HOGS: Fully aware of Petrino's impact
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas Razorbacks defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols is living a dream few get to realize.
Nichols, a 6-3, 315-pound redshirt senior from Springdale, became a Razorbacks fan during the years Bobby Petrino coached Arkansas to heights the program is just starting to reach again under Sam Pittman.
“I was around 10 or 11 around that time,” Nichols said. “Growing up watching that makes you want to play football, and it’s one of the reasons why I fell in love with football. Looking up to those guys and seeing the brand of football that they played made me want to keep up that tradition of Arkansas football.”
Nichols, who was credited with 3 unassisted tackles in last week's 44-30 SEC win over South Carolina, will have the opportunity to play against Petrino, who he leads his undefeated Missouri State Bears into Fayetteville for Saturday's 6 p.m. kickoff at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Petrino left a legacy of excellence on the field that was sullied by his messy departure that occurred after a motorcycle accident and subsequent attempted coverup of his extramarital relationship with a football department employee in April of 2012.
Petrino compiled a 34-17 record, including back-to-back seasons with 10 or 11 victories 2010 and 2011.
Pittman credits Petrino's on-field success with providing him a message to offer recruits.
“The last time Arkansas was relevant was when coach Petrino was here,” Pittman said Monday. “We’re very grateful for his time here, and what he did for the program. We’ve used that time in recruiting and without him and his staff we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
Multiple players say they recall Pittman talking during recruiting about bringing the Razorbacks back to that standard set by Petrino.
“Throughout my whole recruitment process with coach Pittman, all he talked about were those past years at Arkansas,” redshirt freshman linebacker Chris Paul Jr. said. “He wanted to work his way back up to a winning program that we are, so that was brought up during every visit and every phone call.”
“Coach Pittman always tried to speak up about that because Arkansas wasn’t where they wanted to be,” said running back AJ Green, a 5-11, 180-pound sophomore from Tulsa. “He talked about wanting to build a new team and start fresh, and I wanted to be a part of that. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here.”
RUN HOGS RUN
The Razorbacks rushing attack, which ranks 8th in the FBS in rushing yards per game at 259.5 yards, is anchored and operated by senior center Ricky Stromberg (51), QB KJ Jefferson (1), and sophomore running back Raheim Sanders (5, Tommy Land photo).
Sanders, the SEC's leading rusher with 273 yards in two games. is coming off a career-high 156-yard, 2-touchdown performance last Saturday against the South Carolina Gamecocks. Green (12 carries, 61 yards, 1 TD) and Rashod Dubinion (10 carries, 31 yards, 1 TD) have also played key roles in the run game.
Regardless of whatever running back lines up in the backfield, starting left guard Brady Latham said the team feels very confident in the run game going forward.
“I don’t think there’s one back that you can put behind us that we don’t feel comfortable with,” Latham said. “We know that we can put them in good situations so that they can make plays.”
PREPARING FOR PETRINO
Petrino, known for his success as an offensive designer and play caller, has moved around since being fired, but his reputation as an offensive guru remains.
Consider his time at Louisville (2014-2019), when he coached and tutored quarterback Lamar Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner who has been a star quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens since being selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Petrino is no longer coaching in college football's top tier, but his FCS Missouri State Bears are solid.
The Bears (2-0) have averaged 31 points a game and over 395 yards of total offense per game.
Arkansas players have been made aware of the early season upsets in college football — with Appalachian State winning at No. 6 Texas A&M and Marshall shocking No. 5 Notre Dame last week.
“We have to be ready to play,” Nichols said. “We have to prepare this week like we’re playing Alabama or Georgia, especially since this past weekend some of those top-10 teams lost games that they were favored in. This is not an off week because they’re coming ready to play.”
Missouri State's offense is led by senior quarterback Jason Shelley (563 yards, 6 touchdowns this season). Shelly is coming off a productive game in a 35-30 win over the UT-Martin Skyhawks, completing 19 of 24 passes for 297 passing yards and a career-high 5 touchdowns.
The Bears are potent in the run game with sophomore Jacardia Wright, a transfer from Kansas State. Wright posted a career-high 120 rushing yards last Thursday and is currently ranked 35th in the FCS for rushing yards per game at 79.
"With Coach Petrino over there, you know they have some weapons,” linebacker Paul said. “They got a good running back and obviously a great quarterback who can run and can throw. Basically, what you would love for your quarterback to do he can do it. We just got to take it one day at a time and play our brand of football.”