Arkansas looks to keep win streak alive vs. Vols

Bobby Petrino rarely allows his focus during the season to turn

away from that week’s game.

That the Arkansas coach took a moment to reflect this week on

his first recruiting class at the school shows the measure of

respect he has for the group.

When the No. 8 Razorbacks (8-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference)

take the field at Razorback Stadium against Tennessee on Saturday

night, 17 Arkansas seniors will do so for the final time. The bulk

of them formed Petrino’s first class, one that had anything but

immediate success.

The Razorbacks were 5-7 in Petrino’s first season in 2008,

narrowly escaping with wins over the likes of Western Illinois and

Louisiana-Monroe. They also went through a three-game stretch

against Alabama, Texas and Florida during which they were outscored

by a combined 139-31 – hardly a harbinger of good things to

come.

Times have certainly changed since then.

”We went through some hard times; we stuck together, kept

battling,” Petrino said. ”I always think back on that first year

when things weren’t going well, but these guys came to practice

eager to learn, eager to work, eager to get better.

”This class has done a lot for this football program.”

Arkansas won eight games in Petrino’s second season in 2009, and

it raised that level of success once again in reaching the Sugar

Bowl last season. This year, the Razorbacks have followed up with

another BCS-worthy season – winning five straight entering the

matchup with the Volunteers (4-5, 0-5).

”This group of seniors that will be playing their last game in

this stadium has learned how to compete, how to win, how to stick

together,” Petrino said.

Much like Arkansas suffered through growing pains during

Petrino’s early tenure while playing more than its share of

freshmen, Tennessee has done the same during coach Derek Dooley’s

first two seasons. The Volunteers have played a combined 32 true

freshmen and 47 freshmen overall during that time, and five true

freshmen started in last week’s 24-0 win over Middle Tennessee.

One is quarterback Justin Worley, who will make his third

straight start this week while Tyler Brey continues to heal from a

broken thumb. Worley struggled in his first start against South

Carolina two weeks ago but threw for 291 yards in last week’s

win.

”The first game, I was a little jittery coming in, forced some

throws, went through some reads too fast and committed on some

things I shouldn’t have,” Worley said. ”I think I just tried to

stay calm this last game and got the ball out to the playmakers and

we came out on top.”

Tennessee managed to reach a bowl game during Dooley’s first

season last year, losing to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl.

So, in that regard, Dooley is one step ahead of Petrino since the

Arkansas coach missed a bowl game his first season.

However, while the Razorbacks improved by three games in

Petrino’s second season and reached the Liberty Bowl, the

Volunteers need to win two of their final three games to become

bowl eligible. Winning the first of those this week will be no easy

task against an Arkansas team that leads the SEC in scoring (37.7),

one that Dooley has great respect for.

”They are the other pro-style offense in our league, so we

enjoy watching them,” Dooley said. ”They are like us

philosophically.”

While Tennessee is seeking bowl eligibility, the Razorbacks’

goals are much higher. Senior receiver Jarius Wright said this week

that Arkansas hasn’t given up on hopes of either the SEC or

national championship this season, a belief fueled by the

Razorbacks’ confidence and the fact they close out the regular

season at No. 1 LSU on Nov. 25.

However, senior defensive end Jake Bequette said they aren’t

about to look ahead to the Tigers – or look past Tennessee this

week or Mississippi State the next.

It’s a lesson they learned well during Petrino’s first

season.

”We take every opponent very, very seriously,” Bequette said.

”I think that all of us on defense, especially, feel like if we

don’t play to our strengths, whoever it is can beat us. So, we feel

that pressure and I think it keeps us on our toes.”