Jefferson Outback Bowl MVP

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson hoists the Outback Bowl MVP Trophy following Arkansas’ 24-10 victory over Penn State. Jefferson led the Hogs to 17 third-quarter points to secure their first bowl victory since defeating Kansas State in the 2016 Liberty Bowl.

TAMPA, Fla. — When Arkansas junior wide receiver Treylon Burks opted out of the Outback Bowl last month, the Razorbacks lost their most dynamic offensive asset. Through the first two quarters, the Penn State Nittany Lions controlled the momentum as the Hogs looked lost trying to move the ball without him.

But that script was quickly flipped in the third quarter. Head coach Sam Pittman and company placed their unwavering faith in redshirt sophomore quarterback KJ Jefferson to bulldoze his way through a depleted Penn State defense, and he did exactly that.

Jefferson amassed 20 carries and 110 rushing yards, 34% and 30% of the team totals, respectively. If not for Penn State’s five sacks, he would have had 24 more yards. It was the first time all season he accumulated more yards with his legs than his arm, but he was expecting that kind of workload.

“I knew it was more on me running the ball and making the correct reads and toting the ball and being smart with the ball, making great plays on the outside,” Jefferson said.

Trailing by three, the Hogs mounted a 75-yard scoring drive to open the second half and retake the lead. Each of the seven plays was a run, and every other was a quarterback keeper. Jefferson sidestepped, slipped tackles and put his head down to fight for extra yards in typical fashion.

“We don’t do none of that,” Pittman said of Jefferson’s unwillingness to slide. “That ain’t how we’re built.”

With runs of 10, 14, 14 and 8 yards, Jefferson wound up in the end zone for his sixth rushing touchdown of the season. That drive was a perfect encapsulation of the Razorbacks’ 24-10 win, which featured 58 carries for 361 yards — both season highs.

Jefferson led Arkansas to points on each of the next two drives, which began with quarterback runs of 19 and 34 yards, respectively. He landed hard on the sideline after the latter, but he did not miss many snaps. Freshman Malik Hornsby seamlessly filled in with a 32-yard scamper just two plays later.

Hornsby played the final series of the game, running for gains of 24 and 18 yards and taking a pair of snaps in victory formation.

“He does it every day in practice, week in, week out,” Jefferson said. “To have a guy like that to back me up…I go out, I have a lot of confidence in him. The team also has a lot of confidence in him.”

Despite not finishing the game, Jefferson found himself on the stage hoisting the Outback Bowl Most Valuable Player trophy. Though he earned it with his powerful running ability, he spoke highly of his pass catchers in his first game without Burks.

“They did extremely awesome,” Jefferson said. “I couldn't thank them no more. For those guys to come in, embrace the moment, take advantage of their opportunities, especially the young guys that got in embracing the moment, just extremely proud of them.”

If Jefferson truly thinks that highly of the Burks-less receiving corps, Arkansas could be just as — if not more — successful in 2022. The NFL draft and a handful of outgoing transfers will transform the Southeastern Conference quarterback landscape, and Jefferson will be among the league’s best returners next season. The Razorbacks have not had that kind of stability under center since 2017, when Austin Allen came back for his senior season.

Jefferson spent most of the 2021 season flying under the radar while Matt Corral of Ole Miss, a likely first-round draft selection, and Alabama’s Bryce Young, the Heisman Trophy winner, soaked up most of the spotlight. But the Arkansas quarterback put on a show New Year’s Day, and it could be a taste of what he has to offer as a veteran starter next season.

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