FAYETTEVILLE— The 8th-ranked University of Arkansas football team got a huge boost from a 98-yard kickoff return from Dennis Johnson and a 103-yard receiving game from Jarius Wright en route to a 44-28 victory over No. 10 South Carolina on Saturday night inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. With the win, Arkansas moves to 8-1 on the season, its best start under head coach Bobby Petrino and the first 8-1 start for the Razorbacks since 2006.
The win was also UA’s first in a top-10 matchup in Fayetteville since 1965 and the third in school history. The other two victories both occurred in 1965 when No. 3 Arkansas defeated No. 1 Texas 27-24 on Oct. 16 and No. 2 Arkansas defeated No. 9 Texas Tech 42-24 on Nov. 20.
The kickoff return by Johnson was the third of his career and second by a Razorback this season. Wright also tallied his fourth 100-yard receiving game of the season and ninth of his career, tied for the second-highest career total in school history, and was this year’s recipient of the Crip Hall Award, which is given to the Razorbacks’ most valuable senior in a Homecoming game.
“We were excited for this game,” head coach Bobby Petrino said. “We talked to our players about it all week about this is why they came here to play football, to play in games like these. Big games like this don’t come around often, and it matures you as a player when you get to play in them.”
The first score of the game came on Arkansas’ first possession. After receiving the opening kickoff, the Razorbacks drove to the South Carolina 26-yard line and Zach Hocker came on and knocked down a 44-yard kick to give Arkansas an early 3-0 lead with 11:33 to go in the first quarter.
South Carolina did answer back on its second possession of the game getting a 4-yard scoring run by Brandon Wilds to take a 7-3 lead, but Arkansas countered on the ensuing kickoff. Johnson received the kick and scampered 98 yards for a touchdown to give the Razorbacks a 10-7 lead with 2:28 to go in the first. The score was Arkansas’ sixth non-offensive touchdown of the season.
South Carolina re-took the lead at 14-10, but on the ensuing possession it was Arkansas’ turn to take it right back. Wilson spotted a nice throw to Jarius Wright from 68-yards out on the first play of the drive and Wright took it the rest of the way for the touchdown. It was Wright’s first touchdown catch of the night and eighth of the season, giving the Razorbacks a 17-14 advantage with 12:49 to play in the half.
The Arkansas defense forced the Gamecocks to punt on their next possession and Wilson was back out to captain the offense. Twelve plays and 75 yards later, it was Wright who found the end zone for the second time. Wilson connected with the Warren, Ark., native for 16 yards and allowed the Razorbacks to build their lead to 24-14 at halftime. The touchdown catch by Wright gave him nine for the season and moved him into third on UA’s single-season touchdown receptions list. The nine scoring catches this season is also a career-high for Wright.
Wilson was efficient in the first half under center, passing for 11-of-22 for 175 yards and two touchdowns. Both of those scores went to Wright, who finished the half just under the century mark at 92 yards. The UA defense also had a great first half, holding the Gamecock offense to only 49 yards.
At the start of the second half, South Carolina scored its third touchdown of the night on a nine play, 45-yard drive that was capped by a nine-yard run by quarterback Connor Shaw. The lead was cut back to three, but Arkansas came back on its first possession of the half to double that lead to six after Hocker kicked his second field goal of the night. The added three points extended UA’s lead to 27-21 with 7:47 left on the clock in the third.
The Razorback defense continued its strong play on South Carolina’s next possession, forcing a fumble by Wilds at their own 38-yard line. The ball was recovered by linebacker Jerry Franklin at the 38, giving the Razorbacks excellent field position for their next drive. Arkansas was able to capitalize with another field goal by Hocker. From 25 yards out, the Russellville, Ark., native booted his third field goal of the night and extended Arkansas’ lead to 30-21 with 1:17 to go in the third period. The three field goals in the game ties a career-high for Hocker.
South Carolina did cut the lead to two after a 1-yard keep from Shaw, but the Razorbacks answered with another score on their third straight possession. A systematic eight-play, 63-yard drive was finished off by a four-yard touchdown run by Ronnie Wingo, Jr. and got the Arkansas lead back to nine, 37-28 with 8:09 to go in the game.
That touchdown wouldn’t be the last by Arkansas, but it did give them the lead for good. One more touchdown was added by Broderick Green from one yard out after a fumble was caused by Jake Bequette in the South Carolina backfield. Shaw dropped back to pass and Bequette came up with the huge hit to dislodge the ball. DeQuinta Jones recovered it and the Razorbacks were able to capitalize with a game-sealing touchdown to pull ahead 44-28. Bequette finished the game with a career-high three sacks, and Arkansas held on for the remainder of the game for its eighth win of the season.
The Razorbacks will return to the field next Saturday to take on the Tennessee Volunteers inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. Kickoff time and television information for the Tennessee game will be announced Sunday.