GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — After celebrating wildly in the visiting locker room, dozens of Arkansas Razorbacks players returned to Florida Field to party some more. They hugged each other, high-fived family, friends and fans, took selfies and even posed for a partial team picture near the goal line.
This was one to savor for several reasons.
KJ Jefferson connected with Tyrone Broden for a 4-yard score in overtime that lifted Arkansas to a 39-36 victory at Florida on Saturday, ending a six-game skid for the Razorbacks and giving them their first win in the Swamp in six tries.
“We played our hearts out for each other,” Jefferson said. “It’s been a frustrating season, but to be the first team to ever win here is something we can always hang our hat on.”
The Razorbacks (3-6, 1-5 Southeastern Conference) stopped Florida’s six-game, home-winning streak and may have knocked the Gators (5-4, 3-3) out of bowl contention in embattled coach Billy Napier’s second season.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Pittman said. “In this two week’s time a lot of things went on in the program, and they kept in it. … You’re either quitting or fighting in life. That’s it. I’m really proud because we fought.”
Jefferson threw for 255 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 92 yards and a score. Much of his damage came late, but the most memorable one was a 20-yard scamper in overtime in which he ran over several defenders. He found Broden for the winner two plays later.
“Part of what makes him a challenge is getting the guy on the ground,” Napier said. “We struggled to tackle the guy. … Very evident that his legs were a factor.”
Arkansas finished with a season-high 481 yards after firing offensive coordinator Dan Enos and naming receivers coach Kenny Guiton the interim play caller two weeks ago. Guiton tweaked parts of the offense during the team’s bye week, and the Razorbacks looked nothing like the team that averaged 227 yards in its previous four games.
Raheim “Rocket” Sanders had a lot to do with it. A preseason All-American who ran for 1,443 and 10 touchdowns in 2022, Sanders finished with 103 yards on 18 carries in his return from a knee injury.
Florida donned all-black uniforms to honor those who served, a somewhat fitting look for the darkest day in Napier’s two seasons. The favored Gators rallied from a 14-0 hole early and a 30-26 deficit late. They had a chance to win it at the end of regulation, but Trey Smack missed a 44-yard field goal wide right.
It was the latest issue for Florida’s special teams. The Gators botched an extra point in the third quarter and forced Smack’s attempt to be 5 yards longer than expected because of an illegal substitution penalty. Florida’s kicking team ran onto the field even though the offense was scrambling to line up to spike the ball with seconds left.
“There’s no question there was confusion there,” Napier said. “That one I haven’t been around before.”
The Gators probably needed a victory to make a bowl. But now, win No. 6 looks to be a long shot.
Florida’s final three games are at No. 13 LSU, at 14th-ranked Missouri and at home against No. 4 Florida State, and Napier’s team could be double-digit underdogs in each.
“This was a big deal to come to Florida and win,” Pittman said. “There ain’t but one first.”
The Gators played without three defensive starters, including leading tackler Shemar James, defensive tackle Cam Jackson and defensive end Tyreak Sapp. Florida also lost linebacker Jack Pyburn and defensive end T.J. Searcy in the second half against Arkansas.
Arkansas receiver Andrew Armstrong, who had three catches for 103 yards, was slow to get up following a pass-interference penalty in the fourth quarter. Trainers rushed to Armstrong in the end zone, but he started moving his legs and eventually sat up and left the field without assistance. He did not return.
Arkansas: Although the Razorbacks were previously winless in SEC play, everyone knew they were a few plays away from being above .500. They hung tough with LSU, Ole Miss and Alabama on the road — losing by a combined 13 points — and fell 7-3 to Mississippi State at home.
Florida: Napier’s ultra-conservative ways seem to be wearing on his team’s fan base. He was roundly booed several times, including once for burning 20 seconds off the clock before calling timeout and settling for a short field goal in the second quarter and again early in the third for calling a third-down run when backup Max Brown replaced Mertz for a play.
Arkansas: Hosts Auburn next Saturday.
Florida: Plays at No. 13 LSU next Saturday, the start of a daunting three-game stretch against ranked teams.