Arkansas relies on experience against Missouri St
Bobby Petrino has a list of motivational phrases and sayings he's learned during his career.
The Arkansas coach found himself using one more than the others during his first season as the Razorbacks coach in 2008. Before, during and often after games, Petrino would remind himself to ''endeavor to persevere.''
That wasn't always the easiest thing to do for a coach with a 41-9 career record in college to that point, not as Arkansas struggled to finish with a 5-7 record.
''That first year I was here I said that to myself every day,'' Petrino said. ''... We were not very good.''
Times have changed for No. 15 Arkansas, which has improved in each of its three seasons under Petrino - including earning the school's first BCS berth in last year's Sugar Bowl. The Razorbacks finished 10-3, and an offseason full of high expectations will reach a fever pitch when they open this season by hosting Missouri State on Saturday night.
Petrino would love nothing more than to begin a championship run - in the Southeastern Conference and possibly beyond - with a convincing win over the Missouri Valley Football Conference member Bears.
More than anything, he wants to improve on Arkansas' recent surge of success for the 13 true freshmen and seven redshirt freshmen who saw action during that difficult first season. Eighteen of those players remain for the Razorbacks, fueling the high expectations for the season.
''I would love nothing better than to have them go out and have a special senior year,'' Petrino said. ''Guys who have stuck with it, worked hard and really set the standard for what we want Razorbacks football to be all about.''
Despite the high hopes, Arkansas does enter the game with a laundry list of questions - not the least of which is how quarterback Tyler Wilson will respond in his first start since his senior year of high school in 2007. The junior has served as Ryan Mallett's backup the past two seasons, playing sparingly but well, particularly in a 332-yard, 4-touchdown effort in relief at Auburn last season.
Wilson was told he would start the opener against Missouri State last week, the same day Bears coach Terry Allen suspended starting sophomore quarterback Trevor Wooden for violating team rules.
Freshman Kierra Harris will be behind center for Missouri State, which was picked to finish last in its conference in the preseason. Allen said Harris and redshirt freshman Mitchell Jenkins will see time at quarterback for the Bears, who opened 2009 with a 48-10 loss to Arkansas in Little Rock.
Missouri State blasted loud noise during practices this week, but Allen said nothing could fully prepare the Bears for Razorback Stadium.
''It's really a noise factor, it's the whole intimidation factor,'' Allen said. ''... Now we're going to Fayetteville, and there's going to be another 20,000 people.''
Arkansas struggled to open during Petrino's first year in 2008 - narrowly defeating Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe by a combined five points in their first two games. The Razorbacks followed that with a three-game losing streak, getting outscored 139-31 in losses to Alabama, Texas and Florida.
Senior defensive end Jake Bequette was one of the freshmen who saw action that season. He hasn't forgotten just how difficult that fall was, especially the close wins over smaller schools, which doesn't bode well for Missouri State's attempt to sneak up on the Razorbacks.
''I think we're much more mature than we were back then,'' Bequette said. ''I'm glad that happened now. Back in `08, we can always point to that game as a lesson learned.
''We were lucky to win that game and we now know if you don't play to your potential, anyone can beat you on any given night.''
Other than Wilson's debut, Arkansas' other major question is its running game with Knile Davis out for the season after breaking his ankle during camp. Junior Ronnie Wingo figures to get the bulk of the carries behind an offensive line replacing three starters from last season