LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — K.J. Jefferson completed his first 12 passes while leading Arkansas to three first-quarter touchdowns, and the Razorbacks methodically put away FCS-level Western Carolina 56-13 on Saturday.
Jefferson’s second pass of the game was a wide-receiver screen to the left sideline that turned into a 65-yard catch-and-run by Jaedon Wilson.
The last three of five first-half Razorback touchdowns were set up by two interceptions and a fumble recovery, all in Western Carolina territory.
“I’m proud of the team, we got to play a whole lot of people,” Arkansas fourth-year coach Sam Pittman said. “We haven’t been able to do that much since I’ve been here. … We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I’ll take a (56-13) anytime someone wants to give it to us.”
Jefferson spread 18 receptions in 23 attempts around eight receivers for 246 yards and three scores. He found Isaac TeSlaa, who played for three years at NCAA Division II Hillsdale College, for a 31-yard first-quarter score, ran for a 17-yard touchdown and used AP Preseason Second Team All-American running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders to finish short drives with runs of 3 and 1 yards as the Razorbacks built a 35-3 halftime lead.
Pittman said his fifth-year senior quarterback “played very well today.”
Sanders, though, found running room rare against the aggressive Catamounts defense, especially in the first half. Sanders, the Southeastern Conference’s second-leading rusher in 2022, had 42 yards on 15 carries.
“Their safeties made a lot of tackles,” Pittman said.
Arkansas had 39 yards rushing in the first half and 105 for the game.
“That’s a really good ball team and I thought our defense held up good," Western Carolina coach Kerwin Bell said. "We’ve got some good things to look forward to as we get into the season.”
But Arkansas’ revamped receiving corps stepped up. Along with TeSlaa’s first-quarter score, transfer Andrew Armstrong was on the receiving end of a 16-yard scoring pass from Jefferson in the third quarter, and freshman Davion Dozier caught backup quarterback Jacolby Criswell’s first Razorback scoring throw, a 14-yarder.
“We’ve got some things to clean up with the penalties," Pittman said. " The run game was not what we wanted it to be. But let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill. The passing game WAS what we wanted it to be. The protections WERE what we wanted them to be.”
Three Western Carolina quarterbacks combined to go 25 of 40 for 227 yards but had four interceptions. Desmond Reid scored the Catamounts touchdown on a 2-yard run. Richard McCollum hit a 34-yard field goal in the first quarter and a 33-yarder on the last play of the game.
“I’m a little disappointed," Bell said. "We just didn’t give it our best shot, you know? I thought we played very hard and violent like we wanted to do. We really played hard and just wanted to have a chance to hold up against those guys. We just didn’t play smart, and we talked about turnover ratio. (Turnovers) killed us last year.”
After scoring from long distance on its second snap, Arkansas had a short field for its next four scores to take a 35-3 lead into intermission. Isaiah Sategna’s 17-yard flip-the-field punt return set the Razorbacks 47 yards from the goal line, and interceptions by Hudson Clark and Dwight McGlothern placed the Hogs inside the Catamounts 35. When Branson Adams broke loose for a 22-yard run for the Catamounts, he left the ball behind near midfield, and T.J. Metcalf recovered for Arkansas. The Razorbacks tacked on a Raheim Sanders 1-yard touchdown run on the final play of the half after Metcalf’s recovery. Arkansas had four interceptions for the game and turned the last one, by freshman linebacker Brad Spence, into an 85-yard runback.
Western Carolina’s starting quarterback, sophomore Cole Gonzales, had a tough start and was benched after three series for Charlie Dean, whose third snap resulted in an interception. Gonzales was given the start for the second half, though, and led the Catamounts to their only touchdown, a 53-yard drive highlighted by Gonzales’ 40-yard deep strike to Censere Lee. Desmond Reid ran 2 yards for the score.
Western Carolina: The Catamounts, despite giving up a lot of points, showed enough spunk on defense to think they could be a factor in the Southern Conference. It was the offense and special teams that put the defense in tough spots.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks need to get the running game untracked when they play tougher competition but otherwise looked good for a season-opening game.
Western Carolina: Home against league foe Samford on Saturday.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks return to campus to play Kent State on Saturday.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll