FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas safety Ross Rasner couldn’t believe what happened in War Memorial Stadium when he walked off the field seven weeks ago.
He wasn’t alone. The Arkansas sideline and a stadium full of Razorbacks fans were just as shocked when Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning raced to the corner of the end zone to secure the first major upset of the 2012 season.
“I think everybody was more surprised than anything and it kind of took awhile for it to set in. What just happened?” Rasner said. “I definitely remember the feeling of walking off the field and wondering what happened and how we let it slip away.”
Arkansas will walk back onto that field for the first time since the 34-31 overtime loss to ULM today, when the Razorbacks (3-4, 2-2 in Southeastern Conference) play Ole Miss (4-3, 1-2) in Little Rock. The Razorbacks are well aware of the significance of the return trip, too, seeking some redemption after a loss that set the course for what will be remembered as a disappointing season.
It was the first step in a four-game losing streak for a top 10 team, after all. It ensured Arkansas of its place as one of the 2012 season’s biggest disappointments.
So erasing the bad taste from the Little Rock loss is a big part of Arkansas new goal of trying to salvage as much as possible this season.
“We need to go back and redeem ourselves,” Arkansas defensive tackle Alfred Davis said. “Go back and defend the Rock like we have done in the past and just get our fans pumped about it, get ourselves pumped about it. Because that is our other home, and you always want to win in your own backyard.”
One of the biggest shocks of the ULM loss was the fact this group of Razorbacks had known nothing else. Arkansas had been 8-0 in War Memorial Stadium since 2008, beating both nonconference opponents and SEC foes during its two annual trips.
Defensive end Chris Smith said the Razorbacks are motivated to begin a new streak in Little Rock on Saturday and avoid other low moments. Arkansas hasn’t lost two straight in Little Rock since 1997. It hasn’t gone winless in Little Rock during a season since 1993, when the Razorbacks were 0-2-1 in War Memorial Stadium.
“It’s always great playing in front of the fans,” Smith said. “You always want to win at home. This is an SEC game. We’re going to come ready to play, put what is behind us, behind us. We’ll look forward. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Arkansas feels much more confident about its chances for redemption after winning two straight games against Auburn and Kentucky.
The Arkansas offense put together a complete performance in the weather-shortened, 49-7 win against the Wildcats and have shown promise in the run game lately. The defense survived an awful start to allow 14 points in its past two games.
The victories did come against two teams who are now a combined 0-10 in conference play this season. But Arkansas coach John L. Smith said “swagger” and “confidence” has been restored to his team after its crippling start to the season.
“I think we’ve been growing by leaps and bounds,” Smith said. “Not only as a football team getting better at technique, getting better at our assignment, getting better at all of those things. But getting better from a mental confidence standpoint.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said it has been noticeable in the way the Razorbacks have played the past few weeks. So he and the Rebels know a “great battle” awaits.
“That is a place that is very difficult to play and they’ve been very, very good there,” Freeze said. “They’re playing with great confidence right now. They’re coming off of two wins. … The confidence that they’ve gained and the job coach Smith and his staff have done in rallying them amidst difficult times at the start of their season, speaks volumes for their character and the way they want to finish the year.”
Freeze and the Rebels aren’t lacking motivation in that regard, either.
Ole Miss, which also had an open date last week, ended its 16-game SEC losing streak by beating Auburn on Oct. 13. It was an important step for a program gaining confidence under Freeze, who replaced Houston Nutt last winter.
Both SEC West teams are trying to claw their way to bowl eligibility now, needing a win today to take a step closer to the goal. But the Razorbacks insist they aren’t looking at the big picture when they return to War Memorial Stadium for the first time since the devastating loss to Louisiana-Monroe today.
They just want to restore order in their second home in Little Rock.
“Everyone is real excited about getting back there because we feel like we need to redeem ourselves for what happened,” Rasner said. “We have such a great fanbase out there that we don’t want to disappoint them like that again.”