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Gators stunned in overtime by Arkansas at the Swamp to put UF’s bowl hopes in peril

Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel/TNS

GAINESVILLE — The Florida Gators filed onto the field dressed in black uniforms to honor military and first-responders, an appropriate fashion choice on perhaps the darkest day for Billy Napier’s program.

Decked out in a camouflage hoodie, the 44-year-old head coach had nowhere to hide as a 39-36 overtime loss to Arkansas on Saturday left him 11-11 during two seasons in Gainesville with Gator Nation’s patience wearing thin.

“It’s not my job to preach patience. It’s my job to coach the team,” Napier said. “When you lose games, there’s going to be criticism. I understand it. I’ve grown up in this profession. It comes with the territory.

“We knew this was going to be a challenge, and we’re right in the middle of it.”

The heart-breaker in a sold-out Swamp came against a Razorbacks team without an SEC win, snapped a six-game home winning streak by UF (5-4, 3-3 SEC) and put its bowl eligibility in peril.

“No one is more frustrated than we are as players,” quarterback Graham Mertz said. “I’m sure everybody will have an opinion about it, but we flat-out did not make enough plays today. I’m sure the film will say that.”

As a reported crowd of 89,782 looked on, Napier’s squad was undone by continued special-teams miscues, wasted timeouts, a sporadic offense and an injury-riddled defense overrun by a Razorbacks’ attack at full strength for the first time in weeks.

All-SEC tailback Raheim “Rocket” Sanders has missed several games since a Week 1 knee injury, but the native of Rockledge returned to team with veteran quarterback KJ Jefferson to pound an undermanned Gators defense. A season after he cracked 100 yards seven times, Sanders cleared the plateau for the first time in four appearances in 2023, finishing with 103 yards

The final 11 set up Jefferson’s game-winning 4-yard touchdown pass to Tyrone Broden against sophomore cornerback Devin Moore.

Jefferson finished with 255 passing yards and 2 scores to go with 92 rushing yards, including a 25-yard touchdown, against a Florida defense without leading tackler Shemar James, out for the season following knee surgery, and top defensive lineman Cam Jackson and Tyreak Sapp.

The Razorbacks entered last in the SEC with an average of 305.9 yards but finished with 481.

“He’s a terrific player,” Napier said of Jefferson. “He’s big. We struggled to tackle the guy. You throw probably one of the better backs in this league in the mix … Both of those players were a huge factor in the game.”

With his 1-2 punch back in the fold, coach Sam Pittman’s Hogs (3-6, 1-5) ended a run of close calls, including five losses by one possession, by celebrating on Steve Spurrier-Florida Field. A couple of dozen players, including former Gators offensive lineman Josh Braun, performed the Gator Chomp.

“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.”

Florida had a chance to win in regulation but a 44-yard field-goal attempt by kicker Trey Smack drifted wide right, just the second miss on 15 tries by the sophomore. A 39-yard field goal by Smack in overtime was momentary redemption and would have also eased the fallout of a failed extra point followed a botched snap-and-hold as Florida took its first lead at 23-20.

Instead Arkansas answered with the touchdown as the miss loomed large on a day when shaky special teams cost the Gators yet again.

“Every single thing that we do gets evaluated,” Napier said. “When we make mistakes that have nothing to do with the opponent, those are the things that we specifically try to correct.”

The Gators, though, were positioned to escape with a win.

With UF trailing 30-26 after Jefferson’s touchdown scamper, sophomore tailback Trevor Etienne went 67 yards on two plays — a 41-yard catch followed by a 26-yard touchdown run — to score with 3:02 remaining. But Arkansas marched down the field to set up a 49-yard field goal by Cam Little to tie the game during a wild fourth quarter featuring two lead changes and two ties.

“You’re either quitting or fighting in life,” Pittman said. “That’s it. I’m really proud because we fought.”

The Gators quickly fell behind 14-0 on a 33-yard fumble return by cornerback Jaylon Braxton after he stripped the ball from UF star receiver Ricky Pearsall. UF’s freshman Eugene Wilson scored on the next two series to tie the game and set the stage for battle.

The Gators now hope to have a chance during a daunting three-game stretch to close the season starting Saturday at LSU, followed by a Nov. 18 date at Missouri and a Nov. 25 visit from Florida State.

“We won’t have that problem with this group,” Napier said. “My message to them is to be who you are, and I know who they are. We’ve got a group consistently that has showed up and put it on the line. There ain’t nobody running and riding in there, I can promise you.”