Arkansas' turnaround has history behind it

National notebook

October 14, 2006|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,Sun reporter

Arkansas, an unranked team that rose to No. 17 with a 27-10 win over then-No. 2 Auburn last weekend, seems to be taking its cues from the 2002 and 2003 teams rather than the past two.

By not looking ahead, the Razorbacks (4-1) have lifted themselves from a season-opening shellacking from Southern California to their stunning triumph over the Tigers.

That's something the team hopes to continue, not only in its quest for a title in the Southeastern Conference, but also in today's game against apparently overmatched Division I-AA Southeast Missouri State.

"For the last five games, we've been working for our lives," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said this week. "We can take this week and try to get better. We're going to take Southeastern Missouri State seriously."

No. 14 LSU is the Razorbacks' lone Western Division foe standing in the way of a place in the SEC title game.

But if the Hogs get too fat, they easily could lose momentum, as they did in Nutt's previous eight seasons .

"It's feeling good, but we're trying not to pay attention to that," defensive end Jamaal Anderson said. "We don't want to have anything get in the way of us getting to a bowl game."

The Razorbacks' 2002 SEC West title made Nutt a hot property, leading to a pay raise when Nebraska contacted him for its opening after the 2003 season.

But the buzz wore off. Quickly. By the end of the 2005 season and going into this one, Nutt had become a target of derogatory online sites and mocking T-shirts, after two bowl-less seasons with a combined record of 9-13.

Then came the five turnovers and the 50-14 loss at home against the Trojans.

"There was a lot of negativity," Nutt said. "You're trying to keep your team together, but because of senior leadership, we were able to do that."

In Nutt's mind, his defense played well in the opener. But the offense was hobbled - unsettled at quarterback, star tailback Darren McFadden just coming off of a toe injury and just plain mistake-prone.

Those things have been addressed. Freshman Mitch Mustain, who almost ducked out of his commitment to Arkansas for Notre Dame, is the quarterback. The turnovers vanished, and McFadden - a 1,000-yard rusher as a freshman - returned to form, rushing for 145 yards against Auburn.

"You can say the ball is finally bouncing our way," Anderson told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "We've had a lot of luck this year, and now everything's going right for us."

Downward journey

Michigan State, a team hoping to spoil Ohio State's national title hopes today, could use some luck.

The problem is that the Spartans (3-3) have been their own party crasher during the John L. Smith era. In 2003 and 2005, combined starts of 11-1 have flamed into 2-10 endings.

The team is at it again. Poised to go 4-0 with a healthy lead over Notre Dame in the fourth quarter Sept. 23, Michigan State collapsed. Two losses followed, including an effort that gave Illinois its first road win since 2002.

Bears with bite

For the first time in a long time, today's Texas-Baylor matchup means something.

The Longhorns (5-1) are favored by 27 points, but the winner becomes the front-runner in the Big 12's South Division.

That would be foreign territory for the 3-3 Bears, who haven't done better than fifth place in the division during the league's existence. More important, they haven't come within four touchdowns of Texas since 1998.

"If you beat Texas, the rest of the Big 12 will be scared," Baylor cornerback C.J. Wilson told the Austin American-Statesman. "People won't know what to do. You'll have Sports Illustrated down here trying to see what's going on. Dr. Phil will be down here asking questions."

christian.ewell@baltsun.com

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