FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — – Bobby Petrino broke Arkansas’ heart once. Sam Pittman wasn’t going to let it happen again.
Pittman’s 10th-ranked Razorbacks overcame a 10-point deficit with three touchdowns in the final 11:38 to beat Petrino’s FCS-level Missouri State team 38-27 on Saturday night.
Petrino coached Arkansas from 2008-2012 before a motorcycle wreck and the scandalous fallout that followed resulted in his firing in April 2012. He won 11 and 10 games his final two years with the Razorbacks. Arkansas hasn’t won double-digit games since.
The Razorbacks (3-0) didn’t take the lead until Bryce Stephens’ 82-yard punt return touchdown with 9:16 left. Just 2:22 before that, Arkansas trailed by 10 points.
Rocket Sanders, who had 242 yards of total offense, had scored on a 73-yard touchdown off a shovel pass from KJ Jefferson on the preceding possession. Jefferson added a 1-yard touchdown run with 1:39 left to set the final score.
Pittman was relieved.
“Can you imagine walking in here and getting beat tonight?” Pittman said. “I’d say, ‘You want to trade me spots?’ Nobody wants to be up here losing a game you’re supposed to win.”
The last time Arkansas lost to an FCS, formerly Division I-AA, opponent was in 1992. The Razorbacks lost to The Citadel to open the season, their first in the SEC, and coach Jack Crowe never coached another game for Arkansas. Pittman would not have been in that danger had the Razorbacks lost Saturday, though, considering his 9-4 season last year was the best the program has had since Petrino left.
But it was close to falling apart.
Missouri State (2-1) took a 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter. The Bears were helped by Arkansas’ self-induced mistakes. Its first four possessions resulted in two three-and-out punts and two fumbles, one of which was lost by Sanders on the Missouri State goal line and would have otherwise been a touchdown.
“It was unfortunate for him because he took it personally – good players do — when he lost it down there on the 1,” Pittman said. “He came back and said, ‘I got to make up for it.'”
Sanders set a career high for the second straight week in his running for 167 yards on 22 carries with a touchdown. Jefferson had a personal best, too, throwing for 385 yards. He had two touchdown passes and an interception to go with his insurance score on the ground.
“I thought both of them played well,” Pittman said. “We just told KJ on the last couple drives, ‘it’s your game, take over the game.’ That’s what he does.”
Bears quarterback Jason Shelley threw for 357 yards and a touchdown, taking advantage of an Arkansas secondary that was without starting nickel Myles Slusher and preseason All-SEC safety Jalen Catalon, who is out for the season with a shoulder injury.
Pittman said the closeness of the result was on him. He was outcoached.
“Their team wasn’t better than us today because we beat them, but coach was better than me today and I’ve got to get that fixed.”
Sanders entered the game first in the SEC in rushing, averaging 136.5 yards through two games. No other player in the SEC averaged more than 90. The game was Sanders’ second straight in setting a career high.
Arkansas sacked Shelley eight times, the most sacks the Razorbacks have had since 2012. Through three games, the Razorbacks have 17 sacks. They had 25 last year in 13 games.
Arkansas held on, but could fall from No. 10 given the performance.
The Razorbacks were darlings after a 2-0 start boosted them into the top 10, but with a stretch of SEC games upcoming, Arkansas has plenty to fix if it wants to stay in the dark horse conversation.
Missouri State proved itself capable of playing up and could compete for an FCS national championship.
Arkansas will play Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, in the annual Southwest Classic on Sept. 24.
Missouri State opens Missouri Valley Conference play at home against South Dakota State on Sept. 24.