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Arkansas's matchup with Kent State brings back MAC memories for Pittman

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman knows from experience that Kent State shouldn't be taken lightly, no matter what obstacles they face to start the season.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Mid-Atlantic Conference teams aren't shy about challenging SEC teams on the road.

It's something Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman knows all too well. In 2003, he was the offensive line coach for Northern Illinois, who toppled then-No. 21 Alabama 19-16 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"That year, we beat Alabama, Maryland and Iowa State all in the same year. We went 10-2 and didn't get a bowl invite," Pittman said. "The MAC is a great league, a great coaches league and as fun a time as I've had besides being the head coach at Arkansas."

Twenty years later, Pittman finds himself on the opposite sideline as MAC member Kent State visits Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Sept. 9.

"They'll play hard," Pittman said. "They'll come in here believing they can win. That's how it was at Western Michigan and how it was when I was at Northern Illinois. It's just a wonderful opportunity for them."

And it's another chance for Arkansas to learn more about themselves before hosting BYU on Sept. 16 and kicking off a four-game road stretch to start SEC play.

“Again, this week is more about us,” Pittman said. “Between weeks one and two, we ought to get much better. I told the coaches, ‘Let’s be great, and if it wasn’t, let’s be great at fixing it.’”

The Razorbacks tallied 105 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries in a 56-13 victory over Western Carolina on Sept. 2. It's a stat line that left many scratching their heads as Arkansas, who had the seventh-best ground game in the nation last year, averaged only 2.9 yards per carry.

"I felt like we were trying to make big runs the entire day, especially when Jaedon [Wilson], the second play of the game, goes 65 yards," Pittman said. "We’re just worried about us. We’re trying to put the best product we have out there. We’re trying to play hard, trying to play tough."

Kent State and first-year head coach Kenni Burns are entering Saturday's matchup with a similar mindset after an abysmal 56-6 loss to UCF last week, a game that saw the Golden Flashes record 240 yards of offense while allowing 723 yards.

Growing pains are expected for a team with 10 new starters on offense, but Pittman isn't looking past their capabilities despite the season-opening woes.

"Coach Burns has done a nice job with that team," Pittman said. "They play extremely hard. They have some offensive weapons. I like their quarterback who transferred in from Purdue [and] I like their running back... they have 36 transfers on offense."

On Wednesday, Pittman announced on his weekly radio show that junior running back Rahiem "Rocket" Sanders wouldn't play against Kent State and could miss several weeks due to a left leg injury.

Sanders, a pivotal playmaker for the Razorbacks' offense, had 42 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the victory against Western Carolina.

"Rocket has an injury that will take a couple of weeks for him to heal," Pittman said. "Maybe two, maybe three weeks... he won't be able to play this Saturday and possibly next Saturday. We're not certain about that, but it won't linger further than maybe a couple of games."

Although Sanders is sidelined, Arkansas redshirt senior quarterback KJ Jefferson and his plethora of pass catchers are ready to roll after an impressive outing against the Catamounts.

Jefferson started the game 12 of 12 and completed a pass to eight different targets, finishing 18 for 23 with 246 passing yards and four total touchdowns.

Burns praised Jefferson and said his team would try and control the clock to keep him off the field.

"It starts with their quarterback," Burns said. "He's a phenomenal player. He's big, strong and has a big arm. We've got to bring him down, suffocate him and get some pressure on him... We've got to run the ball. I believe in possessing the ball and controlling the clock, especially with them going fast."

Coverage from Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium begins at 3 p.m. Central on the SEC Network.

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