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Analysis: Big 12 newcomer BYU living high on the hog after stunning SEC’s Arkansas

Cougars overcome two-score deficits in each half to ride off with a 38-31 win in Fayetteville

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Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Chase Roberts (2) makes a touchdown catch past Arkansas Razorbacks defensive back Jayden Johnson (8).

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Chase Roberts (2) makes a touchdown catch past Arkansas Razorbacks defensive back Jayden Johnson (8) at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. BYU won 38-31.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

FAYETTEVILLE, Arkansas — BYU’s first significant college football game as a member of the Big 12 Conference against another Power Five program almost certainly will never be forgotten.

Except by the SEC’s Arkansas Razorbacks.

In one of the wackiest, most bizarre road contests in BYU football history, the Cougars some how, some way pulled off a win for the ages, overcoming a two-touchdown deficit early in the first half and a 10-point disadvantage in the second half to stun the Pigs 38-31 in front of 74,821 thoroughly entertained fans on Frank Broyles Field.

“It is one win. We gotta stay humble. We can’t believe anything (related to praise). We gotta get better.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake.

Talk about living high on the Hog.

“That one,” said BYU redshirt freshman receiver Parker Kingston, “was wild.”

This time, however, it was the Cougars going hog wild, celebrating well into the Northwestern Arkansas night after the clock finally expired with the Hogs and their “beast” of a quarterback — KJ Jefferson — laying flat on his back on BYU’s 32-yard line, his last-gasp pass having been illegally touched by offensive lineman Brady Latham.

It was the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Jefferson, BYU fans might remember, who threw for 367 yards and five touchdowns last year when the mid-level SEC team embarrassed the Cougars in Provo, 52-35.

Saturday night’s game started as if Jefferson and his teammates had the fourth quarter of 2022’s game on repeat, as Arkansas jumped to a quick 14-0 lead on A.J. Green’s 55-yard touchdown run and Isaiah Sategna’s 88-yard punt return.

A lot of of teams would have wilted in the 76-degree temperatures and with memories of last year dancing in their heads. But not these Cougars.

“I told them to just roll with it,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake. “Way more time to play.”

Said receiver Chase Roberts, who made a one-handed touchdown grab in the end zone to atone for a first-half fumble, BYU’s lone turnover: “It was so early in the game that we could be flustered.”

The Cougars answered the early deficit with 21 straight points, quieting the boisterous crowd that was the 8th-largest in stadium history, except for 5,000 or so BYU fans massed in the Northeast corner and scattered here and there throughout the massive edifice.

“It was a hard-fought battle,” Sitake said. “Things went our way a little more than they did for Arkansas.”

A truer statement has rarely been made.

The Hogs (2-1) self-destructed many times, committing their first two turnovers of the season when Max Tooley intercepted Jefferson to set up the BYU TD that tied it at 31 apiece and Weber State transfer Eddie Heckard dislodged the ball from Jefferson, with Tyler Batty recovering.

Arkansas outgained BYU 424-281, but some crazy painful penalties will be remembered in Fayetteville for a long, long time. 

Credit new BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill’s defense for regrouping after that TD run the fourth play of the game and getting just enough disruption to get the Cougars back in it.

Through three games, Hill’s hiring is the coaching move of the last five years, along with installing Aaron Roderick as offensive coordinator when Jeff Grimes bolted for Baylor.

“Coming into SEC country and getting a win is always special,” said Roberts, who questioned why he was in the postgame interview after his late-second quarter fumble allowed the Hogs to take a 24-21 halftime lead.

A statement win for BYU on a day when many of its Big 12 compatriots were upset or struggled to get a victory?

Not really, said Sitake, who tends to downplay these types of victories.

“It is one win,” the coach said. “We gotta stay humble. We can’t believe anything (related to praise). We gotta get better.”

That was evident in the third quarter, when Arkansas quickly jumped out to a 31-21 lead and BYU was forced to punt on its first two series of the second half.

Arkansas was driving again midway through the third quarter when, on 4th and inches, BYU’s AJ Vongphachanh stonewalled an Arkansas running back and the Cougars got the ball back.

BYU got another break a few plays later when holder Ryan Rehkow attempted a fake field goal run but was stuffed. Alas, the play clock had expired and BYU was flagged for delay of game, getting another chance.

This time, Will Ferrin booted a 43-yard field goal to get BYU within a touchdown. Arkansas’ attempt to match Ferrin’s first career field goal doinked off the right upright from 49 yards out.

Ouch.

“I felt like we were calm,” Roberts said of BYU’s return from the 10-point deficit. “Football is so much about momentum. We were able to get that momentum back. That’s football.”

Regarding his 7-yard touchdown catch that turned out to be the game-winner, Roberts said he “always practiced those in my backyard as a kid. You know, Odell (Beckham), Austin Collie-type catches.”

Credit Kedon Slovis, who had a rough night throwing the ball, for placing it where only Roberts could get it. Slovis was 13 of 25 for 167 yards and two touchdowns, and a passer rating of 134.5.

Jefferson was 24 of 35 for 247 yards, but on the interception he threw the ball right to Tooley, and he was sacked three times, holding the ball too long on several occasions.

Jefferson “is such a beast,” Sitake said. “I was hoping he would go to the NFL last year.”

Not anymore. BYU’s win over a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate on his own field will do wonders for the Cougars in the credibility department, especially if Arkansas gets it together next week at LSU.

Had BYU not held on, Cougar fans would have pointed to too many conservative plays in the game’s final four minutes, after they took over on the Arkansas 38 when Heckard caused Jefferson’s fumble.

They went exclusively to the running game, then brought Ferrin in to try a 50-yard field goal. It has the length, but missed right and the Razorbacks had life.

Arkansas took over at its 33 with 1:55 left. On 3rd and 18, BYU’s Jakob Robinson dropped an easy interception (well after the game, cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford jokingly made him do pushups).

The Hogs converted on 4th and 18, but this time Jefferson couldn’t get them in the end zone.

“It was one of the most emotional games I have ever been a part of,” Slovis said.

And memorable, too, for BYU’s first big win of its Big 12 era.