LITTLE ROCK — It’s still early, but Arkansas football may have found its most electric return man in more than a decade Saturday afternoon.
Redshirt freshman Isaiah Sategna gained 97 yards on four returns — two on punts and two on kickoffs — in the Razorbacks’ 56-13 blowout win over Western Carolina at War Memorial Stadium and was close to housing a couple of them.
“We mentioned it afterwards in the locker room; we’ve got a returner now,” head coach Sam Pittman said. “He’s dangerous. We did have the one block in the back, but when he gets the ball in his hands, he’s dangerous now.”
It started with a 12-yard punt return on which he made several players miss and gave Arkansas excellent field position, as he got into Western Carolina territory.
Sategna’s next opportunity wasn’t until after halftime, when he returned the opening kickoff of the second half 55 yards, only for a block in the back to wipe it out. He was credited with only 18 yards.
Making that return even more impressive, despite the penalty, was the fact that Sategna caught the kickoff five yards deep in the end zone and still brought it out instead of taking the touchback.
“They’re going to have to kick it further than 5 or he’s going to bring it out,” Pittman said. “We think he can get it to the 25. We’re pretty confident in the ol’ kid.”
His next kickoff return was 28 yards and got the Razorbacks out to the 31, meaning it gave them an extra six yards of field position than if he had just fair caught it. He was also one shoe-string tackle away from breaking an even longer return.
Then, in the fourth quarter, Sategna had his best return of the day with a 39-yard punt return on which he cut back across the field and temporarily inspired memories of Joe Adams in the early 2010s.
Arkansas did get a punt return touchdown in each of its last two FCS games – from Nathan Parodi against UAPB in 2021 and Bryce Stephens against Missouri State last year – but Sategna’s returns felt different.
“The more confidence he gets, the better off the blockers for him are going to become, as well,” Pittman said. “But yeah, I mean, I felt it. I think the crowd felt it. When he gets the ball in space, he’s dangerous.”
Rushing Struggles vs. Western Carolina
Despite facing an FCS team, Arkansas struggled to get much going on the ground Saturday afternoon. It ultimately finished with only 105 rushing yards on 36 carries, which is a 2.9-yard average.
However, those numbers were slightly skewed by three negative plays that resulted in the loss of 43 yards. Take out Beaux Limmer’s bad slap that cost them 19 yards, the sack of KJ Jefferson that cost 13 yards and Rocket Sanders’ run for minus-11 yards, the Razorbacks averaged a more respectable 4.5 yards per carry.
That’s still not great for a team thought to have one of the best running back rooms in the country, but head coach Sam Pittman wasn’t too concerned with it because they were effective through the air.
“Our run game was not what we wanted it to be, but let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill,” Pittman said. “The passing game was what we wanted it to be. The protections were what we wanted them to be.”
It was a particularly tough day for Sanders, who enters his junior year as a preseason first-team All-SEC selection. He managed just 21 yards on his first 12 carries and it wasn’t until midway through the third quarter that he finally had a decent run, picking up 14 yards.
Even with that play, Sanders still finished with just 42 yards on 15 carries. That’s well below the 167 yards he ran for in last year’s FCS game against Missouri State. He did get in the end zone twice on a pair of short touchdowns.
“We couldn’t get to their safeties,” Pittman said. “We didn’t get great movement on our inside runs, but we couldn’t get to their safeties, which was probably the reason why we were making a lot of yards throwing the football.”
The Razorbacks went in with the intent of not running KJ Jefferson much, which is why he had just four true runs (not including one sack), which also likely impacted the running game.
The other four running backs – AJ Green (4 carries for 22 yards), Rashod Dubinion (3 for 15), Dominique Johnson (3 for 14) and Isaiah Augustave (4 for 20) – actually were more productive, combining for 71 yards on 14 carries. That’s a 5.1-yard average.
Dubinion’s workload was limited because he left the game early with a back injury.
“We were just kind of feeling it out,” Jefferson said. “We knew they played a heavy box so that’s why we did a lot of RPOs. Throwing off and behind the backers and stuff like that. We kind of knew going into it, but you do want to establish the run in any game that you play.”
Arkansas Forces 5 Turnovers
One reason the Razorbacks were still able to rack up 56 points despite the lack of a potent rushing attack is because their defense forced five turnovers that all resulted in points.
An 85-yard interception return by freshman linebacker Brad Spence late in the fourth quarter capped the scoring and was Arkansas’ first pick-six since Grant Morgan’s that sealed the 2020 win over Ole Miss.
“That was a lot of fun, wasn’t it?” Pittman said. “They had a drive going. I just didn’t want them to score. I did not. … Because last year when we put our 2s in, the (other) team just went zoom.”
That was the Razorbacks’ fourth interception of the day. The first was courtesy of Hudson Clark, who jumped in front of a pass to end Western Carolina’s fourth possession. He didn’t start, but still got significant playing time at both safety and nickel.
“You can depend on him,” Pittman said. “He’s so smart. He knows everything. But he made a nice little pick today, early. He’s a guy that you can just count on. You know you can count on him. I’m proud he’s on the team. He’s one of the most popular guys on the team too. Everybody loves him.”
Dwight McGlothern grabbed the second pick of the day and actually returned it 16 yards. A preseason All-SEC selection, he had four interceptions last season.
The other interception was by Jayden Johnson, who snagged a pass on the sideline and just got a foot down in bounds. It was just one of several really nice plays by the junior safety, as he also forced the fumble that freshman TJ Metcalf recovered and made a solid open-field tackle.
One Starter from Arkansas
It may have gone unnoticed by most, but the Razorbacks started only one Arkansas native on either side of the ball – left tackle Andrew Chamblee.
The Maumelle product may not have started had projected starter Devon Manuel been healthy throughout fall camp and ended up splitting the reps with him Saturday.
That is by far the fewest Arkansans in the Razorbacks’ Week 1 starting lineup since at least 1999, which is as far back as Best of Arkansas Sports’ data goes. However, it could be an all-time low considering the program has traditionally been reliant on in-state talent.
Attendance at War Memorial Stadium
The announced attendance for Arkansas vs Western Carolina was 44,397.
That is up from the Razorbacks’ last game at War Memorial Stadium, when they drew 42,576 for an in-state matchup with UAPB, but it is also the eighth time in their last 10 games in Little Rock that they failed to eclipsed 50,000.
Prior to the Samford game in 2013, which started that stretch, attendance in the state’s capital hadn’t dipped below 52,000 since 2002.
The official capacity of War Memorial Stadium is 54,120.
Up Next for Arkansas Football
The Razorbacks return to Fayetteville next week for a matchup with Kent State at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
A member of the MAC, the Golden Flashes opened their season Thursday night with a 56-6 blowout loss at UCF. They gave up a whopping 723 total yards of offense and were particularly gashed on the ground, as the Knights gained a school-record 8.5 yards per carry.
Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. CT and the game will be televised on the SEC Network.
Highlights of Arkansas vs Western Carolina
More coverage of Arkansas football and the Arkansas vs Western Carolina game from BoAS…