MITCH PETRUS neversaw the cheap shot coming. Trotting off the field early in the fourth quarterof Arkansas's eye-popping 27--10 upset of No. 2 Auburn last Saturday, aRazorbacks' reserve fullback took a forearm to the helmet from an iratelineman. The blow knocked Petrus's helmet off and put him on the ground, but noyellow flag was thrown.
That's because theperp was Petrus's friend Stephen Parker, who starts at left guard ... forArkansas. Petrus had just killed a Razorbacks drive by being whistled for apersonal foul, "so I knocked him down," said a smiling Parker, whoexplained that he was merely venting "a little rage, a little frustration.I'm sure the coaches felt like doing the same thing, but I got to himfirst."
Parker's intensitypermeated the Razorbacks (4--1, 3--0 in the SEC), who entered the game as15-point underdogs and left with the SEC West lead. Auburn (5--1, 3--1) wasn'tthe only undefeated team to fall on Saturday: then No. 15 Clemson erased a14-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Wake Forest 27--17 and deny the DemonDeacons their first 6--0 start since 1944, and California, then ranked No. 16,embarrassed 11th-ranked Oregon 45--24. But neither of those results was asstunning as the Tigers' somnambulating performance at home against an unrankedteam that lost its season opener 50--14 to USC.
After the defeatAuburn coach Tommy Tuberville--who had led his team to 20 victories in itsprevious 21 games against SEC opponents--felt compelled to reassure hisschool's faithful, "We're not that bad of a football team." While theirnational title hopes took it on the chin, the Tigers aren't out of the SEC raceyet. They'll have to win out in conference play--an especially daunting taskconsidering that their next opponent is white-hot No. 2 Florida, which beatthen No. 9 LSU 23--10 on Saturday--and hope Arkansas loses twice. TheRazorbacks still have to play South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU, but theVolunteers come to Fayetteville, and the game against the Bayou Bengals is inLittle Rock, where Arkansas has won 19 of its last 20.
Tuberville isright, by the way: Auburn isn't as bad as it looked against the Razorbacks.Arkansas tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones were simply too good. Theyran for a combined 249 yards--averaging 6.1 per carry--and two touchdownsagainst a defense that had allowed only 88.2 rushing yards per game and hadn'tyielded a touchdown on the ground all season. McFadden scored on a 63-yardburst up the middle after sailing through a hole cleared, in part, by thepulling guard Parker, who likes to light up guys on the other team too. It putthe Hogs ahead 17--7 with five minutes left in the first half and quieted thecrowd of 87,451 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. "We saw some holes in theirdefense" during film study, McFadden said, "and we went out and exposedthose holes."
It was the secondstraight week in which an opponent had exploited a weakness in the Tigers'defense--only a last-second pass deflection in the end zone by cornerbackPatrick Lee preserved Auburn's 24--17 win over South Carolina. Arkansas,meanwhile, hasn't lost since the debacle against USC. For Hogs fans, whohaven't had a winning team since 2003, these are heady times.
The upset was thesort of rare, top-shelf win Razorbacks Nation needed to weigh, rank, assign asize. Clay Henry, the publisher of Hawgs Illustrated, said it was the program'sfinest hour since a 38--28 win at No. 6 Texas in '03. Arkansas coach HoustonNutt allowed, somewhat grudgingly, that it was the "biggest" win in hisnine seasons at the school. One elderly gentleman, who sported a cardinal-redblazer and a Razorbacks ball cap while he mingled with the Arkansas players onthe field after the game, agreed. "This was our biggest win in a long, longtime," declared Jim Lindsey, a running back for the Razorbacks' lonenational championship team (1964) and now a member of the university's board oftrustees. "A great, great win for Houston."
After the gameNutt vaulted the topiary in the southeast corner of the end zone ofJordan-Hare, then climbed into the stands to high-five band members andRazorbacks fans who'd made the trip. He had reason to be elated: After Arkansaswent 4--7 last season, folks in Fayetteville began calling for his head. Now,with Southeast Missouri State, Louisiana-Monroe and SEC also-rans Ole Miss andMississippi State still on their slate, the Razorbacks should get at leasteight wins. This is clearly a team on the rise.
The twin enginespowering that ascent are sophomores McFadden, a 6'2" 212-pounder from NorthLittle Rock who rushed for 1,113 yards last season, and Jones, a 6-foot200-pounder who hails from Tulsa and had 626 yards. Hobbled all season by a toeinjury he suffered in a bar fight in July, McFadden is playing with what lookslike a clown shoe on his left foot and is still not 100%. Jones has beennursing a bruised kidney since Sept. 16. "When we've got both those guysgoing full tilt," says Nutt, "it makes a big difference."
The key tostopping McFadden and Jones would seem to be to stack--or, to use Nutt'sprofessorial term, "overpopulate"--the defensive line to take away therun and put the burden on quarterback Mitch Mustain, a true freshman. WhileMustain didn't beat Auburn with his arm, he kept the Tigers honest, completing7 of 10 passes for 87 yards,with one touchdown and no interceptions. The win,Mustain's fourth straight since Nutt made him the starter in the second game,was no less sweet for Gus Malzahn, the team's first-year offensive coordinator.Malzahn was Mustain's coach at Springdale (Ark.) High. After the Bulldogs wonthe 2005 Class 5A state championship, Nutt hired Malzahn--a fairly transparenteffort to improve the Razorbacks' chances in the Mustain recruiting derby. Nutttook heat for bringing in a high school coach to coordinate the offense of anSEC team, but Malzahn has quieted the critics while his creativity has helpedthe Razorbacks win four of five games. His most inspired moment last Saturdaycame midway through the third quarter, after a 19-yard punt gave the Razorbacksa first down at the Auburn 35. Malzahn called a play, "Woody," that's asecond cousin to the now-outlawed fumblerooski. It requires 6'6", 335-poundright tackle Zac Tubbs to flip-flop with right guard Robert Felton. Crouchingbehind Tubbs--literally hiding behind him--was 5'7", 156-pound flankerReggie Fish, who took the handoff from Mustain and darted around left end for a28-yard gain. Jones scored three plays later, giving the Razorbacks a 24--10lead.
Arkansaspunctuated the win with a 22-yard field goal by Jeremy Davis with 3:53 left.That sent Auburn fans scurrying for the exits. After the game, Razorbackswideouts Chris Baker and London Crawford relieved the cheerleaders of the giantArkansas gonfalons and circled the field with them, as McFadden cruised alongthe railing, slapping hands with fans. Later, outside the visitors' lockerroom, Parker was asked about the SEC title game. "That's the goal," hesaid. "That's what all the blood, sweat and tears have been for."
Just then,defensive coordinator Reggie Herring walked past the celebrating players andprovided a dose of perspective: "We've still got seven games to play. Geton the bus."