ARLINGTON, Texas — Saturday’s primetime matchup between Arkansas and Texas A&M in AT&T Stadium proved to be a battle of the focused. An early Razorback lead forced the Aggies to make adjustments and capitalize on momentum shifts, which they did to beat the Hogs 23-21 and ultimately send the Southwest Classic trophy back to College Station.
The Hogs were looking solid in the first half, with two touchdowns stacked on top of each other and a crowd cheering loud enough to test the theory that everything really is bigger in Texas. To their surprise, a first down bobble at the end of the second quarter buckled the tempo Arkansas had been producing, altering the course of the game.
Redshirt junior quarterback KJ Jefferson attempted to go over the top for a touchdown, but linebacker Chris Russell Jr. forced a fumble at the 2-yard line. The Aggies picked it up and buzzed down the sideline for a 98-yard touchdown to put Texas A&M right on the hooves of the Razorbacks. Although the Aggies did not convert on the point after, they took 13 unanswered points into halftime.
“It was a huge play in the game,” Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said in a postgame press conference. “And, unfortunately, it happened to us. But, you know, we can't do that on first down. If it was fourth down, that's a different story. Unfortunately, it just popped out.”
Arkansas struck first on its second drive of the game. Jefferson rushed to the left for a 26-yard gain, setting up a 32-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Ketron Jackson Jr. for the first touchdown of the game.
In back-to-back possessions, the Hogs made a second trip to the paydirt. A 78-yard drive over seven plays ended with a 56-yard touchdown pass from Jefferson to sophomore wide receiver Warren Thompson.
It took until the second quarter for the Aggies to see their first first down of the game. Junior running back Devon Achane busted to the left for a 63-yard gain to the Arkansas 30 on the first play of the drive.
A&M capped off its fifth drive of the game with six plays over 93 yards with a quick pass from quarterback Max Johnson to wide receiver Evan Stewart for a 10-yard score. Replacing the goose egg next to Arkansas’ 14 points, the Aggies cut the score gap in half.
With 5:05 left in the second quarter, Arkansas decided to go for it on their fourth down at the A&M 46. Jefferson carried on the fourth-and-3 for 8 yards to snatch up a much-needed first down.
A 12-yard completion from Jefferson to junior wide receiver Jadon Haselwood put the Razorbacks on the A&M 3 with a little over three minutes remaining in the half, but Jefferson’s first down fumble redirected the Hogs’ plan.
“I needed to be more aggressive and go down to the goal line and just finish the play,” Jefferson said.
The Aggies wasted no time getting things moving in the third quarter. A deep pass from Johnson to tight end Donovan Green brought A&M 26 yards closer to the house.
Three plays later, Achane rushed to the left for a 9-yard gain and cashed out. A&M grabbed its 20th unanswered point, taking the lead for the first time in the game.
A lengthy Aggie drive stitched together by 12 plays over 47 yards ended with a 31-yard field goal attempt by Randy Bond, which stretched the lead to 23-14.
Arkansas’ first drive of the fourth brewed momentum. Down at the A&M 31, freshman running back Rashod Dubinion cracked through the middle for a 14-yard gain and a first down.
Two plays later, Jefferson fluttered through the middle for a 6-yard and a six-point gain. With a good kick by sophomore Cam Little, the Razorbacks added to their score for the first time since the first quarter, tightening the gap to 23-21.
With the ball back in Aggie hands, three plays into the drive, A&M pushed 24 yards down the field from a rush through the middle by Achane.
On fourth-and-9, the Aggies attempted a 53-yard field goal attempt that grazed too far to the left, and Arkansas took possession with 6:30 left in the fourth.
A panicked third-and-6 ended in a first down for the Razorbacks. A deep pass through the middle from Jefferson to senior wide receiver Matt Landers pushed the Hogs 19 yards downfield.
Back-to-back 10-yard gains by sophomore Rahiem “Rocket” Sanders and Jefferson, respectively, landed Arkansas on the Aggie 21.
A fumble up the middle recovered by Sanders sent the Razorbacks back 4 yards and the Aggie fans to their feet.
Fourth-and-13 Arkansas set up for a 42-yard field goal. Little’s attempt doinked off the top of the right upright, keeping the score frozen while handing the ball back to the Aggies with 1:30 left.
“We had a lot more opportunities than just that, you know,” Pittman said. “But it came down to that play. And just we were unfortunate. But he'll win a lot of ball games for us before his career is over, and he already has.”
Grinding the clock down to 40 seconds, Johnson kneeled on the final snap, securing the Aggies’ 10th Southwest Classic title in 11 years.
Arkansas’ focus will float to No. 2 Alabama. Haselwood said the Hogs will go into next week’s game with a chip on their shoulder, and Jefferson emphasized the importance of turning their attention to the Tide.
“I'm focusing on Alabama right now,” Jefferson said in a postgame presser. “No need to focus on Texas A&M. The game is over. We can't go back and play the last play…We nip this in the bud.”
The Razorbacks’ fifth game of the season will be played in Donald W. Reynolds Stadium at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and is set to air on CBS.