Why Arkansas football's future looks bright after Outback Bowl win

·4 min read

TAMPA, Fla. — Before Grant Morgan left the field at Raymond James Stadium after No. 24 Arkansas' 21-14 win over Penn State on Saturday in the Outback Bowl, he crammed as much confetti as he could into his pockets.

The senior linebacker had just finished his last game with the Razorbacks , and he wanted to remember the moment.

Morgan has been with Arkansas for six years through abysmal seasons and, this year, a triumphant nine-win one. He's one of the super seniors leaving the program better than he found it. He's leaving it, he said, in good hands.

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"We don't like plateauing around here," Morgan said. "We're going to keep going. Coach (Sam) Pittman's got the Hogs going, I can promise you that."

Whether you believe in momentum or not, the bowl win over Penn State (7-6) carries Arkansas (9-4) into the offseason with high spirits. That's more than can be said for the last four years, when Arkansas went a combined 11-35 without a bowl appearance.

Pittman has expressed all season his desire to make people proud of his Arkansas program. Pride has been missing for years, and it's starting to creep back into the hearts of Razorback fans.

If Arkansas wants to hang onto that pride, and especially if Pittman wants to earn the new $7 million annual salary he reportedly proposed, the upward trend must continue. Arkansas got a little glimpse into its future Saturday.

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"Heading into next season, we already have an advantage with the young guys coming in and being able to play out there," quarterback KJ Jefferson said. "Giving those guys the opportunity and them taking advantage, I feel like we're ahead of some programs right now."

One of those young players is freshman running back Raheim "Rocket" Sanders. Sanders had played in 11 games this season, so he doesn't lack experience. However, Sanders believes he's come a long way since the season opener against Rice when the Florida native admitted he was nervous. On Saturday, in front of friends and family from his hometown two hours away, he became Arkansas' fourth player with more than 500 rushing yards this season.

"Coming into college and playing at the next level, I didn't think I was going to make it this far myself," Sanders said.

Starting running back Dominique Johnson continued to show his promise despite being banged up in the game. He was Arkansas' second-leading rusher behind Jefferson with 85 yards on 11 carries. With Johnson and Sanders in the backfield and Jefferson continuing to run, the 2022 Razorbacks can be a dangerous rushing offense.

Backup quarterback Malik Hornsby came in late in the game for a banged-up Jefferson. The redshirt freshman rushed four times for 67 yards without attempting a pass. Don't expect quarterback controversy next season, but Hornsby's speed is promising.

"Having a guy like that to back me up when I go out or something happens with me, I just have a lot of confidence in him," Jefferson said. "I'm really just extremely proud of Malik."

Pittman has taken every opportunity to celebrate achievements, from a team photo with the three regular-season trophies Arkansas won to buying a $20 bowling ball. After win No. 9, pride is at its highest in years. It starts in the locker room.

"I think it will make our kids a little bit hungrier understanding that we can be a top-25 team," Pittman said of the victory's impact. "Certainly we want to get higher than that and start into the top 15, top 10 in the country."

The discourse around college football has recently called into question whether bowl games matter. Players are opting out more than ever to protect themselves before starting professional careers. But for a program like Arkansas, the Outback Bowl mattered.

"To some people, this might be a big, huge win," Pittman said. "Some people may go, 'Well, it's the Outback Bowl. It's not the national championship.' But to me, it's big as you can get for our players. We've come a long way."

Christina Long covers the Arkansas Razorbacks. You can email her at clong@swtimes.com or follow her on Twitter @christinalong00.

This article originally appeared on Fort Smith Times Record: Arkansas football's future bright after Outback Bowl win vs Penn State

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