By Kevin McPherson
The 16th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks won their second consecutive SEC opener while remaining unbeaten with a 44-30 victory over unranked South Carolina on Saturday at Donald W. Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium in Fayetteville as the Football Hogs will emerge from the weekend leading the SEC West.
Using a bruising run game while winning another turnover battle, Arkansas (2-0, 1-0 SEC) took care of business in the league opener for both teams. Not only did the Razorbacks pass their first SEC test on Saturday, but they also established some new lofty milestones relative to the program’s turnaround under third-year head coach Sam Pittman.
“I was really proud of our offensive line,” Pittman said in his postgame press conference. “We asked them to kind of control the game, and I felt like they did at least until the last series of the first half there when we were a little slippery on pass protection. I think the offensive line wore them down. We made a lot of big plays on defense. A lot of sacks, hurries, this, that and the other, and we gave up a lot. Three hands to the face and things like that, we certainly haven’t had that in practice, but we had it out here today, and we’ve got to clean that up as well. I thought the defense made some big plays.
“Rocket Sanders and the backs ran well. I thought we used our wideouts a little better today. We used all of them, and each one of them contributed certainly in the blocking aspect to the win as well. It feels really good to be 2-0. It feels really good to be 1-0 in the SEC.”
So here they are, the stats and trends that matter from Arkansas’ week two victory …
– The Hogs will sit atop the SEC West standings all alone for at least a week at 1-0. Kentucky or Florida will hold the same distinction in the East after their game is completed later today in Gainesville, Fla.
– The 44 points were the most scored by a Pittman-coached Arkansas team in an SEC win. His Hogs scored 51 points in a 1-point loss in overtime at Ole Miss in 2021, and they hit 48 points in a 2-point loss at Missouri in his first season in 2020. The Hogs twice scored 45 points last season in non-conference wins over Georgia Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
– Arkansas is now 2-1 in SEC openers under Pittman, which includes a 2-0 mark as a ranked team in league openers dating back to last season (includes the then-16th-ranked Football Hogs’ 20-10 win over then-No. 7 Texas A&M on Sept. 25 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas). Repeating, that’s 2-0 in back-to-back SEC openers with the Hogs ranked No. 16 in both matchups. The last time the Hogs won back-to-back SEC openers was 2003 and 2004 under Houston Nutt.
– ESPN’s broadcast crew proclaimed Arkansas’ starting QB/RB duo of KJ Jefferson and Raheim “Rocket” Sanders as the weight-heaviest such tandem in college football — 469 pounds collectively (Jefferson 242, Sanders 227) — which helps explain offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ decision to go with a consistent downhill ground-and-pound attack on offense featuring that very QB/RB combo (more on that next as we break down the stats).
– Sanders, the sophomore running back converted from wide receiver before the start of last season, had a second straight 100-yard rushing outing as he dashed for career-highs in yards (156) and carries (24) — that’s 6.5 yards per carry — with a career-high-matching 2 touchdowns (his first two scores of the season, and the Hogs’ first two scores on Saturday) to go with 3 receptions for 30 yards. In becoming the third Hog running back to rack up at least 150 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns against Carolina since 2005 (Darren McFadden and Felix Jones), Sanders mixed in big plays (a 47-yard romp was his biggest run) with some getting-to-the edge quickness, cutbacks with burst, and physical north-and-south running. Sanders entered the game 5th in the SEC in rushing after his 117 yards yards on a then-career-high 20 carries (5.9 yards per carry) to go with 3 receptions for 12 yards in the Football Hogs’ 31-24 season-opening win over then-23rd-ranked Cincinnati last week. Combined with his stellar performance in the Hogs’ 24-10 win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl in January, Sanders has totaled 352 yards on 57 carries (that’s 117.3 yards per game on 6.2 yards per carry) to go with 4 touchdowns in his last three outings. He now has three career 100-yard rushing games at Arkansas, which includes his previous high-water mark last season of 139 yards on 17 carries in the Hogs’ heart-breaking 52-51 loss at Ole Miss on Oct. 9, 2021.
– As good as Hogs junior quarterback KJ Jefferson was last week in the win over ranked Cincy — 18-of-26 passing for 223 yards and 3 touchdowns to go with 18 carries for 62 yards and 1 touchdown — he was even sharper throwing the football against South Carolina, completing his first 8 pass attempts en route to an 18-of-21 final effort (85.7% ranks second-best for a single game in school history, minimum 20 attempts) for 162 yards and 1 touchdown to go with 19 carries for 67 yards and 1 touchdown. After totaling 4 touchdowns last week (3 passing, 1 rushing), Jefferson did not find the end zone until the fourth quarter on Saturday as he registered two scores in the final period against the Gamecocks. The junior signal-caller came into the game tied for 4th in the SEC in passing touchdowns. Combined through Arkansas’ first two games, Jefferson is 36-of-47 through the air (76.6% completion percentage) for 385 passing yards and 4 touchdowns to go with 37 carries for 129 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. That adds up to 514 total yards and 6 total touchdowns for Jefferson through 2 games. He reached at least 1 passing touchdown and 1 rushing touchdown in a game for the fifth time in his Arkansas career.
– The Razorbacks snapped a 3-game losing streak to the Gamecocks as Pittman became the first Arkansas coach to defeat USC-E since Bobby Petrino’s team won 44-28 at home in 2011. In those three straight wins over the Hogs prior to Saturday, South Carolina enjoyed a 29.7-point average winning margin.
– Arkansas improved to 14-10 all-time against the Gamecocks, which includes a 9-3 record at home (includes games played in Little Rock). The team’s last played during the 2017 season.
– The Football Hogs have now won 4 of their last 5 SEC games dating back to the late stages of last season, and they’re 5-4 in league games going back to the start of the 2021 campaign.
– For the second consecutive game, Arkansas won the turnover battle (3-0, all coming in the fourth quarter) as the Hogs stand plus-4 in that department overall (5-1) on the young season. Collectively in wins over Cincy and Carolina, the Hogs converted their first three turnovers into touchdowns, but failed to do so on their final two takeaways in the fourth quarter against the Gamecocks. Although redshirt freshman linebacker Chris Paul, Jr., was initially rewarded a touchdown on a 43-yard scoop-and-score when Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler was sacked and fumbled with 6 seconds remaining in the game, replay eventually overturned the call as Paul’s fumble recovery happened with his right knee contacting the ground for an immediate dead-ball change of possession.
– South Carolina had scored 13 unanswered points bridging parts of the second and third quarters to pull within 21-16 when the Hogs struck for 14 points in the first 2:51 of the fourth quarter to extend to a 35-16 lead. It started when Jefferson punched his way in from 2 yards out on a 3rd-and-goal on the opening play of the fourth quarter, and following an Arkansas fumble recovery on Carolina’s ensuing possession, the Hogs struck for 41 yards and pay-dirt in only 5 plays capped by Jefferson’s rollout right before passing back left to a wide open Warren Thompson in the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown.
– Arkansas was balanced last week on offense (224 rushing yards and 223 passing/receiving yards), but this week the offense was more about punishing ball-control — 295 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on 65 carries (4.5 yards per carry) as four different players scored a rushing touchdown, compared to 162 yards through the air and 1 touchdown. Last week in the win over Cincy, the touchdown scoring was mostly via the pass (3-1). The Hogs topped 445 yards of total offense in each game as they have totaled 904 yards. The last time the team recorded 5 rushing touchdowns in a single game was in 2016 at Mississippi State.
– The Hogs scored touchdowns on each of their first three possessions on Saturday, going 63 yards on 13 plays, 75 yards on 12 plays, and 61 yards on 12 plays. Then on a late-third / early-fourth quarter possession, the Hogs strung together a 14-play, 59-yard touchdown drive. Each of those four drives chewed up at least 4 minutes of game clock with two of them exceeding 5 minutes.
– The ugly and the weird. Arkansas suffered 10 penalties for 122 yards (compared to 5 for 41 yards by Carolina), and much of that aided the Gamecocks in staying within reach on the scoreboard for much of the game. The Hogs had three contact-to-the-face, personal-foul 15-year penalties in the game that extended Carolina offensive drives each time. The Hogs were also stopped on a 4th-down conversion attempt in the red zone, had what should have been a sure-thing Jefferson bomb pass over the defense dropped, and missed their only field goal attempt (although it was a 50-yard attempt). The Hogs did get a safety in the fourth quarter on an intentional-grounding call in the end zone by Oklahoma-transfer quarterback Spencer Rattler to go with those three forced turnovers. The Hogs also had an onside-kick-scoop-and-return to the Gamecocks’ 9-yard-line by linebacker Bumper Pool to set the Hogs up for their final touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter. Pool fielded a second onside kick before Arkansas failed to field the third Carolina onside-kick attempt in the late stages of the game.
– The Hogs scored 23 fourth-quarter points, two points more than their scoring output through the first three quarters (21 points).
– Saturday’s attendance at DWRRS was announced at 72,437. Last week against Cincy it was 74,751, the 7th largest for a home game in school history.
– Pittman improved to 14-11 overall through his first 25 games at Arkansas, and the last coach to do better through his first 25 games leading the Hogs was Houston Nutt, who sported an 18-7 record at the same juncture (1998, 1999, and the first game of 2000).
– In 22 of the 25 games under Pittman, the Razorbacks have played either a ranked team, a league opponent, or a non-conference Power 5 school. The outliers to this point were three opponents played last season — all Arkansas wins — against Rice, Georgia Southern, and Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
– Arkansas has won 11 of its last 15 games dating back to the start of last season.
– LSU-transfer defensive back Dwight McGlothern recorded an interception for the second consecutive game, shutting down a Carolina threat in the red zone with his pick in the end zone with 10:57 left in the game and the Hogs ahead 35-16. Arkansas has collected 28 interceptions in 25 games going back to the 2020 season, the most among SEC teams in that span (that stat credit goes to Razorback Communications).
– Alabama-transfer linebacker Drew Sanders was a monster defensively on Saturday as he recorded 11 tackles (3 for lost yardage, including 2 sacks), 2 forced fumbles, 1 pass breakup, and 1 quarterback hurry.
– Defensively as a team, the Hogs were once again stingy in the run game, holding Carolina to 40 yards on 29 carries (1.4 yard per attempt) although USC did score 3 touchdowns on the ground with much of the lost yardage coming via multiple Hog sacks (6 for 51 yards) on Gamecoacks’ pass plays. Through two contests, the Hogs are holding opponents to only 76.5 yards rushing on 30.0 carries per game (that’s 2.6 yards per carry). Passing defense, on the other hand, has been sub-par to say the least. The Hogs once again gave up at least 325 yards through the air as Rattler went 24-of-39 for 375 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception. Combined with last week’s win over Cincy, the Arkansas pass defense is yielding 350 yards but only 1.5 touchdowns per game.
– The Hogs will look to remain unbeaten in non-conference games under Pittman — they’re currently 6-0 against non-league foes under his watch — when Missouri State (2-0) and former head coach Bobby Petrino come to Fayetteville next Saturday. It will mark the third straight game that an opponent has come to DWRRS with an unblemished record.
– The Football Hogs are now 6-4 overall as a ranked team under Pittman.
– The Razorbacks are assured of entering game three as a ranked team since the start of the season, which has not happened at Arkansas since 2011 (Petrino’s fourth and final season as Head Hog).