By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman entered his fourth season as Head Hog on Saturday by picking up his 20th win as his Razorbacks easily handled unranked non-conference foe Western Carolina, 56-13, in both teams’ season-opener at War Memorial Stadium.

The Razorbacks were excellent in the passing game, stingy for the most part and opportunistic on defense, and improved on special teams to help Pittman move his overall record at Arkansas to 20-17 as he sits in 12th place all-time in career program wins by a head coach.

“I thought in spurts we played really well,” Pittman said. “Obviously the turnovers were big for us. We had too many penalties and we didn’t run the ball as well, especially in the first half, as well as I thought we would be able to. But we scored points. We scored 35 points (in the first half). KJ (Jefferson) and the receivers, I thought our receivers caught the ball extremely well, man. We have to work on the run game a little bit.

“Defensively we played really well. Got turnovers. If I was going to say anything we have to cut down on the penalties and do a little better running the football. And at times do better in the secondary and things but I thought it was really prepared by our coordinators and our guys and I was really happy with the win.”

Non-con excellence: Pittman-coached teams at Arkansas are now 10-1 against non-conference opponents, which includes a thrilling 55-53 triple-overtime win against Kansas in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 28 in Memphis in the 2022 finale. The lone loss came in Arkansas’ previous regular-season game against a non-conference opponent — last season’s 21-19 defeat against then-No. 23 Liberty on Nov. 5 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

KJ on time, on target, on point, on track to break records at Arkansas: Senior quarterback KJ Jefferson completed his first 12 passes en route to an 18-of-23 outing for 246 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air to go with 5 carries for 11 yards and 1 touchdown rushing. It marked Jefferson’s sixth career game of accounting for at least 4 touchdowns, and it was his 11th time as a Hog to both throw and run for a touchdown in the same game. Jefferson, playing in his 35th contest at Arkansas with a large contingent of his family in attendance on Saturday, surpassed 6,000 career passing yards (6,062), 50 career passing touchdowns (51), and 70 career total touchdowns (71). Jefferson surpased Matt Jones and Casey Dick to move into fifth place all-time at Arkansas in career passing yards as only Tyler Wilson (7,765), the late Ryan Mallett (7,493), Brandon Allen (7,463), and Clint Stoerner (7,422) were also able to surpass the 6,000-yard passing mark. Jefferson needs 1,704 more yards to overtake Wilson as Arkansas’ all-time leader in career passing yards, and he needs 14 more passing TDs to overtake Allen (64) as Arkansas’ all-time leader in career passing touchdowns.

Football Hogs playmaking on defense: Arkansas’ defense was an opportunistic unit against WCU, forcing 5 turnovers including 4 interceptions, the last of which turned into an 85-yard return for a touchdown by freshman linebacker Brad Spence. Secondary veterans Hudson Clark, Dwight McGlothern, and Jayden Johnson also had interceptions, while freshman defensive back TJ Metcalf recovered a fumble for the Hogs. The Razorbacks’ defense held WCU to 2-of-11 on third down conversions while limiting the Catamounts to 294 yards of offense on 70 snaps (4.2 yards per play), including only 64 yards rushing on 30 carries (only 2.1 yards per rush). Arkansas yielded only one touchdown, which came on the Catamounts’ opening drive of the third quarter. The Hogs forced four three-and-outs on the Catamounts’ first four drives of the game, the last of which resulted in Clark’s interception on third down. Junior linebacker Jaheim Thomas, a transfer from Cincinnati, led Arkansas with 8 tackles, including 1.5 for lost yardage. Freshman defensive back Jaheim Singletary had 6 tackles while Johnson had 5 and Metcalf 4. Star sophomore linebacker Chris Paul, Jr., had 5 tackles before being ejected from the game in the third quarter after a targeting call.

39 in 37: Arkansas’ defense has collected 39 interceptions in its last 37 games going back to the first game of the 2020 season, which was the debut of Pittman as Head Hog.

Scoreboard defense: Only once last season did Arkansas hold an opponent to 13 or fewer points, and that came in a 13-10 home loss against then-No. 7 LSU on Nov. 12 in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks have held teams to 13 or fewer points in seven games going back to the start of the 2020 season.

Hogs strike first and fast out of the gates: Arkansas scored only once last season on a game-opening offensive drive, and the Razorbacks were able to match that on Saturday cruising 79 yards in two plays capped by Jefferson’s quick-hitter to receiver Jaedon Wilson, who picked up a perimeter block to get around the left edge for a 65-yard jaunt into the end zone that put the Hogs up 7-0 at the 13:03 mark of the first quarter.

Razorback receivers shine: While Jefferson was on fire passing the ball, the Hogs’ receivers were outstanding as well. The aforementioned Wilson, a 6-3 sophomore, led the way with 3 receptions for 83 yards and his opening-drive score with transfer receivers Andrew Armstrong (5 receptions, 78 yards, 1 TD) and Isaac TeSlaa (3 receptions, 66 yards, 1 TD) also having big games. Nine different Hogs each caught at least one pass on a day when the passing game generated 274 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Unranked opener. For only the second time in the past four seasons, the Football Hogs did not open their season against a ranked opponent (then-No. 4 Georgia was the season-opening opponent in 2020, and then-No. 23 Cincinnati was the season-opening opponent in 2022). Arkansas also entered the game unranked.

Season-openers under Pittman. The Head Hog won his third consecutive season-opener as he improved to 3-1 in first games as the head coach at Arkansas (the Razorbacks lost 37-10 to then-No. 4 Georgia in Fayetteville to start the covid-shortened 2020 season that marked Pittman’s first campaign at Arkansas).

Not much doin’ in the run game. Arkansas’ veteran corps of running backs could not get on track Saturday as WCU loaded up to stop star rusher Raheim “Rocket” Sanders (1,443 yards, 10 touchdowns, 6.5 yards per carry a season ago), who was limited to only 42 yards on 15 carries (2.8 yards per carry) and 2 receptions for minus-4 yards, although he did rush for two goal-line touchdowns (from 3 yards and 1 yard out, respectively). Sanders, he had seven games last season of 100-plus rushing yards, has been held below 50 yards rushing in his last three outings going back to last season. The Hogs’ stable of running backs in support of Sanders — AJ Green (4 carries for 22 yards), Isaiah Augustave (4 carries for 20 yards), Rashod Dubinion (3 carries for 15 yards), and Dominique Johnson (3 carries for 14 yards) — helped the team barely surpass the century mark in yardage on the ground (36 carries, 105 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2.9 yards per carry). Although the Hogs did not give up a turnover offensively, they did suffer two fumbles that they were able to recover to maintain possession.

Homecoming Hog: Morrilton, Ark., native and North Carolina junior-transfer quarterback Jacolby Criswell made his debut as a Hog on Saturday. He threw a 14-yard touchdown to freshman receiver Davion Dozier midway through the fourth quarter as he finished 2-of-2 passing for 28 yards and the score to go with one carry for no gain.

Passing fancy leads to overall offensive success: Jefferson and Criswell combined for 20-of-25 passing for 274 yards and 4 touchdowns, plus Jefferson’s rushing TD to give the signal callers 5 scores among the team total of 8 touchdowns. The Hogs finished with 379 yards of total offense and scored touchdowns on all five of their possessions that reached the redzone.

Pittman unbeaten in the 501: He improved to 2-0 as a head coach in Arkansas games played at War Memorial Stadium. His 2021 Football Hogs defeated Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 45-3, at WMS on Oct. 23, 2021.

Special teams standouts: Arkansas freshman receiver / returner Isaiah Sategna racked up 111 all-purpose yards on only 6 touches — 51 yards on 2 kick returns, 46 yards on 2 punt returns, and 14 yards on 2 receptions. Junior kicker Cam Little was a perfect 8-of-8 on points-after-touchdown attempts, and sophomore punter Max Fletcher boomed 5 punts for 245 yards and a 49.0-yard average, including a 52-yarder from the back of the end zone that put WCU on its side of the 50-yard line to begin a possession early in the third quarter.

Penalty parade: Arkansas has been penalty prone in Pittman’s tenure as head coach, and that tradition continued in the season-opener on Saturday as the Hogs suffered 7 penalties for 86 yards, which led to setbacks that included big chunks of lost yardage on special teams as well as giving up first downs defensively to extend what looked to be stalling WCU drives on offense. Conversely, the Catamounts suffered only 3 penalties for 30 yards.

How many in the house? Announced attendance for Saturday’s game against Western Carolina at War Memorial Stadium was 44,397. The 2023 season marks the 75th year of WMS hosting football games.