I’ve tried to forget about it, you know? Aw hell, you don’t have many games like that ever.”

The Razorbacks produced only 10 first downs and were held to their lowest total yardage and first downs since Georgia limited them to 162 yards and nine first downs in a 37-0 win during the 2021 season.

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson was harassed throughout, with the Aggies racking up 41 yards in sacks and 57 total yards in tackles for loss.

“What I was proud of today, you got seven sacks and you rush these guys,” Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher said. “[Jefferson] got out a couple times on runs, but, man, he kills you scrambling and dumping the ball off and making the big runs. And they did it with the integrity and the discipline to not let him out of the pocket.”

Jefferson completed 9 of 17 passes for 132 yards and totaled minus-3 rushing yards on 18 attempts as the Aggies limited his scrambling with solid gang tackling.

“Pretty frustrating,” Jefferson said. “It starts with communication up front, with everybody knowing what’s going on, who they’re pointing to, where the pressure is coming from.”

“It’s pretty frustrating at times where you’re getting sacked and things and you have … guys running wide open down the field and can’t get the ball to them.”

Said Pittman, “Guys, it’s hard to throw a football when you’re on your back, I mean, or you’re scrambling.”

Arkansas, which dropped its third consecutive game, opened with field-goal drives on its first two series, with Cam Little converting from 52 and 25 yards, and converted 4 of 5 third-down plays to that point while trailing 7-6.

However, the Hogs misfired on their next nine third-down plays as Jefferson operated under constant pressure. Arkansas finished 5 of 15 on third-down conversions.

Texas A&M linebacker Edgerrin Cooper, who finished with six tackles, including two sacks, and a quarterback hurry, posted a photo from a successful hog hunt on social media after the game, clearly a commentary on how the Aggies fared against Arkansas. He was asked if trying to tackle KJ Jefferson or hunt a real hog was the harder task.

“I like to be good at both, and that’s just the way it is,” Cooper said.

Arkansas tailback Raheim Sanders returned from missing three games with a knee injury and rushed for a team-high 34 yards for a ground attack that was held to 42 yards.

“We tried everything that we had practiced that we thought would work, and it didn’t,” Pittman said.

Former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, now the offensive coordinator for the Aggies, put together a formidable game plan for quarterback Max Johnson in his first start of the season and 18th of his career.

Johnson completed his first seven passes and went 17 of 28 for 210 yards and a touchdown. Johnson also rushed for 57 yards, second on the team behind Le’Veon Moss’ 107 yards.

“I think we should have put up a lot more points than we did,” Johnson said. “The defense played unbelievable. They shut them down.”

Arkansas was haunted by another failed fourth-and-1 play as it had in prior games against Kent State and BYU. This time the fourth-down failure came on handoff to Sanders over the right side on the Hogs’ 40 late in the second quarter with the Aggies ahead 10-6. Defensive lineman McKinnley Jackson cut through to stop Sanders for a 1-yard loss.

“Well, it was six inches,” Pittman said. “I know there’s a risk, too, if you don’t make it because you’re 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 capitalized with a time-consuming series, scoring on Johnson’s 2-yard touchdown pass to fullback Earnest Crownover with 13 seconds left in the half for a 17-6 lead.

“The fourth-and-1 [play] was critical,” Fisher said. “They got a big momentum swing. We were able to take it down and eat the clock and score a touchdown right before half, which was very good.”

The Razorbacks, who won the turnover battle 3-1, appeared to get right back in the game on the first snap of the third quarter. Nickel back Lorando “Snaxx” Johnson jumped in front of a bubble screen pass intended for tailback Le’Veon Moss, intercepted at the 20 and returned it for a touchdown to give the Razorbacks life.

“I thought when Snaxx picked that pass it would springboard us, but we couldn’t get anything done in the red area and really in the second half offensively get a first down,” Pittman said. “So give A&M the credit.”

With Texas A&M leading 20-13 midway through the third quarter, Arkansas linebacker Jordan Crook forced a fumble from Johnson and linebacker Brad Spence recovered at the Aggies’ 35.

Arkansas managed just three yards on its series — though Andrew Armstrong could not haul in a Jefferson deep ball from the 32 in the end zone on third down — and Cam Little made a 50-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 20-16.

The Aggies managed to regain complete control a few minutes later when blitzing defensive back Bryce Anderson tipped a Jefferson pass in the backfield and linebacker Chris Russell intercepted and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown.

With Arkansas continuing to sputter on offense, the Aggies added the coup de grace when punt returner Ainias Smith reversed field with room to operate after Max Fletcher’s 61-yard punt and brought it back 82 yards for a score and a 34-16 lead.

Jefferson broke a long cold snap in the passing game with his 48-yard scoring strike to Armstrong with 3:53 remaining. The Aggies stopped Isaiah Sategna’s end around on a two-point conversion try then recovered a loose onside kick to seal the win in what has recently been a lopsided series though the Razorbacks still lead 42-35-3 all time.