FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — KJ Jefferson threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Trey Knox, and ran for 62 yards and another score to lead No. 19 Arkansas past No. 23 Cincinnati, 31-24, on Saturday.
Jefferson ran for the first touchdown of the game in the first quarter, threw a jump-pass touchdown to Knox in the second and found Jadon Haselwood for another score in the third.
“Seems to me like when the game gets a little tighter, a little closer, when he’s really got to take over the game, he’s got the knack to do it,” Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said of his quarterback. “Seemed to me like most every time we need him to win the game, he makes some kind of play.”
Cincinnati was held scoreless in the first half despite four of its seven drives reaching Arkansas territory. Bearcats kicker Ryan Coe missed two field goals, from 25 and 48 yards, and Ben Bryant threw an interception at the Arkansas 20 that ultimately turned into the Razorbacks’ first trip to the end zone.
Bryant was better in the second half, leading Cincinnati to scoring drives on its first two possessions of the half.
Trailing by seven points and with the ball on the Razorbacks 39, Bryant was strip-sacked by Jordan Domineck and Arkansas recovered. Jefferson threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Knox two plays later for his fourth score.
Knox, a senior, was a starting wide receiver his freshman year but had just seven catches his sophomore season in Pittman’s debut 2020 season. Knox moved to tight end and caught 20 balls as a junior last season.
“He’s worked hard at tight end and he believes he’s a tight end,” Pittman said. “He is. He’s a good one.”
Knox had six receptions for 75 yards.
Pittman said he asked Knox after his second TD “‘You happy you moved to tight end?’ Those are special moments because you never know if it’s going to work out.”
Arkansas running back Rocket Sanders ran for 117 yards on 20 carries for the sophomore’s second career 100-yard game.
Bryant, a transfer from Eastern Michigan who wasn’t announced as the starter until before kickoff, was 26 of 43 passing for 325 yards and two touchdowns with the one interception. His 15-yard throw to Leonard Taylor with 5:49 left created the final margin. Jefferson completed 18 of his 26 throws to reach his 223-yard mark.
THE PORTAL GIVETH
Most of Arkansas’ big plays not involving Knox and Jefferson came from players picked up via the transfer portal. Domineck (Georgia Tech) and Drew Sanders (Alabama) had sacks. Dwight McGlothern (LSU) had Arkansas’ interception. Matt Landers (Toledo) started and caught three passes for 43 yards while Haselwood (Oklahoma) had three grabs for 42 yards and the score.
Cincinnati’s rally came in large part because of the passing game. Bryant took advantage of Arkansas losing starting nickel Myles Slusher and starting safety Jalen Catalon late in the second quarter and early in the second half.
The Bearcats’ first touchdown came immediately after Catalon, a preseason first-team All-SEC selection and former freshman All-American, left the game.
Pittman said Slusher should be OK going forward, but he was less sure about Catalon. He did not disclose either injury.
Arkansas’ offense, with Jefferson at quarterback, is SEC worthy. The defense struggled in the second half after losing two starters from the secondary.
Cincinnati had the talent to win the game, but its mistakes were too plentiful against a quality opponent.
Arkansas should find itself comfortably still ranked ahead of its SEC opener next week.
Cincinnati is likely to fall out of the Top 25 despite a fair showing.
Arkansas opens SEC play against South Carolina at home in Week 2. The game will be South Carolina’s first in Fayetteville since 2013.
Cincinnati will host FCS opponent Kennesaw State at Nippert Stadium.