FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas is eyeing an achievement it hasn't accomplished in nearly 40 years when they welcome Big 12 foe BYU to Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday.
A victory for the Razorbacks would bring their record to 3-0 for the third consecutive season, a feat the program hasn't reached since 1977-79 under Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz.
"They have to accept that there is a reason for urgency, and they do," Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said. "Beating a team that hasn't lost is hard. Both of us haven't, so someone has to, but I think our kids understand the urgency of this game."
The undefeated Hogs and Cougars are squaring off in Fayetteville for the first time. Last year, Arkansas traveled to Provo, Utah, and beat BYU 52-35 to snap a three-game losing streak.
Pittman said last season's game was a must-win, and it's more of the same this year as the Razorbacks are one step closer to opening SEC play with four straight games away from home.
"They're 2-0… and they play extremely hard," Pittman said. "They did last year. I think they're a better football team than they were last year… a bigger, more physical team."
Like the Razorbacks, BYU is off to a 2-0 start, playing its first two games at home. The Cougars opened the season with a 14-0 victory over Sam Houston before exploding for a 41-6 win against Southern Utah last weekend.
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, who referred to Pittman as his mentor in this week's press conference, said the rematch is an excellent opportunity to learn how to compete in a hostile environment.
"We're going out to visit Arkansas, and I think the focus now needs to be on them, a great team with tons of talent," Sitake said. "We're going into an environment we haven't seen yet this year… I know how Sam Pittman is as a coach, and I know he'll have his guys ready, which gives us a higher sense of urgency."
Arkansas's defense shined in the 28-6 victory over Kent State, and they did that by getting pressure on the quarterback and stopping the run. Behind the stellar play of redshirt senior defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat, who earned SEC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week, the Razorbacks limited the Golden Flashes to 200 yards of total offense and just 26 rushing yards while securing 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks and an interception for a touchdown.
However, it doesn't get easier for Arkansas as the season progresses. BYU currently has the nation's best-ranked pass protection, allowing zero sacks in 122 offensive snaps.
The Cougars, led by senior quarterback Kedon Slovis, are averaging 27.5 points and 325.5 yards per game.
"I think where we're going in the order of how we're playing our games will help us," Pittman said. "BYU got quite a few explosive plays through the air… I thought their run game was much better against Southern Utah. The quarterback threw the ball much better in game two than in game one, and they made some nice plays off of it. They've got good receivers now."
Through two games, Arkansas's defense ranks fourth in the country and No. 1 in the SEC in run defense, allowing 45 rushing yards per game. The unit allows 245.5 yards per game, which ranks No. 18 in the nation.
"We're not giving up easy points," Pittman said. "I think right now we're swarming the ball well. I didn't think we tackled as well on Saturday as the first game. We're not wrapping up, and we've got to wrap up. I've been really proud of our defense… I think we've been much better than we have been in the past."
According to Pittman, junior running back Raheim "Rocket" Sanders, a pivotal playmaker for the Hogs, will miss his second straight game with a leg injury.
"Rocket will be out this week and then we'll figure out how fast he can recover," Pittman said. "We've got to get some swelling off of him, and once we do that, we'll see how fast we can have him back for LSU. I just don't know right now."
With Sanders out, junior running back AJ Green is expected to get the starting nod again against BYU. Green ran for a career-high 82 yards on a career-high 15 carries in the win over Kent State.
Arkansas's rushing attack hasn't exceeded expectations, averaging 138.5 rushing yards on 40.5 attempts per game. The Razorbacks found a rhythm on the ground in the second half against the Golden Flashes when redshirt senior quarterback KJ Jefferson started to get involved.
Pittman said he and offensive coordinator Dan Enos are still learning what works and what doesn't with the new system.
"At some point, Dan [Enos] and I had a conversation about… we're going to win the game, let's see if we can try and get established, get our run game going," Pittman said. "We tried several different things. We found out some things that we can do and some things that we can't do."
Despite the struggles on the ground, Arkansas's offense is posting 42 points and 343.5 yards of total offense per game. Jefferson and his cohort of pass catchers, including redshirt senior wide receiver Andrew Armstrong and senior wide receiver Isaac TeSlaa, have been impressive to start the 2023-24 campaign.
"[Armstrong] has been a lot better than I thought he would," Pittman said. "I think it's just because of his overall speed and ability to catch. I think it has everything to do with the kind of person he is. He's just a hard worker and a great kid."
Jefferson has thrown at least two touchdowns in each of his last six games, while Armstrong has at least one receiving touchdown in each of the first two games to start the season.
"They're a tough team with tons of talent," Sitake said. "It doesn't hurt that they have a veteran quarterback returning that's big and strong, can run and throw. That combination with a group of running backs, they have solid tight ends that can catch and throw great blocks. They have big receivers. They have three that have about 100 yards each in receiving."
One player the Hogs need to contain is BYU junior defensive end Tyler Batty.
Batty has been a force off the edge for the Cougars through two games, recording two tackles for loss, a sack and three quarterback hurries.
"They have a guy at each level that I think is really good," Pittman said. "They're totally different on defense than they were last year... they're a fire zone team, which is something we haven't seen this year where it's true three under, three deep. They're going to cause us some problems because they move so much [and] they blitz quite a little bit."
Arkansas has had some issues on the offensive line, and things could get dicey if Batty starts getting in the backfield.
"These two teams remind me a little bit of each other," Pittman said. "I think their defense is playing outstanding, and their offense is playing well. Their defense, to me, is playing well like ours. It's a good matchup. They're a big physical football team."
Coverage from Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville begins at 6:30 p.m. Central on ESPN2.