Underdog BYU “whips” Arkansas in wild 38-31 road victory

Prior to kickoff Saturday evening, BYU football’s biggest story of the weekend was that most of its players couldn’t point out the state of Arkansas on a map.

Sure, the Cougars may have had some past geography troubles, but it’s likely that Arkansas’ location is burned firmly in their brains now. Road wins in SEC territory tend to have that sort of effect on a team.

In a grit-fueled, zany affair, double digit underdog BYU captured its first road victory of the season Saturday in 38-31 fashion over Arkansas, mounting a vicious comeback and refusing to surrender in order to remain unbeaten in 2023.

“They proved that they were longer and stronger than we anticipated,” Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said of the Cougars after the game. “They just whipped us.. They got after us.”

The whipping wouldn’t happen immediately, however. Kalani Sitake’s squad found itself in a 14-0 first quarter hole after giving up both a 55-yard touchdown run and 88-yard punt return score, with the Razorbacks punishing the Cougars just the same as they had when visiting Provo last year. Such a beatdown had merited the hiring of new defensive coordinator Jay Hill in December, whose main responsibility, in short, was to prevent any similar embarrassment in the future.

Hill’s presence made for a completely different BYU squad in the rematch.

Last year, Arkansas piled up 644 total yards and converted 12 of 15 third down tries against the Cougars. BYU failed to sack KJ Jefferson and only recorded a single tackle for loss.

Saturday in Fayetteville, Hill’s new-look defense held the Razorbacks to a 2-13 clip on third down, sacked Jefferson four times and racked up six tackles for loss. BYU’s defensive line — practically non-existent in the first two contests of the season — manhandled Arkansas and made life miserable for Jefferson, who even threw a rare interception to Max Tooley.

The Cougar defense is no longer a question mark— it’s an exclamation point. Take a bow, Jay Hill.

BYU battled back from the two score deficit by unleashing its bag of tricks, as receiver Parker Kingston caught a deep screen from Kedon Slovis and fired it right back deep downfield into the hands of Deion Smith for a wide open touchdown.

“It was surreal,” Kingston said of his first career collegiate touchdown pass. “I didn’t know we were going to call the play so early in the game. I thought it would be later in the game when we needed to change momentum, but we needed it early. We’d been running it all week. I knew that if we executed like we should it would be a touchdown, and it was awesome.”

Freshman running back LJ Martin followed the trickery with a pair of end zone trips out of the backfield, giving the Cougars a brief lead before Arkansas answered with another 17 points to lead 31-21 in the third quarter.

Right when the game could have gotten out of hand, BYU’s defense showed up and clamped down. The Razorbacks would end up failing to score in the game’s final 26 minutes, setting the Cougars up for a 17-point swing for the win.

“It was go time, just take off and throw the best move that you have,” defensive end Tyler Batty said. “We were just trying to get home, I think that’s what it came down to.”

Kingston added to his breakout night with a 20-yard touchdown reception, becoming the seventh player in program history to both throw and catch a score in the same game. In what had previously been a frustrating night for BYU’s other receivers, Slovis connected with Keelan Marion in the fourth quarter for a 37-yard gain, setting up the eventual game-winning touchdown strike to Chase Roberts, who hauled in a miraculous one-handed, acrobatic grab in the corner of the end zone to give the Cougars the ultimate lead and earn SportsCenter Top 10 honors for Roberts.

“I’ve always practiced those in my backyard as a kid,” Roberts said. “You know, the Odell (Beckham Jr.), Austin Collie type catches.”

Slovis finished 13-25 in passing for 167 yards and two touchdowns, battling hardest when the stakes were highest to pilot one of the most impressive road victories for any team in the nation thus far in 2023.

“It was one of the more emotional games I have ever been a part of,” Slovis said. “(There was) a lot of blue in the stands, it was awesome. Just proud to be a Coug.”

Aside from a 45-yard touchdown from Martin, BYU’s run game largely struggled, totaling just 77 yards on the ground for a paltry 2.5 yards per attempt. Isaac Rex led the receiving charge with four catches for 57 yards while Kingston added another 46 on three grabs as well.

On defense, Batty, Tooley, Eddie Heckard and Blake Mangelson teamed up for four sacks, while Jakob Robinson and AJ Vongphachanh recorded 10 tackles apiece. Walk-ons Ethan Slade and Tanner Wall — thrusted into the majority of BYU’s snaps at safety — responded with respectable coverage while marking career-highs with eight and six tackles each, respectively.

BYU, finishing its non-conference slate unbeaten at 3-0, now readies for a brand new challenge: the program’s first-ever Power 5 conference schedule. The Cougars will travel to Kansas next week for their inaugural Big 12 matchup against a high-octane Jayhawks offense.

“This is a good start, but we are going on the road again next week and there are some things we need to fix, some things we need to correct,” Sitake said. “It’s one win, we gotta stay humble. We can’t believe anything. We’ve gotta get better.”

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