Bryce Stephens punt return TD

Arkansas redshirt freshman wide receiver Bryce Stephens celebrates an 82-yard punt return touchdown in the fourth quarter Saturday night. The score put Arkansas ahead of Missouri State for the first time in the game, and the Razorbacks defeated the Bears 38-27.

Trailing by three points in the fourth quarter to Football Championship Subdivision opponent Missouri State, the Razorbacks needed a spark Saturday night.

It came in the form of an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown from redshirt freshman Bryce Stephens. The crowd at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium roared to life as he passed tackler after tackler and crossed the goal line to put Arkansas in front for the first time all night.

The Hogs did not surrender the lead, and came away with a 38-27 win over the Bears.

“We needed a momentum play, and Bryce delivered,” redshirt junior quarterback KJ Jefferson said in a postgame press conference. “The special teams and Coach (Scott) Fountain put together a great plan this week. With just having a guy like Bryce back there, you can trust him and he is due for a big play at any given moment, and he delivered.”

Jefferson committed just four turnovers all of last season, but he was credited with two in Saturday’s game. His first was a fumble at the Bears’ 36-yard line in the first quarter, and that set up the game's opening score. A 1-yard touchdown from running back Jacardia Wright capped off a 12-play, 64-yard drive.

The Razorbacks took possession at their own 25 with 2:47 left in the first quarter. Jefferson chipped down the field before he found sophomore wide receiver Ketron Jackson Jr. for a 64-yard heave. Jackson made a lunge to the goal line, but was downed just inches away from the score. The next play, sophomore running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders was hit awkwardly and coughed the ball up in the end zone. Missouri State linebacker Ferrin Manuleleua jumped on it, and the Bears took possession at the 20-yard line ending the offensive threat.

Missouri State flipped the field quickly with a 45-yard pass from senior quarterback Jason Shelley to junior wide receiver Naveon Mitchell moving it to the Razorback 30-yard line. Junior defensive back Dwight McGlothern was flagged for pass interference, moving the ball to the Arkansas 17-yard line. The defensive secondary shut down the passing attack to force a 28-yard field goal attempt, which Bear kicker Jose Pizano nailed to extend the score to 10-0.

After the Hogs were forced to punt again, the Bears took advantage of good field position with an 18-yard return by Mitchell to the Arkansas 45. This time, Shelley did most of the work himself by avoiding defenders with his feet and scrambled long enough in the pocket to hit freshman tight end Lance Mason for a 20-yard reception. On second-and-9, Shelley called his own number with a quarterback keeper up the left side of the field for a diving score from 24 yards out, sending shockwaves through the stadium as the Bears held a 17-0 lead in the second quarter.

“We are so fortunate to win games like this,” Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said. “If you're not playing well or the other team is playing well, you are just trying to fight and claw to get out with a win. There were several different times during the game that it looked like we weren't going to. It says a lot about the culture of our program.”

The Razorback offense started to find some success as it put together an eight-play drive that traveled 75 yards, taking a little over two minutes off the clock. Jefferson hit senior wide receiver Matt Landers for a 20-yard gain, and Sanders did the rest by himself. He rushed the ball five times for 55 yards and scored on a run to the left side from 3 yards out. Sophomore kicker Cam Little punched the extra point through to close the scoring gap to 17-7.

The Razorback defense bowed up and forced a punt toward the end of the first half and gave the offense one more shot at the end zone. Jefferson hit Landers for a 47-yard completion that sent the crowd to its feet in hopes of another score. Jefferson’s next heave went to a wide-open redshirt junior Jadon Haselwood, who bolted down the field with a couple of key blocks to score from 38 yards out. The drive took just 16 seconds.

The Bears’ offense was stifled by redshirt senior Jordan Domineck and junior Drew Sanders, as they combined to sack Shelley at the end the first half down 17-14.

The Razorbacks got the ball to start the second half and they moved the ball to midfield. Jefferson threw his first interception of the season, as senior tight end Trey Knox had a ball ricochet off of his hands into the waiting arms of linebacker Tahj Chambers.

Arkansas forced a punt, and the offense drove 84 yards down to the Missouri State 9 but stalled out. Little booted a 28-yard chip shot through the uprights to knot the game at 17 apiece.

The next Bears possession found them in a sticky situation. It was fourth-and-1 on the Razorback 47-yard line, and the defense started to gain momentum with a huge Drew Sanders hit. Shelley found junior wide receiver Ty Scott wide open, and he bolted untouched to the house for a 24-17 advantage.

Missouri State marched down the field once again to the tune of 74 yards over 10 plays that ate up almost five minutes of the clock and resulted in a 31-yard field goal by Pizano to extend the Bears’ lead to 10 points again.

For the second time in the contest, Jefferson only needed two plays to put the ball in the end zone. After a 2-yard run, he hit a quick shovel pass to Rocket Sanders and saw him outrun the entire Bear defense when he busted loose for a 73-yard scamper to the end zone. Little’s kick was good to bring the score to 27-24.

The Arkansas defense brought pressure to the quarterback and forced another three-and-out. On fourth down, sophomore punter Grant Burkett skied a punt to Stephens, who followed his blockers for the eventual game-winning touchdown that electrified the crowd and the bench. It was the first Arkansas punt return for a touchdown since Nathan Parodi did it in Little Rock last season.

The Razorback defense stiffened up to force another punt, and the offense put one last drive together to finish the Bears off. The Hogs drove 80 yards over nine plays, and Rocket Sanders capped his career night off by busting through the teeth of the defense for 43 yards to set up Jefferson’s final score of the night. He punched it in from a yard out to extend the lead to two scores.

Jefferson finished the contest with a career-high 385 passing yards, and Rocket Sanders’ 242 yards from scrimmage were a career-best mark as well. The latter accumulated 167 yards on the ground, marking the third consecutive week he has broken the 100-yard plateau.

“That’s why his momma named him Rocket,” Pittman said.

The Razorbacks are scheduled to travel to Arlington, Texas, next week to take on the Texas A&M Aggies at AT&T Stadium. The game will be broadcast on ESPN at 6 p.m. Saturday.

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