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BYU gets physical, makes big plays in win over SEC’s Arkansas on the road

Freshmen Parker Kingston, LJ Martin, Cougars’ four-man rush get to SEC foe

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Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Ben Bywater (2) tries to sack Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. BYU won 38-31.

Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Ben Bywater (2) tries to sack Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. BYU won 38-31.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Don’t doubt this BYU team. The Cougars will respond with a vengeance.

They’ve got circus catches. They’ll bring pressure. They’ll frustrate a team into a cavalcade of penalties in crunch time. They’ll get sacks, force the ball on the ground and get interceptions. They’ll come back on you with rollercoaster-type action, throw some freshmen into the fire and they get the green rookies to deliver.

BYU made big play after big play all game long in upsetting Arkansas in Fayetteville Saturday night 38-31.

The road win lifted BYU to 3-0 on the season heading into its first Big 12 game at Kansas.

BYU was a 10-point underdog to the Razorbacks. The recruiting class for Arkansas in 2023 ranked 22nd in the country, according to 247 Sports ranking. BYU ranked 54th. 

What you saw was an overachieving, hungry team get punched in the face in the opening minutes only to come back with poise and plays to win.

Down 14-0, redshirt freshman Parker Kingston threw a 37-yard halfback pass to Deion Smith, and true freshman LJ Martin ripped off a 45-yard touchdown and then added another on a goal-line dive to put the Cougars up 21-14 just three minutes into the second quarter.

These newcomers were impressive since veteran receivers Kody Epps and Keanu Hill did not catch a pass in the game. Kingston made up for their absence, taking a screen pass to the house for a TD.

Down by 14 and then by 10, BYU found a way to capture the momentum almost the entire fourth quarter.

Kedon Slovis’ numbers were just 13 of 25 for 167 yards, but he was a game manager and didn’t turn the ball over. 

Conversely, BYU forced two turnovers from Arkansas and had 4 sacks.

What stood out is how many big plays the Cougars made on both sides of the ball — all game long.

In an ebb-and-flow game with huge changes in momentum, BYU put the hammer down on Arkansas in the fourth quarter, sacking KJ Jefferson and forcing the star QB to put the ball on the ground three times, including the final play of the game.

BYU tight end Isaac Rex and receiver Chase Roberts had incredible one-handed tip receptions, the kind ESPN’s SportsCenter loves to make part of its Top 10 plays of the night.

Linebacker Max Tooley intercepted Jefferson in the first half after Tyler Batty and Blake Mangelson made big hits on Jefferson, who was pressured all game and struggled in the final drive of the game when BYU got to him with a four-man pressure.

With Eddie Heckard stripping Jefferson with four minutes to play on a 3rd and 7 at his own 42 on a nickel blitz, Batty hopped on the ensuing fumble to give BYU a chance to hold on for the win by eating up more than two minutes of a running clock.

BYU’s defense was so intense at the line of attack that Arkansas center Brady Latham literally lost his mind in the final quarter with a false start and a trio of holding calls. 

Latham had bear-hugged BYU middle linebacker Ben Bywater most of the game without a flag, but in a crucial Arkansas drive to win the game, he was cross-eyed weary and held like a rodeo rider and was called for it.

“I knew they’d have a team that played hard,” said Arkansas coach Sam Pittman of the Cougars. “They took better care of the ball and beat us in the penalty area.”  

The coach said BYU was beating his linemen with bull rushes, which led to holding penalties. 

“They whipped us out on the edge,” said Pittman of BYU’s defensive ends. “They proved they were longer and stronger than what we anticipated.”

Pittman said the pressure BYU put on his offense was the story of the game. 

“They were just all over us and it wasn’t exactly a blitzfest,” he said.

The most impressive thing was the focus and game-long intensity by BYU on both sides of the line of scrimmage. 

When Roberts fumbled early in the game after a nice catch, he shook it off and ended up being one of the offensive stars of the night. 

His one-handed leaping TD catch in the third quarter was a career highlight. That it came in SEC territory made it even more impressive — he was going against lanky, fast Arkansas corners.

New defensive coordinator Jay Hill called an impressive game of pressure and coverage, mixing blitzes and creating an aggressive attack defense.

Jakob Robinson and linebacker AJ Vongphachanh had 10 tackles each and Batty had 9. Heckard, who followed Hill from Weber State, had 5 tackles, a sack and forced a fumble.

After Arkansas beat BYU in Provo by 18 a year ago, many, including myself, had this as a loss for the Cougars — mainly because of Jefferson’s athleticism and big-play ability, but also considering BYU got just one sack against Sam Houston and Southern Utah and struggled with the run game in those two wins.

Arkansas outgained BYU 424 to 281 total yards, but got 55 yards of that on a TD run from AJ Green on the first possession of the game. 

BYU surprised many but themselves on this night.

It was an impressive victory in the heart of SEC land, a great stage setter for Big 12 play.