Arkansas looks to regroup following Alabama loss
Bobby Petrino built Arkansas into one of the top programs in the country in four seasons, playing in a BCS bowl game and finishing as high as No. 5 in the rankings during that time.
In three games this season, the Razorbacks (1-2, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) appear to have all but collapsed without their former coach, and with an injured Tyler Wilson on the sidelines.
The latest crushing blow came in the form of a 52-0 drubbing at the hands of No. 1 Alabama on Saturday, a game in which Arkansas was shut out in Razorback Stadium for the first time in 46 seasons. It might not have been as shocking as an overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe a week earlier, but it was every bit as emotionally crippling - and then some.
Players walked slowly off the field afterward, coaches embraced in the team's football complex and Wilson - who missed the game while still suffering from a head injury suffered the week before - called an impromptu news conference where he stressed that he'll do everything he can to keep the team together, and play, in next week's game with Rutgers.
''And most importantly, get a win,'' Wilson said. ''You have to start with one before you can get the rest of them. I give you my word; I am going to do the best I can to make that happen.''
While Arkansas was left to regroup, the Crimson Tide (3-0, 1-0) walked away with its second straight shutout and 21st straight win to open conference play. Alabama also reclaimed the sense of dominance it had in a season-opening win over Michigan, a sense that wavered ever-so slightly in a 35-0 over Western Kentucky last week.
The Crimson Tide allowed six sacks of quarterback AJ McCarron in that win, none against the Razorbacks. McCarron was 11 of 16 passing for 189 yards and a touchdown before exiting the blowout in the third quarter, and Alabama outgained Arkansas 438-137 in total yards.
The convincing win even led to a compliment or two from demanding Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. Alabama hosts Florida Atlantic next week before beginning a stretch of six straight SEC games as it pursues its third national championship in four seasons.
''What we've really been fighting with this group about ever since the Michigan game is allowing ourselves to accept average and getting them to demand more of themselves,'' Saban said. ''I think we started to gain a little bit (Saturday).
''... This group is still learning how to motivate themselves every week and demand to be the best that they can be. We're going to continue to work on that, and hopefully we'll continue to improve.''
Meanwhile, whatever Wilson's availability is moving forward for Arkansas, his absence has left the Razorbacks in turmoil in their first season under coach John L. Smith. The former Michigan State and Louisville coach was brought back to Arkansas in April to replace the fired Petrino, a move that was universally embraced by the players - who declared time and again their affection and loyalty for Smith.
Smith admitted that it was ''kind of hard to say anything at this point'' to the Razorbacks following Saturday's loss. He was hired to a 10-month contract in April, and his interim status makes it unlikely Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long would consider other options while continuing his search for Petrino's long-term successor.
Smith knew he was taking on a unique challenge following Petrino's unexpected firing for hiring his mistress to a position in the athletic department and initially trying to cover up her presence during an April 1 motorcycle accident. The thought, however, was that that Razorbacks were primed for a run at an SEC championship - with or without Petrino.
All of the assistant coaches remained in place, including Petrino's brother, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. More importantly, Arkansas had a pair of Heisman Trophy hopefuls in Wilson and running back Knile Davis, both who turned down the NFL after last season with expectations of climbing past the only two teams the Razorbacks couldn't beat last season - national champion Alabama and runner-up LSU.
Wilson, last season's first-team All-SEC quarterback, hasn't played since the first half of the loss to Louisiana-Monore, and Davis has struggled through three games to regain the form that helped him lead SEC running backs in rushing yards in 2010 - averaging just 3.5 yards per carry.
Smith's job now is to keep a once-hopeful Arkansas team from fracturing under the weight of the mounting losses.
''I have total confidence in these guys and that the seniors are going to pull us together and the rest of the team is going to pull together,'' Smith said. ''I don't think they're going to splinter and everybody start pointing fingers and going their own way.
''It's easy to quit. It's easy to criticize somebody else. That's the coward's way out, and these men are not cowards. They're not going to do that.''