Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Recent success buoys Razorbacks
Arkansas Coach John L. Smith (right) said injuries that force players to miss time mean a team has to readjust and restart, something he said the Razorbacks have done.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas’ long-shot hopes for a national championship were shattered before conference play began.
The Razorbacks’ SEC title dreams disappeared in a dizzying spell of injuries, turnovers, rain and shoddy defense while being outscored by a combined 100 points against Alabama and Texas A&M in the first two conference games. “I think it shocked everyone,” Arkansas defensive tackle Alfred Davis said of the Hogs’ 1-4 start.
“You receive some injuries and some guys go down and it takes a little while to readjust,” Arkansas Coach John L. Smith said. “I think that’s exactly what took place.”
Instead of curling up in a ball over the hand they were dealt, the Razorbacks rallied to win 24-7 at Auburn, where the Tigers had been 14-1 the previous two seasons. They followed that with a 49-7 victory over Kentucky, a weather-shortened trampling that featured dominance on both sides of the ball.
Even though Auburn and Kentucky are a combined 2-13 overall and 0-10 in SEC play, Arkansas’ consecutive victories have prompted a change of demeanor as the Razorbacks prepare for Saturday’s game against Ole Miss in Little Rock.
“I feel like we really got the ball rolling,” linebacker Terrell Williams said.
“We did well at Auburn [and] we still weren’t at full go,” quarterback Tyler Wilson said. “I think you saw ... what everybody anticipated from Day 1 of the season against Kentucky. Unfortunately, we’re just now hitting it.”
Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze said he recognized the Razorbacks have just begun to play the caliber of football many expected of them.
“I think with the last couple of weeks and the confidence that they’ve gained and the job Coach Smith and his staff have done of rallying them amid some difficult times at the start of their season, I think speaks volumes for their character and the way they want to finish the year,” Freeze said.
“Everybody’s playing Arkansas football,” Razorbacks receiver Cobi Hamilton said. “I think everybody knows what this team is capable of doing when we’re doing the right things and doing the little things at the right time. I think everybody’s excited.”
Arkansas has looked like a team that has rediscovered itself in disposing of Auburn and Kentucky by a combined score of 73-14.
“There’s nothing like getting your juices flowing and knowing that you can be more confident now that you’ve got a few wins behind you,” Davis said. “I think our guys understand that we’re in a great position right now, coming off two big wins in the SEC.”
Arkansas’ rebound could be attributed to several factors, including a healthier defense, less-difficult opposition and the reversal of some critical statistical trends.
The Razorbacks won the turnover margin against Auburn and Kentucky 5-2 after entering its sixth game with the nation’s worst turnover margin of minus-2.6 per game.
Arkansas also outrushed its past two opponents 291-116. The defense had been allowing an average of 510.2 yards per game to rank 116th of 120 FBS teams through seven games, but it cut that figure by more than half in its past two games, giving up an average of 245.5 yards against Auburn and Kentucky.
“I think one of the reasons why we played good the last couple weeks is we’ve been doing the little things right,” defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said. “We’ve tackled better. We haven’t gave up as many big plays as before. We’ve been in our gaps. We’ve been sound.”
Even while the Razorbacks have lost a pair of defensive captains in linebackers Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright, other injured players have begun trickling back into the fold.
Safety Eric Bennett, who sustained a badly sprained ankle and missed the Texas A&M game, was a key calming influence at Auburn. Cornerbacks Tevin Mitchel and Kaelon Kelleybrew worked back into the rotation in the Kentucky game, and tight end Chris Gragg, out since the first quarter of a 35-26 loss to Rutgers, is scheduled to make his return Saturday.
“I think we’ve been growing by leaps and bounds,” Smith said, “not only as a football team getting better at technique, getting better at our assignment, getting better at all those things, but getting better from a mental confidence standpoint.”
Sports, Pages 23 on 10/24/2012