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FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas flipped a switch in the second half to roar back for a come-from-behind victory Saturday night.
Trailing 13-0 at halftime, the Razorbacks used a 24-point outburst in the third quarter to beat Tennessee 24-13 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium and improve to 3-3 on the season.
It was the first time Arkansas has turned a double-digit halftime deficit into a double-digit victory since doing so against South Carolina in 1998, when it went from down 21-10 to winning 41-28. The only other times it accomplished the feat in the past 58 seasons came in 1968 against Oklahoma State and 1970 against Rice.
The comeback started with a simple message from head coach Sam Pittman in the locker room at the break.
“I’ve been coaching a long time and 13 points, it’s not like we were down 50,” Pittman said. “Our locker room felt a little down, so I just said, ‘Hey look, we’re going to get the ball, we’re going to go score, the defense will hold them and we’re going be up before you know it. Just keep the faith.’”
That was easier said than done, though. The Razorbacks’ offense had sputtered in the first half, getting shutout in back-to-back quarters for the first time all year.
One drive got inside the 5-yard line, but ended with a missed chip-shot field goal. On Arkansas’ other three possessions, it managed just four total first downs and had to punt
“We got that communicated at halftime,” quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “The players knew that we had to do better. Coming out in the third quarter we had a fast start and got some momentum and ran with it.”
Sure enough, the Razorbacks took the opening kickoff and put together an impressive 17-play drive that ate up more than five minutes of the clock and covered 75 yards.
It was capped by a 1-yard touchdown pass from Franks to Mike Woods, but kept alive by five third-down conversions. A couple of them came on tough runs by running backs Rakeem Boyd and Trelon Smith.
“I think a bunch of them was where we turned around and handed off to Boyd or Trelon Smith,” Pittman said. “I was really proud of our offensive line. Sometimes statistics, they will have sacks this that and the other, but I’m proud of that group.”
On the flip side, Arkansas’ defense had to figure out a way to stop a Tennessee offense that scored on three of its four first-half possessions. The Volunteers controlled the clock with nearly double the time of possession as the Razorbacks and converted 4 of 7 third downs – an issue that plagued Arkansas a week earlier at Texas A&M.
However, Pittman said the defensive linemen started figuring out how to beat Tennessee’s blocking schemes near the end of the first half and then defensive coordinator Barry Odom made some adjustments to eliminate the Volunteers’ cutback runs.
“We put some guys a little bit more on the edge and we were a little tighter for the cutback lanes,” Pittman said. “Barry switched it up and probably ran a little bit more field pressure. He’d been running some boundary pressure.”
The defense – having given up touchdowns on six straight possessions against the Aggies – did not want a repeat performance of last week. It was determined to show they are, in fact, a completely different unit than the one that gave up the most yards and points per game in school history last season.
“We just had to regroup together,” safety Jalen Catalon said. “We got some stops in the first half, got in the locker room and made the adjustments and said ‘Look, we’re not going to let this happen. We’re one of the best defenses in the country.’”
Continuing Pittman’s halftime prophecy, Arkansas quickly got the ball back by forcing the first of three straight three-and-outs to start the second half.
On Tennessee’s first five possessions of the half, it managed just one first down and punted each team. It went just 1 of 8 on third down and threw a pair of interceptions late.
“You know what momentum is and we had it, and we rode it at least all the way through the third quarter,” Pittman said. “Then our defense was on shutdown in the second half.”
Once it had the ball again, Arkansas followed its methodical drive to open the half with a quick-strike score. The key play to set up the go-ahead touchdown was a 56-yard catch and run by Mike Woods.
“Me and No. 5, we were going back and forth a little bit,” Woods said. “I just told him, ‘You better hope they don’t throw it to me on this play,’ and they threw it to me and I ran deep.”
It was originally ruled a touchdown, but replays showed he stepped out of bounds. Woods admitted he was mad at himself for not scoring, but the Razorbacks got the touchdown anyway on a pass to Blake Kern on the very next play.
After another three-and-out, Franks scrambled to his left and hit Treylon Burks with a pass near Tennessee’s sideline. He turned up field and scored on the 59-yard play for his fifth touchdown of the season.
“It was kind of a broken down play,” Franks said. “He did a great job of working with me. We do those type of things like scramble rules and you never know when you’ll need it until you need it.”
Thanks to those explosive plays, Arkansas had taken a 21-13 lead in the blink of an eye. The four possessions after their first touchdown – a pair of three-and-outs by the Volunteers and the second and third touchdowns by the Razorbacks – had taken just five and a half minutes of game time.
“We did talk about we had to make some explosive plays,” Pittman said. “We had to get our engine revved up. … But we did need something momentum wise, some kind of big play to kind of get us going.”
Arkansas tacked on a 48-yard field goal by A.J. Reed to create the final score and cap one of the most exciting quarters it has played in a long time.
The 24-point outburst tied for the most points the Razorbacks have ever scored in the third quarter of an SEC game, matching their total in the aforementioned South Carolina game in 1998. It was the most points Arkansas had scored in any quarter of an SEC game since scoring 24 in the second quarter at Mississippi State in 2016.
Although the offense eventually cooled off, Arkansas’ defense ended up posting a second-half shutout and it was enough pull off the victory.
“Whenever the offense went down and scored and we got that stop, we were like, ‘We’re going to win this game,’” linebacker Bumper Pool said. “The momentum and everything about it was so much fun.”
It also gave fans a glimpse of what the Razorbacks are capable of doing when they get rolling on offense.
“Once we execute and do what we’re supposed to do, people can’t stop us from scoring points,” Woods said. “We’re going to score points when we execute, so it’s all on us to just execute the coaching plan.”