The 10th-ranked University of Arkansas football team defeated Jacksonville State on Saturday inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium 49-24 in front of a crowd of 71,062, the third-largest attendance in school history for a season opener.
Senior quarterback Tyler Wilson broke the Arkansas record for passing yards in a season opener with 367 yards through the air, breaking the previous record of 318 by Casey Dick vs. Western Illinois in 2008. Wilson’s passing yards also ranked as the ninth-highest single-game total in school history. Wilson was 19-of-27 with three touchdown passes, which tied the UA record in a season opener.
“I think he handled the offense well,” Arkansas head coach John L. Smith said. “One negative is he dropped one ball early, but that happens from time to time. I thought Tyler did a great job spreading the ball around on the offense. I was good to see him in command like he was.”
Leading the UA receiving corps was junior wide receiver Brandon Mitchell, who totaled 122 yards on four receptions in his first collegiate game at receiver. Also tallying more than 100 receiving yards was senior tight end Chris Gragg with 110 yards on seven receptions and two touchdowns for the second 100-yard receiving game of his career. It is the first time since 2009 vs. Georgia that Arkansas had two 100-yard receivers in one game with Greg Childs collecting 140 yards and Jarius Wright accumulating 108.
Junior running back Knile Davis led the Razorbacks on the ground with 70 total yards and one touchdown. Defensively, senior safety Ross Rasner led all Razorback defenders with a career-high 11 total tackles, topping his previous high of seven tackles, including 1.5 for loss and one forced fumble. Senior linebacker Tenarius Wright recorded eight tackles.
On special teams, Dennis Johnson moved into 3rd on the SEC’s all-time career kickoff return yards list with 96 yards on four returns. Johnson now has 2,571 kickoff return yards in his career passing South Carolina’s Chris Culliver (2,476, 2007-10) and Mississippi State’s Derek Pegues (2,498, 2005-08).
“Offensively there is a lot that’s positive,” Coach Smith said. “I know we played decent run defense the first half, and the second half the positive would be that we didn’t allow a touchdown. Obviously, we are going to have to build on that.”
The Arkansas defense started off with a bang after a blocked field goal by defensive tackle Byran Jones to prevent the Gamecocks from putting the first points on the board.
The Arkansas offense put together an 11-play, 80-yard drive in the first quarter that was capped off when redshirt freshman running back Kody Walker pounded it in the end zone for a one-yard touchdown with 7:43 on the clock. The touchdown put UA up 7-0 over the Gamecocks after the extra point by Zach Hocker.
On the ensuing drive, the Gamecocks answered the Razorbacks touchdown with one of their own to tie the game at 7-7. The Gamecocks then drove the ball 35 yards down the field after recovering a fumble to set up a four-yard touchdown run. The touchdown would give the Gamecocks their only lead over the Razorbacks at 14-7.
Following the Gamecock touchdown, Johnson electrified the crowd when he notched a 42-yard kickoff return to set up a quick five-play, 58-yard drive that ended in a 30-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Gragg to tie the game 14-14, allowing the Gamecocks to lead the game for just 1:47.
After the tying score, the UA defense took the field and forced JSU to their first three-and-out and punt of the game to put the UA offense back on the turf. Once again, Wilson connected with Gragg for a four-yard touchdown pass to put the Razorbacks in the lead for good. With the touchdown, Gragg secured his first two-touchdown game as a Razorback.
Wilson connected on a 34-yard pass to Mitchell, a career-long reception, to set up a three-yard rushing touchdown by senior running back Ronnie Wingo Jr. to extend Arkansas’ lead to 28-14 with 5:12 remaining in the second quarter.
On the next offensive possession, the Razorbacks marched down the field to put together a four-play, 54-yard drive that resulted in a five-yard touchdown by Davis to lengthen the Razorbacks’ lead, 35-14. JSU would answer the UA touchdown with one of their own with eight seconds remaining in the half. The Razorbacks entered the locker room up 35-21 over the Gamecocks.
After the half, Jacksonville State was forced to kick a 49-yard field goal after a strong defensive showing. The field goal shortened the UA lead to 35-24 but marked the Gamecocks’ final points of the night.
Arkansas was quick to respond, with Wilson launching a 63-yard touchdown to junior wide receiver Javontee Herndon to give the Razorbacks a 42-24 lead. The 63-yard catch was Herndon’s first touchdown and a career-long reception, besting his previous high of 41 yards in the season opener last season against Missouri State.
In the third quarter, the Razorback defense was the next to make a play, when redshirt freshman safety Rohan Gaines forced a JSU fumble that was recovered by senior linebacker Alonzo Highsmith. The fumble recovery set up the seventh offensive touchdown of the game as Johnson found the end zone, putting UA up for good 49-24.
The win was Arkansas’ 12th straight at home, tied for the fourth-longest streak in school history, and 20th home victory since 2009, tied for the most in the SEC over that span.
The Razorbacks will take the field next against ULM at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock next Saturday at 6 p.m.