FAYETTEVILLE – The 15th-ranked University of Arkansas football team scored a 51-7 season-opening victory over Missouri State on Saturday inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The Razorbacks saw strong performances by UA wide receivers Joe Adams and Jarius Wright. Adams returned two Bear punts for touchdowns, while Wright totaled 108 receiving yards and two touchdown grabs from quarterback Tyler Wilson.
Adams tied an SEC record with two punt returns for a touchdown. He is the seventh player in conference history and first since 2002 to return two punts for a touchdown in the same game. The Litte Rock, Ark., native’s six-return, 174-yard effort, along with two returns by freshman Marquel Wade for 14 yards, broke the school record for team punt return yards in a game with 188.
The Razorbacks (1-0) totaled 466 offensive yards to Missouri State’s (0-1) 163. UA hounded the Bears’ offense throughout the night, recording 6.0 tackles for loss (23 yards lost), 2.0 sacks (17 yards lost) and one interception. Head coach Bobby Petrino, now 4-0 in season openers at Arkansas and 8-0 for his coaching career, was complimentary of the Razorback team after the victory.
“I’m happy with this team,” Coach Petrino said. “It was a good start for us and as you would say, it was ‘mission accomplished.’ We played football well. We executed well. Now we just have to get ready for the next game.”
Individual performances by sophomore defensive end Chris Smith and junior linebacker Alonzo Highsmith helped the Razorbacks’ defensive effort. Smith recorded four tackles, including 2.0 tackles for loss (11 yards lost), 1.0 sack (10 yards lost) and one forced fumble. Highsmith, a junior college transfer, notched four tackles in his first appearance for the Razorbacks, including 2.0 tackles for loss (3 yards lost).
“I was happy with our defense in how we controlled the line and got a lot of three and outs,” Coach Petrino said. “Obviously, we started slow on offense, so we’ll have something to work on towards next week. I still thought we threw well and caught the ball well.”
Offensively, the Razorbacks were pushed to victory by Wilson’s 260 passing yards and two touchdowns. Wilson started the Razorbacks with a 33-yard touchdown strike to Wright at the 10:32 mark in the first quarter for the first UA score of the season. With the score at 7-0 in the Razorbacks’ favor, Adams went to work, returning a Bears’ punt 61 yards to score with 7:32 remaining in the first quarter.
Coach Petrino admired the special teams effort by the Razorbacks.
“I will say that punt returns were fantastic,” Coach Petrino said. “Especially with Joe (Adams) able to find open space and use his speed to his advantage.”
The Razorbacks found the end zone for the third time in the first quarter with under a minute remaining on the ground. Freshman running back Kody Walker plunged across the goal line from one yard out to push the Razorbacks’ lead to 20-0 over Missouri State. At the end of the first quarter, UA’s defense had allowed one yard to the Bears.
Arkansas was in the end zone again off a throw and catch connection from quarterback Brandon Mitchell and tight end Chris Gragg. Mitchell found the Razorback tight end ahead of the goal line and Gragg stretched across for the three-yard score to advance UA’s lead to 27-0 with 5:01 remaining in the half. Mitchell finished the game going 10-for-11 with 104 passing yards and the score. Sophomore kicker Zach Hocker added three more Razorback points with 14 seconds left in the second quarter with a 32-yard field goal.
Wilson connected with Wright for their second touchdown-scoring combination of the evening with 6:17 remaining. Wright hauled in a lofted 29-yard throw from Wilson as he planted one foot at the edge of the end zone to make the score 37-0 in favor of Arkansas. Adams followed the Wright-Wilson score with a dazzling punt return for the second time, taking the Bears’ punt back 69 yards to the end zone.
Missouri State found the end zone for the first time in the game with 45 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Bear quarterback Kierra Harris connected with Jermaine Saffold from 33 yards out for the scoring throw to cut UA’s advantage to 44-7. Prior to the score, Razorback linebacker Jerico Nelson snuffed out an earlier Missouri State drive with an interception. UA defensive tackle Byran Jones and safety Elton Ford led the team in tackles with six stops each.
UA went to the ground one final time to close out the game, with Walker notching another one-yard rushing touchdown with 12:20 remaining in the fourth quarter. The rushing score pushed Arkansas’ advantage to the final outcome of 51-7. The Razorbacks’ 51 points are the most scored by UA in a season opener under Coach Petrino and the most since 2004.
The Razorbacks next take on New Mexico inside War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Sept. 10 at 6 p.m. The game with be nationally broadcast on ESPNU.