LITTLE ROCK – Former Florida and NFL quarterback and current Western Carolina head football coach Kerwin Bell knew there were a few things his undermanned team could not do in its season opener with Arkansas on Saturday.

But all of them seem to happen early in what turned into the Razorbacks’ 56-13 over the Football Championship Subdivision Catamounts before 44,397 fans at War Memorial Stadium.

KJ Jefferson was 18 of 23 passing for 246 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another score while the Arkansas defense forced Western Carolina into three of its five turnovers before halftime.

“I am a little disappointed because we just didn’t give it our best shot,” Bell said. “I thought we played hard, really played hard and played violent like we wanted to do to just have a chance to hold on against those guys. I thought we did that, we just didn’t play very smart.”

The loss dropped Western Carolina to 0-62 all-time against Football Bowl Subdivision teams dating back to 1977 and 0-21 against SEC foes.

Arkansas did not have a turnover in game, scored on a 65-yard pass play from Jefferson to Jaedon Wilson on its second offensive snap of the contest and got all three of those first-half turnovers on Western Carolina’s side of the field.

“We had talked about turnover ration and how it killed us last year and you don’t come in here against an SEC opponent and I think we had three turnovers to nothing in the first half,” Bell said. “We just didn’t give ourselves a chance to really move the football and get going.

“So a little disappointed, but they are a good football team and we have learned a lot for ourselves. We have got to get back on the horse here next week and go play one of the best teams (visiting Samford) in our (SoCon) conference and try to get our first win.”

Winning the turnover battle was Bell’s big focus, but was something that the three quarterbacks the Catamounts played did not allow to happen with four interceptions.

That included Razorback freshman linebacker Brad Spence’s 85-yard pick six with 4:19 in the game that put a bow on the win.

Western Carolina gave up interceptions at its 31 and 32 and a fumble at its 47 before intermission.

“We just didn’t give ourselves a chance,” Bell said, “and that’s what we had been preaching. So that’s the most disappointing thing coming out of here, we didn’t take care of the football. We needed to be plus three on our end after halftime to even be in the game and instead we were minus three. That hurt us a lot last year and it was the first time in my coaching career that I have ever been in minus…We made a concerted effort all off season.

“A lot of that was our quarterback situation. We have got to figure it out because we are not the offense we have been in the past. We have got to settle on a guy that can go out there and produce and stay away from turnovers.”

Bell, who played 12 years professionally made a point to catch with Jefferson immediately after the game.

“I told him that I thought he is phenomenal,” Bell said. “I didn’t know that he could throw the ball as well as he did just seeing him in person.”

Bell believes Arkansas has a solid chance to improve on last season’s 7-5 record.

“…I think there are two things this Arkansas team did a really good job to go back and be able to compete this year,” Bell said. “In this league, you better have depth at the defensive line and be good there and they addressed that.

“And then they got an all-star quarterback. So when you have got those two things, you can always have better things in those two areas, but those two things give you a chance. This team has a chance I think to make some noise in the SEC.”

Arkansas had 379-291 total offense advantage, but Western Carolina’s defense did limit the Razorbacks to 105 rushing yards, less than half of what the host averaged per game last season.

“We thought we had gotten better in that area with our tackling and our size up front and being able to rotate guys with our depth,” Bell said. “We have been so bad at that try last two years that that makes me happy…That’s a really good running football team and I thought our football team held up good so I think we have some good things to look forward to once we get into the season.”

The big play early from Jefferson to Wilson was simply a bust per Bell.

“We didn’t fit it right,” Bell said. “Our corner came up inside, got caught inside and so he (Wilson) gets down the sideline and sort of out-runs our angles. We have got to turn that thing back in to our help. So little things like that, hopefully we will learn from playing a really good football team like that.

“They made some bigs plays that really got them over the top and got separation from us in the first half.”

Bell, whose team was down 35-3 at halftime, noted be was ready to keep playing more than four quarters if that had been possible.

“I think there is nothing like live reps,” Bell said. “You can practice all you want, but if you play a really good football team with live reps, that exposes you to things you need to get better at. I love it. Let’s go play another quarter or a quarter and a half. I don’t care what the score is. We got better today because of the competition we played.”

Bell hopes to have a packed house next Saturday against Samford.

“I am sure we are beat up a little bit playing this big guys, but, man, we played extremely hard and we need to get back to Cullowhee (N.C.), find a way to get as healthy as we can also we can go play 100 miles an hour this (next) Saturday. We are going to need the fans.”

Photo by John D. James